| 12.7°C Belfast

James Orr: 'Environment is the forgotten victim of Northern Ireland peace process'


Green battle: Friends of the Earth’s James Orr believes the environment is continuing to suffer in Northern Ireland

Green battle: Friends of the Earth’s James Orr believes the environment is continuing to suffer in Northern Ireland

Green battle: Friends of the Earth’s James Orr believes the environment is continuing to suffer in Northern Ireland

The Director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland tells Linda Stewart how our politicians have let the ball drop when it comes to caring for the countryside.

Q: Could you tell me a bit about your background?

A: I grew up in the town where I now live, which is Killyleagh. I left to go to university when I was 18 to study law and when I finished that I ended up doing a Masters in Town Planning. I was getting very interested in environmental issues when I finished my law degree and at the same time I had rekindled a childhood interest in birdwatching and nature watching.

For over 15 years I worked for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Castle Espie and had three kids and then four years ago joined Friends of the Earth.

Q: What is the background to Friends of the Earth (FoE)?

A: FoE began in the 1970s and the first dramatic iconic activity that it carried out was returning bottles to Schweppes, the drinks company, that was for the first time promoting non-returnable bottles.

At the time in the 70s it just captured the mood, it was a very dramatic statement, it positioned the organisation as in favour of recycling but prepared to confront corporate power. Now it operates in nearly 80 countries. It captures the idea of acting locally and thinking globally which is still very much the mantra that we would use.

Q: Has FoE had to change tack over the years?

A: Every organisation goes through different rhythms. What we're always trying to do is capture the zeitgeist, the feeling in the community, but also to shift the consciousness. So in the 70s the movement was very much Save The Whale with Greenpeace - FoE were very much active in that. Since then it's become very preoccupied with energy issues to the point now that I think the arguments have been won.

The politics are way behind but the argument has been won. So the issue now is more about speed of the shift towards renewables and the ownership of renewables than it is about the argument.

Q: How have things developed in Northern Ireland?

A: The two major campaigns that still have never gone away here are for a Climate Change Act for Northern Ireland so we can play our fair share in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and also the need for an independent Environmental Protection Agency.

How has Northern Ireland developed environmentally - has it been the same pattern as everywhere else?

It's now 10 years since the publication of the Review of Environmental Governance in Northern Ireland. Luminaries from universities and various organisations came together to produce that analysis of where we are in terms of environmental regulation - and the results were very disappointing. In fact, there was a line in it that described Northern Ireland as the dirty corner of the UK.

The reality is that it's become a carve-up, not just politically between two intractable blocs, the DUP and Sinn Fein, but it's also been almost a physical carve-up of Northern Ireland. And one of the victims of the peace process in this current political and economic analysis has been the environment.

Some of the defining moments in that period have been the unravelling of the secret deals that take place between the major political parties. And usually it's the environment that pays the price for that.

Q: Can you give an example of that?

A: Loads. The concept of sustainable development has never been embraced. We know when they talk about 'economy first', what they mean is nothing else matters. So a balanced approach to development, which is all we want, is something that never happens. And when we ask them what they mean by the economy they don't know either.

But what they do know is that it's not compassionate economy - it's a competitive system, it's not balanced, it doesn't take into account wider interests about how to create a socially balanced community, how to deal with problems of environmental destruction. It's the outworking of a very backward economic framing of who we are as a people and what we need to achieve.

It's fascinating for me that the things that unite us as a people are the things like the land, the air and the water, yet these are the victims, in many respects, of the peace process here. The very things that bring us together, the very things that we share and we should hold in stewardship for future generations, are the things that seem to be sacrificed.

In terms of examples, the classic was Runkerry, the golf course development (close to the Giant's Causeway). That was really a line in the sand for us because the local plan said only modest development was allowed in the setting of the World Heritage Site, and then we have a 350-acre holiday resort in one of the last wildernesses. So if you can't protect that site, you can't protect anywhere. There's something very bankrupt about their vision for Northern Ireland - it's a vision based on market fundamentalism and it's not a participatory shared democracy.

Northern Ireland is a beautiful, amazing country that has had a huge legacy of some of the biggest spinning mills in the world, the biggest ropeworks, the biggest ships were built here and now we have the biggest illegal dumps in Europe and the biggest illegal quarry in Lough Neagh. So something has gone fundamentally wrong.

And the problem with this is it's squandering the assets of future generations - it's stealing their inheritance, because we have so little left of what's natural. Just over Christmas I went to a forest near Ballycastle called Breen Wood. It's a tiny, tiny remnant of what this place could look like, if it had been managed properly, an oak woodland that hasn't been touched apparently for 2,000 years.

We've so little of this left - I think 0.04% of NI is ancient woodland - so there's more car-parking spaces for civil servants in Belfast than there is ancient woodland.

When you look at that, when you look at what's happening with species decline, it's inconceivable to me that 20 years ago we used to do counts of breeding curlew and it's quite likely in the next few years it will be extinct as a breeding species. We've gone from several thousand pairs down to around 50. We should be screaming about this, but there's a silence that greets these extinctions that has to be broken. But it also means that what's left is even more important because it's a fragment and it's also a seedbank for hopefully future rewilding or future regeneration.

Q: Does it have to be a choice between environment and economics?

A: That's the big lie. This is what they tell us and it makes absolutely no sense to say that you have to choose. FoE is very pro-development. We were very supportive of the offshore wind farm for example, off Kilkeel, and very disappointed that that billion pound investment didn't happen. We want to see lots of houses - we'd like them to be affordable and we'd like them to be very well-insulated.

We were promoters of the Green New Deal, which still has to have its day in Northern Ireland - it's an economic revival package based on dealing with things like fuel poverty, climate change, putting builders back to work. These things are not incompatible. What you do need to have is a nuanced debate about the quality of development, not quantity. Where is the right place and what is it we want to build? And if we could have that debate rather than 'it's all or nothing guys' - this is what they tell us.

You just need to travel to other countries to see that they haven't adopted this market fundamentalist approach because we see town centres that are thriving, we see a countryside producing healthy food for local people, we see cultural heritage respected, we see ecology thriving.

There are so many alternatives. I mentioned the Green New Deal, but one we're going to be involved in next year is producing a visionary plan for Belfast. The old model doesn't necessarily have to be replicated - we can bring people back into town centres, we can create thriving communities, we can grow our own food if necessary, we can create ecologically resilient buildings that can adapt to a climate change situation but produce our own energy. We can create a thriving, bustling economy out of what we have. We are one of the luckiest parts of the world because our fields can grow practically everything and we have abundant free energy reserves. We should be trailblazing the new green revolution here.

Q: Jim Wells has said that during the Troubles, Northern Ireland accommodated developers because they were rebuilding the country? Would you agree?

A: We're still bending over backwards. The problem is not development - it's the type of development that's on offer. It's extractive, it's exploitative sometimes - that legacy of the Troubles is clearly still there. Sometimes the pillars of our communities are the people who are involved in damaging our communities and there's also a very close link between political donations and a laissez faire planning policy that allows development that wouldn't simply happen in most other parts of Europe. You have to ask yourself why.

We've had relative peace now for a long time and still we're bending over backwards to certain activities that are seriously damaging both our economy and the social balance of communities. We've allowed 47,000 houses to be built in the countryside between 2000 and 2010 - that's the equivalent of a Derry-and-a-half being put into the countryside. We're allowing 97% planning approvals at the moment.

Q: Is the introduction of the new councils likely to improve things or make them worse?

A: For the first few years it will be a car crash when planning powers go to council. There's a lot of learning to do. The councils aren't ready and they're being handed a broken system. Enforcement is highly problematic - it's been described in the Assembly as a farce. Local plans haven't been prepared for many years - the last one they started was the West Tyrone plan over 10 years ago. So there's no experience of that in the system.

And development control has become a shouting match between planners and developers with the community usually excluded - for example, with nothing like third-party rights of appeal as they have in the Republic of Ireland.

So we're handing over this broken system with a massive legacy of problems as well, because if you have one of the 37 major illegal landfill sites in your council or you've inherited Lough Neagh which has allowed extraction in the middle of a European protected area, if you've allowed that to happen and you're not enforcing against it, you're liable under European legislation and others.

It's almost as if central government is washing its hands of some of its problems and councils need to wake up to their responsibilities and also to their liabilities with some of these planning powers.

The sad thing is it's really important to hand over these powers - it's much better to get local accountability and local people making decisions.

Q: Is the Environment Minister doing a good job?

A: You have to feel sorry for him in a sense, because I've no doubt that Mark Durkan wants an independent environmental protection agency, I've no doubt that he wants to see a climate change act, I've no doubt that he is at the very least surprised about what he's discovered within the NIEA and DoE Planning and I've no doubt his heart's in the right place. But he's powerless to achieve the visionary change that's necessary because he's not allowed to do it by the bigger political parties.

When Sammy Wilson became Environment Minister, Peter Robinson joked that Sammy would have a bulldozer as the new logo of the DoE. Given what's happened to the environment in the last 10 years, that isn't really much of a joke any more.

Q: Given this legacy, why haven't we had a maelstrom from Europe - or is it about to hit?

A: It's about to hit big time. Reasons to remain cheerful is that within civic society there are still about 80,000 members of environmental organisations here, which is more than the political parties, the Ulster Farmers Union, the Quarry Products Association put together, major sporting organisations as well. So there's a force out there within society that is demanding change and wants to see change.

It's 30 years since the Habitats Directive and EIA Directive were produced and the bottom line is that we've only seen tokenistic expression of these directives and these are the pivotal directives upon which all other environmental directives are based. So European law is not being applied here and I will be predicting in the next couple of years there will be major, major fines. That's the last thing Northern Ireland needs, but it's going to be a wake-up call for the Executive to get its act together and start behaving responsibly.

We don't need new laws. We just want existing laws applied. We've seen over fracking that the frackers will not be made welcome in any community in Northern Ireland. What happened in Fermanagh was not just an environmental campaign - it was an exercise in democratic renewal.

The community said no, we're not having it.

We're seeing a lot of these communities, through resisting unsustainable development, are beginning to look at more sustainable options. There's a real debate happening now over things like community energy, which is coming in part out of the extreme energy proposals for Northern Ireland like incineration or fracking.

Q: And finally, are you optimistic about the future?

A: I think the real reason to be optimistic is that people have lost their belief in many respects in institutions and that could be the media, it could be churches, it could be the state. But in any vacuum, other opportunities get explored and what's really exciting about the anti-fracking movement is it's a brand new environmental movement for Northern Ireland.

But it's based on exploring alternatives.

So in any context where you experience fear or concern, you can also experience the joy of saying, well we're going to create a better alternative here and we see that all the time, that there's a bottom-up renaissance in local food, community energy, in nature protection, but most importantly better planning.

But we also have to accept the legacy of what's happened here and the fact that the DoE cuts for example will make things worse in the short term but will force people to think about these issues in the longer term.

Belfast Telegraph