Private Members’ Business
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I will start by declaring an interest in that, like Dolores Kelly, I also swam in the lough and picnicked on its shores many times as a child. I thank the proposer of the motion. It has been an interesting and lively debate, and I have enjoyed it very much. I thank Members for their positive contributions and for constructively pointing out some of the issues that we need to address. The stance that the UUP has taken is disappointing, but I am sure that that will be picked up in the winding-up speech.
I thank the Members who tabled the motion. Many Members picked up on the need for a cross-departmental approach. The motion calls for action to be taken by DCAL and DARD, which are the two obvious Departments. It is clear, however, that a number of other Departments also need to be around the table and be part of the discussions as we move forward.
Some Members tried to go into a detailed history of the lough. We all know that it has been owned continuously by the Shaftesburys since 1600. That is as far as I will go in the history debate. Many Members mentioned the issue of cost. To bring the lough into public ownership will be a question of transfer either by compulsory purchase or an agreed sale. Those two methods will have to be explored. Some Members picked up on the Shaftesburys’ generosity in the past. Perhaps we will be lucky enough to see that again.
The question of cost was raised, and I do not know the answer. I do not think that anybody in the Chamber could answer that question at this stage. The motion calls for a cross-departmental approach to the establishment of a working group and allowing that group to look at all aspects of cost and what could be the market value of the lough in this day and age.
I will cover a few facts about Lough Neagh. It is one of the biggest freshwater loughs in western Europe, measuring 300 square kilometres and containing 800 billion gallons of water. It is home to the largest wild eel fishery in Europe. As many Members pointed out, the Shaftesbury Estates are the lough’s owners. The owners grant lease agreements to commercial operators on the lough, of which there are many including the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society and sand extraction companies, and they also grant sporting rights to wildfowling clubs.
The water of Lough Neagh is not owned by anyone, as water flows freely and cannot be owned by anyone. However, as I believe the proposer of the motion pointed out, a report from NI Water in December 2011 noted that it abstracts up to 50% of the raw water that enters the water supply from Lough Neagh. Members pointed out that that issue has been raised on a number of occasions in the past. In 2003, the Water Council identified the potential for the public to be charged in future for water that is abstracted from Lough Neagh and recommended that the lough be purchased on the public’s behalf. It appears that the two Departments that were most closely associated with that at the time were the DOE and DARD. Obviously, they were not inclined to pursue that route at that time.
Many Members referred to an issue that is increasingly obvious to me, which is the extraordinary number of public, private and voluntary interests on the lough. They all have their specific remits, obligations, interests and aspirations. Therefore, it will be an extremely complex picture when it comes to dealing with the way forward.
Although the lough is not in public ownership, different aspects of its management are under the control of a number of Departments and public agencies, which, through their legislative remits, are provided with sufficient powers to safeguard Lough Neagh for public use and enjoyment. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I will list them briefly to give people a flavour of how many Departments and agencies are involved.
My Department, through the Rivers Agency, manages the lough’s water levels within statutory limits as far as climate conditions allow, while taking into account the needs of various interests and stakeholders. As part of DARD’s rural development remit that relates to Lough Neagh and its surrounding wetlands, my Department has provided funding to the Lough Neagh Partnership to take forward the development of the lough and the rural economy around it. That funding is now exhausted. Some improvements have been made to the infrastructure around the lough. The funding supported environmental projects and habitat improvements, and provided assistance to the commercial fishing sector and Lough Neagh Rescue. Although there was some positive work, it has been recognised in the debate that it was not enough and that, perhaps, that body needed more teeth to enable it to deliver more.
Waterways Ireland, a North/South body, is also sponsored jointly by DCAL and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. It is the navigation authority for the Lough Erne system and the Lower Bann. However, it is not actually responsible for Lough Neagh. A Member picked up on that point earlier. It has no statutory remit over navigation on Lough Neagh.
The NIEA is responsible for the protection and conservation of natural heritage and the built environment, with a remit to take enforcement action against polluters of Lough Neagh. The lough has a number of important environmental designations, such as that of an ASSI and a Ramsar site. NI Water provides water and sewerage services in the North of Ireland. Nearly 50% of the raw water that it treats and puts into the water supply is drawn from Lough Neagh.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has a statutory remit to maintain the navigation channel and markers at the mouth of the Sixmilewater. DCAL also maintains 48 navigation markers in the lough as a non-statutory public service. It also enforces the provisions of the Fisheries Act 1966, as amended, and associated subordinate legislation with regard to fishing activity in the lough.
There are seven local councils with an interest and a management role in Lough Neagh, the Blackwater and the Upper Bann: Cookstown, Magherafelt, Craigavon, Antrim, Dungannon and South Tyrone, Armagh and Lisburn.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has responsibility for economic policy development, energy for tourism, mineral development and health and safety. Therefore, its agencies also have a lot of interest in the lough.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has a role in co-ordinating responses to incidents in the waterways. The Commissioners of Irish Lights have oversight of any navigation authority in respect of the aids to navigation that it places and maintains.
That is an exhaustive list of the public organisations that have interests in the lough. However, we also have to bear in mind the Shaftesbury estate, the Lough Neagh Sand Traders Association, the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society, Lough Neagh Rescue, the Lough Neagh Partnership, the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, and many others.