Environment last priority as DoE gambles with money
Horse mussel reefs in Strangford Lough Special Area of Conservation should support a widespread marine ecosystem, but have now almost completely disappeared, taking with them all associated marine life.
A recent Northern Ireland Audit Office report suggested that the Department of the Environment was slow to react to environmental damage to the reefs with complaints to the European Commission representing "a significant risk to the public finances" of £6.6m in infraction, with £475,625 of ongoing daily fines, until the EU Commission is satisfied that Northern Ireland is acting to resolve the situation.
Queen's University Belfast has a contract with DoE (after Government procurement) to undertake research into the "restoration of horse mussels in Strangford Lough". Creating this project helped stop previous EU infraction attempts.
Yet the Natural Heritage Research Partnership contract is now being terminated due to budgetary cuts, in spite of £2m being available under the new Natural Environment Fund (5p plastic bag tax) to non-contractual NGOs, from which QUB is excluded.
NHRP delivers statutory surveillance and monitoring under the EU Habitats and Species Directive to inform evidence-based decision making and environmental protection policy. Terminating such a highly successful Government-procured contract, while funding is available, may be unprecedented and certainly seems unjustifiable.
What is certain is that Northern Ireland will lose its environmental research base, lose vital statutory surveillance, lose an important marine habitat, while risking huge infraction to the public purse (far in excess of the value required to continue restoration efforts). Yet again, the environment is our last priority, while DoE continues to gamble with Europe using public money.
DR NEIL REID
Lecturer in Conservation Biology,
Queen's University, Belfast