Lough Neagh's future still up in air after owner meets minister
Published 10/04/2014 | 02:30
The peer who owns Lough Neagh has held a meeting with Sinn Fein minister Michelle O'Neill.
The Agriculture Minister confirmed the meeting, at which a still-unseen report on the future of the lough was discussed.
And still, it seems, despite repeated questions from MLAs, the report is unlikely to surface for some time yet.
The 35-year-old Earl, Nicholas Ashley Cooper, is a regular visitor to Northern Ireland yet is rarely seen around Lough Neagh itself.
And while his family historically owns the land on which the lough rests, the water belongs to all of us.
The Earl is said to feel that the ownership issue "muddies the waters".
He is loathe to become embroiled in the torturous political machinery at Stormont and wants in any case to steer clear of any allegations he is attempting to manipulate the debate.
But sources close to the Earl have said he is increasingly puzzled by the length of time the report from a committee set up by Ms O'Neill has been stuck on the Stormont shelf.
"He wants to contribute. He wants to counter the impression of some that he is distant and unco-operative. He feels he can be a very easy target to dump on," one aide admitted.
Some time ago he told a symposium on the lough, which was also attended by Ms O'Neill: "I think the wider issue potentially is how to manage it, how to get the best out of it and how to deal with some of the issues that were raised in the debate – pollution, navigation development."
Some of the parties at Stormont, particularly Sinn Fein, privately wish the Earl would "gift" the lough to the Assembly while others are adamant it could be sold for a fair price.
At the symposium the Earl made clear: "We're not putting the lough up for sale, but if the Assembly was to make an offer we're not definitely going to say 'no'. What we want to do is do the right thing for the people living there."