Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has rejected DUP claims that she has “buried” a report on Lough Neagh completed almost a year ago.
The Sinn Fein minister accused the DUP of “a bit of paranoia” in claiming the report of a working group did not suit her party’s desire to take public control of the lough.
The spat came at question time in the Assembly yesterday after the DUP’s Paul Frew, chair of the committee which monitors the Department of Agriculture, asked why the report has sat on the minister’s desk since December of last year.
“When will she publish the findings of the report? Is it the case that she does not like what is in the report? Is that the reason why it is still on her lap?” the North Antrim MLA asked.
Ms O'Neill replied: “It is fair to say that my sole focus throughout all this work has been on unlocking the potential of Lough Neagh.
“I think that there is a certain wee bit of paranoia there... we talked about the need for navigation control and an overarching management structure. We have the fisheries; we have the tourism potential. There are so many issues, and it is important that we get it right,” she added.
The minister explained she had only recently received research commissioned by her colleague, the Culture and Leisure Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, on the potential of the lough which would “complement” last year’s report.
Ulster Unionist Danny Kinahan said: “I am told that, last year, there was a meeting about tourism, focusing on fishing at Lough Neagh, which came back with a report that there are no fish. Maybe we should be concentrating on getting the fish back.”
Ms O’Neill said: “We need to support the fishing industry to be able to fish on the lough. We have an amazing natural resource, and there is a need for an overarching management strategy.”
The SDLP’s Dolores Kelly asked the minister what action she had taken to improve the water quality of the lough after a recent report from Queen's University revealed the deteriorating condition of food for migrant birds.
“There are many competing interests on the lough,” Ms O’Neill said. “The piece of work that I have been engaged in has been looking at the whole picture and trying to bring forward recommendations, which I will bring to the Executive in the early part of next year.”
The Earl of Shaftesbury, the peer who owns the lough — although the water in it belongs to the public — has recently met with MLAs as part of discussions on its future.
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While the public owns the water in Lough Neagh, the land — including the shore and the lough bed — is the property of the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury. Concerned over environmental problems — and the potential of Lough Neagh for tourism — the Assembly decided 18 months ago to set up a working group to look at taking the lough into public ownership.