The Environment:  North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 11th September 2000.

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Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP 3:00 pm, 11th September 2000

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement about the first North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment which was held in Interpoint, Belfast on Wednesday 28 June 2000. Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Ms Bairbre de Brún and I attended the meeting, which I chaired. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Noel Dempsey TD, Minister for the Environment and Local Government. This statement has been approved by Ms de Brún and is also made on her behalf.

The council recognised the important contributions already being made to the care of the environment by the Environment Departments and the agencies involved and by the various co-operative arrangements already in place. Both delegations looked forward to further significant progress arising from their co-operation in the council. The council considered and noted a situation report which reviewed the high level of existing co-operation between the two Departments on the seven environmental issues for enhanced co-operation which were mandated by the first plenary of the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh on 13 December 1999. These issues include environmental research, environmental information, environmental protection, sustainable development, catchment-based water quality strategies, agriculture and the environment and waste management in a cross-border context. The paper also identified opportunities for a range of future and joint actions which will provide a work programme for this sector of the North/South Ministerial Council.

The council agreed that initial efforts should be concentrated on those areas where strong foundations for joint actions have already been laid and which have the greatest potential for early mutual benefits. Accordingly, it was agreed that environmental research and water quality management should be selected as the initial steps in a rolling programme of work.

In the interests of enhanced co-operation on environmental research, the council approved the establishment of a joint register of current research projects and agreed that officials should work together to identify new technologies for monitoring.

Delegates then noted the current levels of co-operation on matters relating to water quality which were detailed in the second paper tabled at the meeting. The council approved the establishment of a working group of officials to consider matters relating to water quality strategies in relation to the Erne and Foyle catchments and implementation of the proposed EU water framework directive. The Council agreed that the second sectoral meeting on the environment would take place in October in the South.

Finally, the council considered and agreed to a text of a joint communiqué which was issued after the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. However, it raises a number of issues that will no doubt interest the members of my Committee. I note from his statement that it has been agreed to establish a working group of officials to look after matters relating to water quality. Can the Minister tell the House how this will be funded? Will the Department’s budget, which is already under severe pressure, be increased to facilitate this work? Vital work that the Department of the Environment ought to be taking forward in respect of the Planning Service and the Environment and Heritage Service has not been carried out because of a lack of funding. Surely the diversion of finances and funds to set up more working groups is totally unacceptable for an already highly underfunded Department. On 7 September the Committee was informed that some of our built heritage may be lost because of lack of funding.

A new working group partially financed by the Department cannot be justified. I note from the statement that there are already various co-operative arrangements in place. What are those? I am sure my Committee would like to know how those arrangements will operate. The Minister referred to a range of future actions which will provide a work programme for the environment sector. When does he plan to advise the Environment Committee of the details? On this day, our first day back after the summer recess, we have been inundated with cross-border, North/South Ministerial statements. I often wonder who governs this Province, and who has the final say.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

I note what the Member says about budgets and finances. We all worry about departmental finances. I am very aware, as is the Assembly, that my Department is under-funded in many aspects. These are issues, which we took under our wing, and which are currently under investigation. These are the initial stages. The issues were chosen to reflect areas where strong foundations for joint action had already been laid and which had the greatest potential for early regional benefits.

The funding issue has not been investigated in depth, but it is something we are aware of. We are looking for cross-border benefits particularly where waterways, pollution and European directives are concerned. There will be many benefits. There will be shared information in areas of mutual interest. There will be less duplication of research with consequent financial benefits. There will be assistance in identifying areas of collaboration, thereby maximising the output from limited resources. There will be assistance in the formulation of joint initiatives which might qualify for European funding, which will be important — European funding will come into this and will be an area which we will be pursuing. There will be potential efficiencies and cost savings. There will be shared monitoring systems and information on matters of mutual interest. There will be consistent assessment on forecasting environmental trends in both parts of the island in relation to shared resources. There will be the facilitation of future environmental management initiatives.

Those are large, important issues, which have been running for many years. Although these issues are not new, I take the financial aspects into consideration. Where there is mutual benefit, I have no hesitation in working on joint border co-operation.

Photo of Mrs Joan Carson Mrs Joan Carson UUP

A North/South body has some advantages. At least we can scrutinise some of the problems and trouble we get from the South of Ireland and have the opportunity to do something about them. The issues discussed at the meeting of the North/South Ministerial sectoral meeting on 28 June included environmental research, information protection and catchment-based, water-quality strategies. I was interested to see that environmental research and water-quality strategies were chosen as initial steps in the proposed programme.

I asked the Minister if it was correct that the environmental service of the Republic of Ireland, by neglect and poor control of its own systems, allowed zebra mussels to spread from the Limerick area throughout the Shannon system. It is known that the passage of boats from the Shannon system has spread the scourge of zebra mussels into the Erne system. Will the Minister raise this problem with the Republic of Ireland’s environment Department? At their next meeting, will the Minister ask what it intends to do about inspecting boats and vessels coming from the Shannon system in order to prevent problems spreading to the Erne system?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

The points made by the Member project the absolute need for co-operation on environmental issues. We are concerned when environmental co-operation is lacking. I cannot answer her question at this time. However, the question highlights what cross-border co-operation is about. As we are neighbours, the two jurisdictions need to work together to ensure that environmental issues are properly dealt with.

If we have to contend with them, we will. It is a very important question and one that I can take on board. I want to emphasise the fact that it is important to have co-operation where you have cross-border water issues, and we will be seeking that in the joint Ministerial Council.

Photo of Mr Arthur Doherty Mr Arthur Doherty Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:15 pm, 11th September 2000

I thank the Minister for his statement. The council agreed that

"initial effort should be concentrated on those areas where strong foundations for joint action have already been laid and which have the greatest potential for early mutual benefits."

That is very sensible. The choice of environmental research and water-quality management as initial steps may be timely, particularly in view of the current serious situation regarding water pollution. Does the Minister agree that waste management in a cross-border context is at least as urgent and clearly meets the criteria set down in his statement? As an illustration, I draw the Minister’s attention to the very valuable work being done by, among others, the north-west region cross-border group, and I suggest that significant mutual benefit would come from early council action in that area.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

Waste management is a big issue. The Member referred to ongoing cross-border issues. The UK plan, which is currently under review, takes account of the need to encourage cross-border co-operation on waste management issues, and that is what we are trying to achieve. As regards the proposed changes, import and export of waste for disposal would be permitted where there are sound economic and environmental reasons for such activity and if such activity is included in a district council’s waste management plan.

I am confident that these changes will provide sufficient flexibility to promote and encourage co-operation on waste management issues. Waste management is a very important issue. The Member has highlighted it; we will be highlighting it also. The issue will not go unnoticed.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

A Cheann Comhairle, I welcome the Minister’s statement. Waste management is an issue currently being discussed, and a consultation exercise is taking place across the island. District and county councils North and South are debating this very important issue. There has been much talk about the waste hierarchy under the generic term of waste management.

There are serious concerns, which public opinion is reflecting. Insufficient attention is being paid to waste reduction. Again, I welcome the joint studies and the reference in the Minister’s statement to environmental research. Can the Minister — particularly given his response to my earlier question that he has no plans to order a moratorium on the construction of incinerator plants — assure us that this environmental research programme will give proper place to policies on waste reduction that would be enforced by the necessary legislation?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

The waste management strategy report has been out since March. Undoubtedly, it is a big issue in Northern Ireland. We are very much subject to EU regulations and requirements, and if we do not live up to those requirements infraction proceedings will take place.

I cannot give the Member the assurance he seeks on incinerators. I am not sure what aspect he was referring to. I assure him that the waste management strategy needs the help and the co-operation of everyone in the Province, whether householder or manufacturer. As well as waste disposal, there are the three Rs — reduce, reuse, and recycle. Currently, they are big issues in my Department, as, indeed, are landfill sites. I assure Members that they will not go unnoticed. They will be taken into consideration. However, it will take the co-operation, help and consideration of all in the community.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I congratulate him on its content.

In particular, I wish to congratulate him on setting the microscope firmly over the question of water quality. It is mentioned several times in his brief report, but I want to focus on the final page where it is stated that the council approved the establishment of a working group of officials to consider matters relating to water-quality strategies for the Erne and Foyle catchments and implementation of the European Union’s water framework directive.

I am concerned about the large chunk of water right in the middle of the Province. It does not straddle the border, and perhaps it is right that for that reason it is not mentioned in this report. My Colleague, Joan Carson, is absolutely right that the scourge of zebra mussel in Lough Erne of which we are all aware and which is understood to have come up from the Shannon, Lough Derg and other places could easily be shifted from the Erne catchment to Lough Neagh. Craft can be lifted out of the water from the Shannon and Lough Erne and come to Lough Neagh, and zebra mussels could be attached to those crafts.

It is also my understanding that commercially caught eels from the Shannon and Lough Erne stop off on the shores of Lough Neagh to be collected by the transporters which ship them to the continent and that the water from the Erne and the Shannon systems is then deposited in Lough Neagh. One can easily see that what has happened is both a tragedy and a disaster.

I have been told that 300,000 zebra mussels can attach themselves to an area of one square metre. I have seen them myself. What would happen if that were to spread from the Shannon catchment area through Lough Erne and into Lough Neagh does not bear thinking about.

While I understand why Lough Neagh is not mentioned in this report, my question to the Minister is this: will the research and the work done on water quality in those other places be put to good use and the lessons learned applied to other waters in the Province?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

We have addressed water-quality strategies for the Erne and Foyle catchments because of the cross-border aspect. I can assure the Member that through the water-strategy management, sizeable areas of water such as Lough Neagh and others will certainly be closely examined and guarded.

I am very aware of the mussel problem in Lough Erne. We do not want that to happen consistently — it has to be stopped; it is difficult for all concerned. There is a big problem in the Erne and right down into the lake at Garrison. I am watching that situation very closely. It will not go unnoticed. I can assure Mr Wilson that we will not forget Lough Neagh or any other waterways. Initially I mentioned the Erne and the Foyle because they are cross-border waterways.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I would like to welcome the Minister’s statement and to pay tribute to him for his involvement over many years in trying to promote meaningful cross-border co-operation.

With regard to agriculture and the environment, I would like the Minister, at the next conference, to address a problem that is prevalent in the counties of Fermanagh, Tyrone, Monaghan and Cavan — mushroom compost waste. There is a large mushroom industry in those counties, but there is a problem with mushroom compost waste, and I would like it discussed in the future.

I welcome the fact that waste management is being considered in a cross-border dimension. Landfill sites are filling up, and a major problem is developing. I would like to encourage the Minister in that regard.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

Agricultural waste was not one of the topics chosen for immediate consideration, but it was identified as being one for possible future action. In the meantime, officials will continue to consult closely with the relevant authorities in the Republic of Ireland to ensure a consistent and complementary approach to this subject.

Landfill, which is a big issue, and waste management are incorporated under the umbrella of waste-management strategy. We will be taking whatever steps necessary and worthwhile to the Province to ensure that we can sort that out. It is a big issue — agriculture will certainly have to be looked at.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I also welcome his responses to Mr Doherty’s questions on waste management. I support the Minister in bringing that forward in the agenda given and in the methodology with regard to waste management that is being used by the north-west cross-border group, and, indeed, we have been joined in that group by other councils in Northern Ireland.

With regard to water quality, it is well known that for some time there has been considerable ingress of pollution to the Erne system from the Republic of Ireland. Anglers have been suffering as a result of deterioration in water quality in the Erne system. Will the Minister assure us that when problems are identified, it will be the responsibility of the respective jurisdictions to deal with those problems financially?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

We have been alerted to the problems of what may be floating from one jurisdiction into another, and we are concerned about it. Having lived in Fermanagh for a number of years, I have had personal experience of that. The important issue is that we work together in co-operation, under two different jurisdictions, but living as neighbours for each other’s benefit. We will work on that aspect to ensure that water pollution does not occur on either side.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Was there any discussion surrounding the major accident hazards directive? This is an EU directive which applies to all EU countries, but it has not been fulfilled by some, including the Irish Republic, which was supposed to fulfil it one year ago. We share the same waters and air space, so if there were a major accident in the Irish Republic, it could have a significant impact on the environment in Northern Ireland. Did the Minister raise this matter with the Irish Government, or will he raise it in future meetings with them?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

This again emphasises the necessity for good cross-border co-operation. It is all about living together in a neighbourly way, tackling our difficulties and issues of concern, and talking about them to ensure that they are completely eradicated. We will look into anything that is detrimental to Northern Ireland, and we will work in co-operation to ensure that situations like that do not occur.