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If only the Stormont executive would return we could… Save Lough Neagh

18 September 2023

Protest against sewage pollution in Lough Neagh.

A story of ecological catastrophe is slowly emerging around Lough Neagh, the largest lake in what are termed the British Isles and the source of 40% of the area’s drinking water. Toxic blue-green algae has led to sections being closed to bathing and watersports and a dramatic die off of fish, birds and wildlife in what was a rich and important ecosystem. The blooms are thought to be driven by slurry and other runoff from nearby farmland, as well as discharges of human sewage and industrial waste.

The soil, bed and banks of the lough are owned by the Shaftesbury estate. The current Earl of Shaftesbury has indicated a willingness to sell the resources, although it is unclear who would buy it or how this would result in greater regulation. However, behind the ecological catastrophe lies a criminal failure of regulation and administration. Many organisations including devolved government departments, councils and charities have responsibility for the management of the lough's resources. But there is no agency that has overall control.

But this story is not one of muddled bureaucracy. From 2013 onwards reports have been coming out recording massive falls in birds and invertebrates. Ten years ago a campaign to save the lough won assurances that the local councils would work together to restore the environment. The first step was regular sampling of the water. Ten years later, no samples had been taken.

Lough Neagh is a metaphor for the North of Ireland today. Environmental collapse is matched by a wholesale collapse in public services, especially around health and education. And behind all the collapse is a fixed ideology that deflects criticism and revolt. "If only Stormont came back, all could be restored!" This was always a dodgy idea. Why couldn't they fix things when it was up and running? The size of the Lough Neagh collapse and the long period over which it took place puts paid to this argument.

The Stormont myth disguises a completely different reality. A metaphor for the Irish situation on a much larger scale might be found in the dam collapses in Libya today. In 2011 the western powers intervened with a no-fly zone to overthrow and kill Colonel Gaddafi. They destroyed the state but the "democratic revolution" concealed sectoral and tribal divisions that Gaddafi had suppressed and the chaos has continued to this day against a background of Western indifference. The tens of thousands of deaths today are a result of the collapse of the Libyan state. The competing statelets are concerned with power and not with the welfare of the people. In Ireland imperialism drew up a plan, not to demolish a state, but to construct one. The new state and its institutions would see off demands for an Irish democracy and would share out sectarian rights while preserving overall British control. Stormont and the local councils are deeply immersed in sectoral politics and, outside that, act to meet the needs of big business.
The Stormont executive has collapsed because Unionists cannot stomach playing second fiddle to Sinn Féin but when it was working, it was a massive con to give away cash to local businesses (the cash for ash conspiracy). The interests of the local population don't really
factor in this situation.

This is an extreme example of the situation in many countries. Workers face acute suffering, but the parties the support are no longer a vehicle for meeting their needs. The shock of environmental collapse in Lough Neagh has led to a great deal of anger and despair, but the local parties are now battling to place blame on their opponents. The British government, which is actually running the statelet, is currently advancing the Brexit process by tearing up environmental regulation and leaving a brown stain of sewage around their own shores.

The workers can only defend themselves by organising independently of the capitalists.  This will take some time, but it is the only road to take.

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