IT is the largest body of fresh water in Britain and Ireland covering 151 square miles in the heart of Ulster. Together with the River Bann, which flows in from the south and out from the north, it is a dividing line in Northern Ireland. To the east politics is dominated by nationalists and to the west are found the majority of unionist voters.
But the Lough Neagh system is much more than a geographical barrier. It is also a shared resource which provides 40% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water and huge quantities of sand for the building industry. It is a place of relaxation and recreation which laps upon the shores of five counties and home to unique species such as the pollen, a fresh water herring, and the dollaghan, a large trout which runs into the rivers to spawn every autumn alongside the Atlantic salmon.
It is a waterway which has a special place in our history and culture, made famous by the Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. He grew up not far from the tea-coloured waters of the Moyola river which flows down from the Sperrins on its western shore. The Vikings over-wintered there in the ninth century and the English created an admiral to command a fleet employed to supress the rebellious Irish in the 16th. It has a unique climate phenomenon. The booming ‘waterguns’ which can be heard during thundery weather, are said to be the cannons of the ruthless Elizabethans.
It is a place which is familiar to me for I walked and fished its rivers and shores with my father and grandfather when I was a child. I watched herons spear minnows and kingfishers dart among the alders. I marvelled at the great plumes of midges which rose from its scrubby shores in early summer, so thick they looked like columns of dirty smoke. Otters swan between my legs as I sought for trout and I hooked and lost my first salmon in the sandy pools of the Moyola. Great flocks of duck and geese would darken the sky as they took flight on our bird watching trips to Shane’s Castle on the O’Neill estate near Antrim.
But there are well-founded fears the great lough is dying. Protesters held a wake last month to highlight concerns about its future. Unless there is swift and radical action, another hot summer could be its last.
Decades of neglect and abuse are coming to a head. This year the extent of the problem made a pitiful spectacle for all who ventured to its shores. The annual algae bloom, caused by farm fertilizers and human waste, was the worst ever seen. Whole sections of the lough turned bright green blotting out the light with a toxic scum which is a danger to creatures large and small. Huge clouds of it washed down the Bann to the sea at Castlerock forcing the closure of Portstewart strand, one of Ulster’s most popular beaches, because of poor water quality.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party, in Northern Ireland, has launched a bid to recall the Assembly and discuss the ecological emergency. The motion requires 30 signatories to bring local politicians back to the chamber to consider the crisis. Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government since February 2022 in a row over trade arrangements with the European Union. The SDLP wants the Assembly to declare ‘an ecological crisis in Lough Neagh’ but the move is unlikely to compel the Democratic Unionist Party to end its boycott of Stormont or persuade an austerity-driven British government to release funding.
The motion also calls on MLAs to acknowledge the complex characteristics of biodiversity and ecological breakdown in the lough driven by high concentrations of phosphates and nitrates from agricultural run-off. It questions the durability of the waste water system, the lough has been used as a dumping ground for sewage for a generation, and highlights the impact of the global climate crisis on temperatures. It calls on the Assembly to ‘accept the role successive Executives have played in failing to mitigate this crisis’.
Experts say short-term mitigations and a long-term recovery plan need to be put in place.
The SDLP’s leader at Stormont, Matthew O’Toole, warned that what is happening on Lough Neagh is a ‘catastrophe’ on a level that far outstrips any other we’re facing right now. He said, “It demands intense, coordinated and cooperative action at every level in response.”
The Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin and Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop John McDowell in Armagh have joined the chorus of protest. They too are concerned that the political response to the problem has been pitifully slow and describe the blue-green algae as a dire threat. “Collectively, we are endangering a natural asset that provides water to hundreds of thousands of families across Northern Ireland, sustains diverse fish varieties, supports wildlife and offers employment opportunities to thousands of people across the area.”
The great, green monster that is choking the liquid heart of Ireland’s north is surely a metaphor for its failed politics. The system of governance, created under the Good Friday Agreement, was designed to protect both the land and the people but is paralysed and powerless to deal with a man-made poison which threatens one of its greatest natural assets. It has not been helped by the British government’s abandonment of high environmental standards set out by the European Union and its weak regulatory framework designed to pander to England’s profitable and reckless private water companies. But there is little to be gained by pointing the finger of blame.
In his second great masterpiece, Door into the Dark, Seamus Heaney wrote a Lough Neagh Sequence:
The lough will claim a victim every year.
It has virtue that hardens wood to stone.
It will be tragedy for the whole world if Ireland’s unique inland sea becomes the victim of relentless penny pinching, petty points scoring and the indifference to nature of Ulster’s men without virtue.