How the pursuit of peace destroys natural heritage
One of the defining aspects of the 'peace process' is the tendency for everything that isn't about the management of sectarian politics to become downgraded, dismissed and ignored. Nothing matters except maintaining this awkward, dysfunctional and expensive project we call peace. Everything else can go to hell.
This couldn't-give-a-monkeys mentality seems to apply especially strongly to our environment. We should be grateful for this natural richness, finding ways to protect and preserve it and the wildlife within it. Instead we're treating like it like a massive communal dump.
This month, the charity Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful recorded its worst results in the amount of rubbish discarded on our beaches in 2015. Around 1,500 pieces of plastic, 425 plastic drinks bottles and 180 cotton buds per kilometre were counted. Such public irresponsibility is grotesque. It's like finding a wild bird's nest and chucking a Coke can and a burger wrapper into it.
But it's minor compared to the gross culpability of the farmers and factory-owners, who heedlessly allow pollutants to contaminate our waterways, and the authorities who fail to bring them to book. Throwing litter around areas of natural beauty is the act of an ignorant lout. That toxic effect is magnified a thousand times when serious breaches of environmental law go unpunished. We are talking about the institutionalised neglect of our natural heritage. It's the sort of thing we should be getting ourselves passionately worked up about, if we weren't too busy agonising over whether or not the IRA has gone away.
Fish kill after fish kill is reported with accompanying images of discoloured water and belly-up trout. River Enler, Six Mile Water: the names are familiar because we hear them so often. Almost every time we are told it is a "mystery" how it happened. Every time marine biologists report it will take decades for the waterways to recover. Very occasionally, the guilty party is identified and there is a fine, a slap on the wrist (in other countries, serious environmental polluters find themselves hauled off to jail).
Then the next thing you know, the same thing happens again. There is no chance for recovery before the filthy discharge pours in once more.
Earlier in the year, this newspaper reported that almost six pollution incidents a day - yes, every single day - were reported to, or discovered by, inspectors in 2013. According to Friends of the Earth, the real level of water pollution is likely to be still higher, because 48% of reported incidents were "not substantiated". Which of course doesn't mean that they didn't happen.
Green Party MLA Steven Agnew says there are "too many discharge licences, which legally permit waste, pollution, chemicals and other damaging substances to pour into our waterways, and this leads to fish kills and a reduction of the biodiversity in and around our water systems".
But that's only part of the problem. The Department of the Environment is seeking to introduce the Better Regulation Bill, which essentially will allow industry and business to regulate itself. Given the lax state of affairs at present this would be a disaster for our lakes and rivers. The DoE has already been seen to systematically fail to regulate after the exposure of the Mobuoy Road 'super dump' in Derry - which was identified as the biggest illegal landfill site in Europe - as well as 37 other illegal landfill sites around Northern Ireland.
And what on Earth is happening down at Lough Neagh? It's a Special Protection Area, designated under EU environmental law, which - supposedly - affords the strictest level of environmental protection, yet its ecology is being decimated by pollution and industrial sand extraction. Why is the DoE so blatantly ignoring EU law and allowing this to continue? The department's failure to issue stop notices against the operators is incredible, given that the European Commission has initiated infraction proceeding against the UK over its failures to protect Lough Neagh, which could result in massive fines for the NI Executive. If concern for the environment won't persuade the DoE, despite that being their designated job (the clue is in the name), you'd think the economic consequences of their inaction would waken them up.
Northern Ireland's natural world has been let down by poor planning decisions, lax enforcement and neglect. This has left a permanent legacy of environmental threat. But who cares, as long as the peace process is allowed to survive?