Lough Neagh: Owner of lough bed to meet environment minister

Earl of Shaftesbury Nicolas Ashley-Cooper
Earl of Shaftesbury Nicholas Ashley-Cooper has previously said he would be willing to sell the lough

The owner of Lough Neagh has approached the agriculture, environment and rural affairs minister for a meeting.

During a debate on a motion on the lough, Andrew Muir MLA told the chamber he was "looking forward to meeting with [Lord Shaftesbury] in a frank and open manner in the weeks ahead".

The motion calls for a cross-departmental body to tackle the issues of Lough Neagh.

It was amended to include non-governmental organisations.

Tuesday was the first opportunity the Assembly has had to discuss the unprecedented algal blooms that put the lough in the headlines last year.

The Earl of Shaftesbury, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, who owns the bed and soil of Lough Neagh, previously told BBC News NI that he was willing to sell it to the public but would not give it away for free.

Blue-green Algae on the slip of Ballyronan marina
Campaigners say pollution is killing the lake, with wildlife and birds suffering after blue-green algal blooms appeared last summer

The motion brought by Sinn Féin asked the assembly to recognise "the vital importance of Lough Neagh to our environment, ecology and drinking water supply" and "its importance to tourism, fishing and leisure activities in local communities surrounding the lough".

And it further called on the executive to put a "new management structure and plan" in place, with input from communities and organisations connected to the lough.

Proposing it, Philip McGuigan MLA, told the assembly: "The work of saving Lough Neagh and repairing the damage to its ecology and environment and that of its tributaries and surrounding land must be a top priority for the executive in the time ahead.

"We need to see decisive action."

Alliance Party MLA, Sian Mulholland, brought her family's link to the lough into the discussion, saying her grandmother had been the last person to ever live on Rams Island.

Causes of algal blooms

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MLA, William Irwin, said "many and complicated" factors gave rise to the algal blooms last year.

Those factors were outlined by several speakers in the chamber, including Steve Aiken MLA from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

"There are clearly central problems in the lough - that is, the amounts of pollutants, the amount of invasive species, and the rising temperature," he said.

"We can only deal in the medium term with the first two.

"The third will require a major effort to get to net zero carbon and we all need to concentrate on getting that done fast."

SDLP MLA, Patsy McGlone, reminded members that water quality in the lough had been in decline "for some time" and that algal blooms were just a visible symptom.

Andrew Muir at Lough Neagh
Minister Andrew Muir said the "scale of the problem should not prevent us from taking action now"

The new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) Minister Andrew Muir MLA, from the Alliance Party, visited Lough Neagh last week as one of his first engagements in the role.

He told assembly members that action was needed.

"While we all recognise that it will take significant time, investment, commitment and working in partnership to make the improvements needed - we all wish to see those improvements effected - the scale of the problem should not prevent us from taking action now."

A report from a Daera working group looking at solutions and mitigations is expected shortly.