It is becoming commonplace to say the death of Lough Neagh represents the failure of Stormont but this glosses over a crucial complication. Some of the most fateful decisions in mismanagement of the lough were taken when Stormont was working exactly as intended and was seen to be enjoying unprecedented success.
A big tipping point in pollution appears to have been ‘Going for Growth’, a 2013 Stormont strategy to almost double the size of Northern Ireland’s agri-food industry.
It was developed jointly by a DUP economy minister and a Sinn Féin agriculture minister and enacted under an executive that included the UUP, SDLP and Alliance. This was the most inclusive executive in the modern Stormont’s history, with its five parties holding 106 out of 108 assembly seats. The first half of its mandate up to 2013 is often wistfully recalled as the golden age of devolution, ended by the loyalist flag protests.
Going for Growth fell short of its target but still unleashed a huge expansion and intensification of farming and food processing. Delivering an effective industrial strategy is what Stormont success is meant to look like, and a leading reason why many are calling for its return.
Of course, Stormont failed to deal with the inevitable increase in pollution. But the strategy was packed full of fashionable approaches to environmental management, promising to work with farmers and industry. The SDLP’s then environment minister, Mark H Durkan, was a lonely critic of this light-touch regulation but he was overruled. He also tried to stop sand-dredging in Lough Neagh, until he was defeated in the courts.
The DUP has persistently blocked the creation of an independent environmental protection agency for Northern Ireland. However, most other Executive parties were happy to hide behind it for fear of antagonising farmers. In 2021, the Assembly finally legislated to let a UK-wide agency perform the role, but only after the Greens forced the issue from the backbenches.
A craven attitude to farmers and food processors has parallels with the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) fiasco, which dates from 2012. Tellingly, RHI was not caused by corrupt motivations: Stormont simply rolled over for sectoral interests, showing pathetic gratitude for any source of employment and investment.
Another fateful decision was ruling out domestic water charges, while also refusing to fund NI Water adequately through higher taxes or cuts elsewhere. Lough Neagh has paid the price for the resulting underinvestment in sewage treatment.
Yet this is a foundation stone of DUP-Sinn Féin powersharing. Both parties reached the 2006 St Andrews agreement and were lauded for doing so in part to stop water charges being introduced by direct-rule Labour ministers. Chris Heaton-Harris, the Conservative Northern Secretary, is attempting the same trick by threatening the DUP with water charges and budget cuts if it does not return to work.
Mandatory coalition might have been expected to give Northern Ireland an advantage in making difficult decisions. When everyone is in power, everyone shares the blame, so an executive might as well do what needs to be done.
In reality, powersharing requires a degree of consensus that often leads to the path of least resistance. When everyone is in power, nobody gets the credit for difficult decisions. But they might still get some blame, so the motivation is to agree nothing contentious. The result is a policy such as Going for Growth, because growth is good and popular, while fining farms and factories is hard. Neglect and complacency – the sins of omission at Lough Neagh – are further effects of almost everyone being in power all the time.
The SDLP dropped out of the executive last year due to seat losses, becoming Stormont’s official opposition. It is attempting an Assembly recall to debate Lough Neagh but the Executive parties are ignoring it – the form of opposition guaranteed by powersharing’s rules is too small.
Devolution had another brief golden age in 2016, when the DUP and Sinn Féin found themselves alone in office and decided to make a virtue of necessity, presenting themselves as responsible partners, while others had walked away from difficult decisions. The RHI soon revealed this to be a sham, but the spin alone showed the potential for a proper government-and-opposition model.
If Stormont’s rules were reformed to remove vetoes and prevent boycotts from causing a collapse, parties might be more compelled to stand over tough policy choices or to opt out and let others take on the task.
The nitrates derogation argument in the Republic provides a direct comparison. The Government accepts there must be tighter regulation to improve water quality, although it is clearly aghast at the challenge. Sinn Féin is supporting farmers from the safety of Opposition.
At Stormont, merely having a government has been seen as achievement enough. Lough Neagh reflects the limits of that ambition.