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Lough Neagh is personal and political for the new Stormont

Executive must break with cycles of failure and safeguard this precious natural resource

Having been for so long peripheral to its power politics, Lough Neagh has become a central concern for Northern Ireland’s decision-makers over recent weeks.

Ireland’s biggest inland water body – and the largest in surface area across these islands – has made headlines worldwide for all the wrong reasons, having developed a thick layer of photosynthesising bacteria last summer and autumn, rendering it unusable for many.

This toxic blue-green algae is set to return this summer in more severe form and, as Northern Ireland’s politicians pledge to tackle its many problems, there have been fresh reports of apparent contamination at the lough’s waters, including algae sightings.

Biodiversity loss has been sharp at Lough Neagh and preceded last year’s extensive algal growths. Migratory bird and wildfowl numbers have plummeted, while a number of aquatic species have also been in serious decline.


An apparent drop in the keystone Lough Neagh fly species has perhaps brought these changes home to residents most starkly, raising questions as to whether the ecosystem is approaching tipping points. The ecology of the lough and its surrounding wetlands are complex and changing.

Northern Ireland’s politicians are now having to grapple with the effects of processes that, although appearing sudden in some cases, have been decades in the making and sometimes fuelled by Stormont policy initiatives, such as the Going for Growth livestock farming intensification drive.

Turning this around is going to require timescales that go beyond the lifespan of one Northern Ireland Executive, even assuming this one runs the full distance.

Despite this, however, there are clear opportunities and political narratives to be built around Lough Neagh It could be a chance for the new Executive to demonstrate it can “govern for all” in kick-starting the clean-up of a natural resource that provides more than 40 per cent of the region’s drinking water. Or it could prove that Northern Ireland’s restored political institutions can work to address areas where they have so notably and consistently failed in recent times.

There are personal narratives, too. Sinn Féin’s vice-president and Northern Ireland’s new First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, is from Washing Bay, along the lough’s southern shoreline. She stressed the need to protect Lough Neagh during her maiden speech earlier this month. While an Alliance MLA now has the agriculture and environment portfolio, her party holds a number of key ministries that could play a significant role in shaping the next chapter for Lough Neagh. Despite a challenging fiscal landscape, Sinn Féin could, through the economy and finance departments, help drive investment towards Mid-Ulster and secure funding to help address structural problems such as wastewater network upgrades.

Former leadership hopeful John O’Dowd now oversees the Department for Infrastructure, after a brief spell as interim minister in 2022. His department funds NI Water and has regulatory responsibility for commercial sand extraction, an industrial-scale activity that was unauthorised until 2021 and is still scarring the lough bed severely.

Stormont’s environmental governance record has been notably poor in recent years and some have seen its wider failings reflected in the lough’s devastated condition. It is difficult to see how this and future executives can instigate an effective recovery process without addressing the fragmented mess of government bodies, agencies and charities – about 20 in all, some with multiple conflicts of interest – that hold partial but no overall responsibility for the lough’s management. A motion passed by the Assembly earlier this month to establish a cross-departmental body to this end is an encouraging first step – although the devil will lie in the detail and implementation.

Another question is what role Dublin may have in the recovery process. It has pledged to invest up to €1 billion in the North by 2030 and, with a vast catchment area extending to Monaghan and Cavan, Lough Neagh is undeniably a cross-Border water body. North-South collaboration on watershed management was contemplated in the Belfast Agreement and it remains a mystery that Waterways Ireland, created at this time, has no jurisdiction over it. As civic and political discussions over Lough Neagh’s future heat up in the North, amid an apparent lack of interest from Westminster, is it time to start developing the integrated, all-island management structures certain experts have long been calling for?

One challenge will be addressing a body of long-held and emerging grievances. This may include potential compensation claims for fishermen and other groups, as civil society calls for a “just settlement” at Lough Neagh, while developing an equitable management structure that affords a sense of ownership to the communities who rely on the lough. For many, a new ownership model is a necessary condition for any meaningful recovery at Lough Neagh. Some of this groundwork has already been done.

A valuable exercise on community ownership was carried out less than a decade ago. Other rights-based frameworks can provide examples, including proposals to afford legal rights to the lough, as has happened at threatened water bodies elsewhere. To say this is a test of its democratic institutions and the strength of civil society in the North is almost an understatement. Lough Neagh touches on the environment, public health, legacy and many more key areas of governance. If this Executive can make significant progress on Lough Neagh, it will be taking steps that have evaded administrations since the 1970s.

Lough Neagh has long been a carousel of buck-passing and various actors have profited from its degradation. This Executive and its partners in the recovery process have a crucial opportunity to break with cycles of failure and show it can safeguard a future for, arguably, this island’s most precious natural resource.

Tommy Greene is a journalist based in Belfast