Belfast Telegraph

MLAs excluded from 'crazy' Lough Neagh talks process

By Noel McAdam

No MLAS are included on the Stormont team examining the future of Lough Neagh, it has emerged.

Instead, it is only civil servants who comprise the committee, which is likely to lead to the formation of another committee.

The present group, however, has also held a closed consultation which has sparked concern from Ulster Unionists, who have tabled a number of Assembly questions.

UUP MLA Robin Swann (right) said that not even the Assembly’s agriculture and rural development committee had been consulted, and described the way the issue has been handled so far as “crazy”.

“The working group is made up of civil servants who have nominated a closed group of consultees who were sent out a consultation that this scrutiny committee never had sight of,” he told a DARD meeting. Speaking yesterday, he added: “What concerns me is that we have a group here made up of civil servants. I have not come across this way of going about things before.

“It is crazy.

“It was a closed process. We do not know who the group consulted, or why.

“I think there was an expectation that MLAs would be represented on this, but it is probably the case now that this committee will lead to another committee which will have a more public consultation.”

Mr Swann said that his fear is that Sinn Fein is attempting to direct the debate over Lough Neagh towards a consensus that it should be privatised.

The Executive is due to discuss the options for future management of the lough next month, after which a public consultation is expected.

The group is made up of two civil servants from DARD, and one apiece from the departments of culture, arts and leisure; environment; regional development, and enterprise and trade, and it consulted 60 unknown organisations and individuals.

But David Porter, director of development of the Rivers Agency, which is part of DARD, said that the current task is “just a scoping exercise”.

“This is not a public consultation on whether it is a good idea or a bad idea to have Lough Neagh in public ownership. This is merely to work out the size of the task we are taking on and, therefore, to inform us whether it can be done internally by Government or whether it is better done by a consultant or an independent expert.”

Background

Lough Neagh is facing numerous difficulties including bacteria on the water, plummeting bird populations and theft of fish stocks. DUP man Jim Wells, the only MLA to have worked on the lough, labelled its current management as “a shambles”. Earlier this year the Assembly began to consider taking the lough into public ownership.

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