‘Difficult interventions’ needed to address Lough Neagh crisis, warns minister

“Difficult interventions” will be required to address the environmental crisis at Northern Ireland’s largest fresh water lake, a Stormont minister has warned.

Last summer noxious blooms covered large parts of Lough Neagh and affected other waterways and beaches in the region.

There are fears the blue-green algae will return this summer.

Contributing factors to the crisis are believed to include nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural fertiliser running off fields, the spread of the invasive zebra mussel species and climate change, with the highest water temperature at Lough Neagh recorded last June.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill, deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly and Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Andrew Muir met the Lough Neagh Partnership at the Lock Keepers Cottage in Toome on Wednesday morning.

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Andrew Muir, First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly speak to the media following a meeting with the Lough Neagh Partnership at the Lock Keepers Cottage in Toome (Rebecca Black/PA)

However, Mr Muir warned there are no quick fixes and addressing it will require some difficult interventions.

He welcomed the joint visit as “sending a message in terms of the collective commitment of the Executive towards addressing the issues associated with Lough Neagh”.

He said there will be an environmental improvement plan for Northern Ireland, the region’s first environment strategy and an action plan for Lough Neagh.

He will be meeting officials in the first week after Easter on the draft action plan for Lough Neagh, and hopes to bring it to the Executive for discussion and agreement “in the weeks ahead”.

“There are no quick wins here but what we can do is we can chart a course in terms of delivery of the interventions that are needed,” he said.

“I want to be clear, some of the interventions that are going to be required are going to be difficult. This is a difficult issue and it’s going to require changes in terms of behaviour. We’re all aware of what has contributed towards this, but we’re up to the job in terms of the leadership that is required.

“This will also require investment and funding because, for example, our waste water treatment plants in Northern Ireland need investment to ensure that we’re ensuring good water quality in Northern Ireland.

“Over the weeks ahead people will see the action from the Executive and we intend to lead from the front.”

Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly said the Executive has prioritised the situation at the lough since the first meeting of ministers following the restoration of devolved government earlier this year,

Ms O’Neill said: “We are determined to do everything we can to ensure that we protect this lough.

“Lough Neagh has so much potential, and we’re very hopeful, as are all those people that we’ve just spoken to, in terms of the potential of the lough, but we clearly have huge challenges ahead of us.

“If we all work together we can turn this around, and we’re determined to turn this around.”

Ms Little-Pengelly added: “This is an Executive priority, we put it on to the agenda of the very first Executive meeting. This will continue to be a strategic priority because we recognise we need to work together to find the solutions, we need to do so quickly… setting into train the actions and the initiatives that are required to resolve these issues and prevent these issues from getting any worse.

“We are determined to take immediate action, we are determined to work with everybody to find the solutions.”

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