CAMPAIGNERS have insisted that Lough Neagh must be brought into public ownership amid concerns over how the vital resource is being managed.
Two separate campaigns - one to bring it into community ownership and another to bring it under Northern Ireland government control - have renewed their efforts, around a decade after the last public ownership attempt failed.
Although Lough Neagh’s water is publicly-owned, the bed and banks are owned by the Earl of Shaftesbury - an English aristocrat based in Dorset.
Attempts were made in the early 1970s, and again in 2012, to bring the lough into government control.
However, a 2014 report produced by senior civil servants advised against buying the lough.
The Lough Neagh Development Trust, which favours community ownership, hosted an event in 2016 in Toome, Co Antrim, which was attended by Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury.
It will host another conference next year to garner support for its campaign.
Charlie Fisher, one of the trust’s directors, said: “This conference will revisit previous agreements, discuss obstacles, opportunities and propose solutions to reinvigorate action needed to bring the lough into community ownership.”
A separate campaign organisation pushing for the Northern Ireland Executive to take control of the lough met a government minister several months ago.
The Lough Neagh Partnership, an advisory management body which carries out conservation and cultural projects, met then Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd in August to discuss public ownership.
A Department for Infrastructure (DfI) minute from the meeting, obtained by The Detail through Freedom of Information legislation, read that Mr O’Dowd “may contact Shaftesbury to raise the issue of ownership of the lough bed and soil”.
“Minister agreed to do what he can to progress the general direction and work with stakeholders including Lough Neagh Partnership which may include seeking Executive support for some form of formalisation of the management of the lough,” the minute read.
When The Detail asked DfI about any correspondence between the department and the Estate, a spokesman replied: “There has been no correspondence from DfI to the Shaftesbury estate since August 2022.”
The department added: “During his role as the Minister of the Department for Infrastructure, John O’Dowd MLA, did engage with a number of stakeholders in respect of Lough Neagh; however any decisions to bring Lough Neagh into public ownership would be a matter for consideration by the NI Executive.”
Northern Ireland has had no ministers since October and no functioning government since March, amid an ongoing political row over a post-Brexit trade protocol which has effectively created a customs border between the north and Britain.
Former Mid Ulster MP Bernadette McAliskey, a leading civil rights campaigner, is one of the directors of the Lough Neagh Development Trust.
Ms McAliskey previously held talks with the Earl of Shaftesbury about the lough being brought into public ownership.
The Shaftesbury Estate’s ownership of the lough bed and banks comes from a claim initially made in the early 1600s by Sir Arthur Chichester, a leading figure in the Plantation of Ulster.
Speaking to The Detail in a personal capacity, Ms McAliskey said she told the Earl that she does not accept his family’s claim to ownership.
"We have been in discussions with the Earl of Shaftesbury around whether he, when he first inherited the place - around doing the right thing - and returning that to the ownership of the people, either through public ownership or through democratic community-collective ownership that would hold it in the public domain for the betterment of everybody rather than for private gain,” she said.
“Those talks went nowhere.”
The Shaftesbury Estate has been contacted for comment.
Ms McAliskey said although some politicians have shown a renewed interest in the lough that interest “comes and fades mostly around the politics as opposed to the environmental need to ensure that this environmental asset is protected and is developed in a way that ensures it is protected and that it continues to provide a living for the people around the lough - and continues to provide water for the people who are dependent on it, and don't even know they're dependent on it”.
"Given the importance and given the actual size of the lough, you would be hard-put to find a better example of environmental mismanagement, of environmental ignorance, of a lack of understanding of the importance of the environmental management of the lough in the here and now,” she said.
Ms McAliskey added that the administration of the lough is fragmented because the bed belongs to the Shaftesbury Estate and no one government agency is responsible for overall management of the resource.
She said that the local authorities bordering the lough - Mid Ulster council; Antrim and Newtownabbey council; Lisburn and Castlereagh council, and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough council - have no clear plans to bring it into public ownership.
“The only people who have a plan are the community,” she said.
“This is not an academic argument. Somebody needs to start doing something now. Or, by the time the whole academic, ideological argument has been won by one side or another, there'll be no lough.”
Two of the four local authorities, Antrim and Newtownabbey and Mid Ulster, passed a motion earlier this year supporting renewed “engagements” with the other councils bordering the lough and the Lough Neagh Partnership over a future public ownership move.
A spokesman for Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council said: "The council has continued to engage with the Lough Neagh Partnership (LNP) as a strategic partner and funder.”
A spokeswoman for Mid Ulster District Council said it is “continuously encouraging MLAs to ensure the future status of Lough Neagh ownership is addressed through appropriate negotiations and legislation between Stormont and all relevant stakeholders”.
Former DUP MLA Jim Wells, an ex-conservation officer at Lough Neagh, told The Detail he had pushed for the lough to be brought into public ownership a decade ago.
He said the 2014 report produced by senior civil servants, which advised against buying the lough, was reflective of a general lack of interest at Stormont in the key asset.
Mr Wells said even if a government is restored, there is no guarantee that Lough Neagh will be on the political agenda.
"There's no devolution at the moment, effectively. But, even when there was, there wasn't the political will to do anything about it (the management of Lough Neagh),” he said.
Mr Wells said the Northern Ireland Executive should have purchased the lough from the Shaftesbury Estate in 2014, when the reported asking price was £6m.
"Even if that price has gone up - let's say it's £10 million - that's still an extraordinarily cheap option for government to buy the rights to the largest lake in the United Kingdom,” he said.
“But it didn't even get to the starting gate - the Department didn't even look at it… I'm certain, if there were good negotiations between Shaftesbury and Daera (the Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs), then something could be done.
"But there isn't the will - there is not the will to do anything at the moment.”
He added: “And I would say that in 30 years' time, we could be having the exact same discussion.”
Who is the Earl of Shaftesbury?
Nicholas Ashley-Cooper is the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury.
The 43-year-old inherited the title in May 2005 following the sudden death of his older brother and the murder of his father in 2004.
The 10th Earl, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, went missing in the Côte d’Azur in France in November 2004.
Five months later, his remains were found in a remote ravine.
His French-born third wife Jamila and her brother Mohammaed M'Barek were later convicted of the Earl’s murder.
The 10th Earl’s son, Anthony Nils Christian Ashley-Cooper, became the 11th Earl.
But in May 2005 - a month after his father’s remains were discovered - he died of a heart attack, aged just 27.
His death happened while he was visiting his younger brother, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, who was working as a DJ in New York under the moniker Nick AC.
Following his older brother’s death, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper inherited the earldom.
The Shaftesbury Estate’s ownership of the bed and banks of Lough Neagh is linked to a territorial claim made in the early 1600s by Sir Arthur Chichester, a leading figure in the Plantation of Ulster.
Ownership of the bed, along with exclusive rights to hunting and fishing activities, passed to the Shaftesbury Estate during the 19th century.
In 2016, a report in Vanity Fair magazine stated that the 12th Earl was renovating his ancestral home, St Giles House, in East Dorset.
That renovation was financed by bank loans and the Earl’s inheritance, including Lough Neagh, the magazine reported.
The Shaftesbury Estate continues to receive payments on every tonne of sand extracted from the bed of the lough, although the level of those royalties has not been made public in recent years.
The Earl is one of the directors of the Shaftesbury Estate of Lough Neagh Limited, along with his mother, Christina Eva Ashley-Cooper, the Dowager Countess of Shaftesbury.
Over the last few summers, the Earl has hosted ‘The Realisation Festival’ at his ancestral home.
The festival, which will be held again over four days between June 29 and July 2 2023, is billed as “an annual agenda- setting event that seeks to advance societal transformation in a soulful way”.
Events at previous festivals have included talks on the climate crisis, improvisation workshops and yoga classes.
The Detail has approached the Shaftesbury Estate about every story it has written about Lough Neagh.
However, the Estate has never responded to any request for comment.
The lough is the largest lake in Ireland and Britain and is recognised as one of Europe’s most significant freshwater habitats.
Water quality at the lough has been found to be ‘hypereutrophic’ - meaning it suffers from excessive plant and algal growth due to high nitrate and phosphate levels.
The lough’s birds and other wildlife populations have been in sharp decline over recent decades.
The number of winter migrating birds - including diving duck species goldeneye, tufted duck, pochard and scaup - dropped by nearly 80% between the early noughties and 2013, research by Queen’s University Belfast found.
The numbers of insect and snail species living at the bottom of the lake also fell by around two thirds during the same decade.
The research found that although declining migratory bird numbers were partially due to global warming, wider changes to the lough’s ecosystem, including changes in water quality, had impacted insect numbers.
A campaigner has told The Detail that environmental protections have not been robustly enforced.
The lough and its connecting rivers have been affected by serious pollution in recent years, including slurry discharges in 2016 and 2020 which led to major fish kills at the Altagoan and Grange rivers respectively, which flow into the larger Moyola River - a tributary of Lough Neagh.
Former government official, Dean Blackwood, now an environmental campaigner, said the lough is facing “serious problems...in terms of environmental degradation, the collapse of the bird populations and potentially the collapse of the fish populations here”.
“Unless there can be some collective political will in terms of addressing these problems, I don’t think we’re going to get very far,” he said.
The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), which is part of the Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera), is responsible for investigating pollution incidents.
The department did not respond to a request for comment.
Lough Neagh a ‘civil rights issue’
Mr McCann, a former People Before Profit MLA, told The Detail that the management of Lough Neagh is “a civil rights issue”.
He said there was a lack of interest in the lough within government.
“Quite often you find with these things that there would be people in the civil service fighting for a progressive outcome and often failing,” he said.
“In this case, I know of no record of anybody putting up a fight on behalf of Lough Neagh, on behalf of the environment generally in that area.”
Mr McCann also said there is an argument that the lough itself has specific rights.
“There are efforts underway in various parts of the world to make it possible to say that the whole question of the rights of nature and natural features is justiciable,” he said.
“We should be able to campaign on behalf of Lough Neagh without having to show that there’s specific harm to a particular person.
“The environment generally confers rights, it can be argued on natural features like Lough Neagh.”
Last week, the leader of an indigenous community in the Amazon, Ecuadoran environmental activist Franco Gualinga, appealed to the people of Ireland to follow Ecuador and Bolivia in adopting laws which recognise ‘the rights of nature’ and grant ecosystems, including rivers and lakes, legal standing.
No European country has enshrined the rights of nature in law.
However, a citizens’ assembly in the Republic of Ireland voted last month in favour of a referendum to put the protection of biodiversity and nature into the Irish Constitution.
Two district councils in Northern Ireland - Derry and Strabane and Fermanagh and Omagh - have also passed motions supporting the inclusion of the rights of nature into policy.
- Tommy Greene, the journalist who wrote this article, is a Bertha Foundation fellow. His recent work has appeared in The Guardian, The Irish Times and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
- All of the work which he will be completing as a Bertha Foundation fellow will be focused on environmental issues
- This is the sixth in a series of publications which Tommy will produce as part of the Bertha Challenge
- To find out more about the Bertha Foundation, please click here