Question: What’s the biggest commercial Lough in Northern Ireland, Ireland and the United Kingdom, which has sand trading, water extraction and commercial fishing operations at its heart?
Answer: Lough Neagh.
Question: Why does Lough Neagh not have an overseeing government co-ordinating body, government plan or at least a navigation authority?
Answer: Nobody knows.
These, together with many other unanswered questions about Lough Neagh, have been at the forefront of the mind of Gerry Darby, Strategic Manager of The Lough Neagh Partnership, for the last 15 years. The Lough Neagh Partnership has tried to fill the service gaps that statutory government departments have ignored or simply withdrawn from. He says: “It is unbelievable that Lough Neagh does not have an inter-departmental overseeing body, integrated government management and investment policy, a government protection plan or even a basic navigation authority.
“Quite simply it appears the management of the Lough has been ignored by successive UK and Northern Ireland governments over a long period. This seems contradictory, when you consider its strategic importance to the Northern Ireland economy and environment.”
Over the last 15 years The Lough Neagh Partnership has attempted to bridge this lack of government interest in the Lough by developing major conservation and tourism programmes using European and National Heritage Lottery funding. The Partnership now manages the biggest Heritage Lottery Landscape Conservation Scheme in Northern Ireland.
It would also be fair to say that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has also now begun to realise the importance of Lough Neagh, working with the Partnership on major farming and island conservation projects. Two farming groups who work on the shores of the Lough are receiving help from the Partnership to put together farm management plans and facilitate European assistance through the Environmental Farm Scheme. This will help them manage their farms in a more environmentally friendly manner and receive more income. DAERA has also provided assistance to oversee the protection and monitoring of the Lough’s important bird and wetland features.
The Partnership is also working with local artisan food suppliers to create a supply chain of specific artisan Lough Neagh food and this is linked with the creation of new food tours which are proving a big success to local and international visitors.
However, Darby points out that there is still work to do and continues: “Lough Neagh supplies Northern Ireland with 40 per cent of its drinking water, 30 per cent of sand for the domestic construction industry and is the largest designated natural landscape. Yet, in the new draft Programme for Government Framework document (2016–21) or Regional Development Strategy to 2035, you’d be hard pushed to find it mentioned.”
With this is mind, Darby, the Partnership Board and a team of 12 staff have been working with local politicians and senior departmental officials to try to develop a new government policy for Lough Neagh. A major public policy conference on the Lough will be hosted on 10 March 2020 at Oxford Island.
Conor Jordan, Chair, Lough Neagh Partnership, highlights the importance of the need for a new approach. He says: “It is important that new inter-departmental structures and investment plans are now put together and that the Lough is recognised by government as one of its most important strategic assets and no longer considered as “Our Forgotten Lough”.”