Lough Neagh, a personal perspective…

Philip O’Neill is a retired civil servant from Belfast…

I am a retired civil servant. In my planning for retirement, I always wanted to own a boat, and was fortunate to pick myself up a lovely sailboat, something not just for me to enjoy but for family and friends to use, which thankfully they have. I live close to Lough Neagh and it was therefore a no-brainer to have my boat on Lough Neagh. I am a qualified sailor and boat handler, however coming to the Lough was a new learning curve. You had to learn how the weather changed quickly, the unchartered sandbanks, how to avoid the Lough flies etc. This learning curve was made much less steep by those I met on and around the Lough. Decent honest people who made their living from the Lough, others who appreciated the natural beauty of the Lough and those, like me, who loved exploring the likes of Rams Island, Coney Island etc. Everyone is prepared to help, to give you their time and advice, and more importantly to give practical help when needed. A community based on the Lough and galvanised by the Lough.

At the start of the Spring, the conversation changed on the Lough, few Lough flies were to be seen, the water was different and the zebra mussels had moved across the whole Lough. What is to be done, surely the authorities would be aware of this, they monitor the water, it provides drinking water for a lot of N Ireland, and livelihoods depend on the Lough. Surely, there will be an intervention. The hot May and June brought different conversations, the algae plum was becoming more significant, there were reports of dead birds, dead dogs who had entered the water and unconfirmed reports of dead cattle who drank from the water. Zebra mussels were affecting boats, clogging up intake pipes and blocking engines. We were told by authorities the water remained safe, but to be on the safe side don’t go swimming in it. The algae got worse, the stench hit you long before you got to the lough shore, that putrid smell of heavy marsh gas. Then you seen the algae, like pea soup enveloping the whole Lough, like nothing we have ever seen before. Fishermen have reported rashes on their arms and face from pulling their nets in and the Foods Standards Agency, in what appears to be confusing advice, has warned not to eat fish from the Lough caught by line. Less confusing is that from the RNLI who provide a safety presence on the Lough. They will not enter the Lough unless a life is directly at risk. With that in mind I can see all commercial and leisure activities on the Lough being suspended shortly.

Most of this is caused by high levels of nitrates and phosphorus in the water, most of it from farmland. The hinterland for the Lough is massive with lots of rivers and tributaries bringing water to the Lough, only one river drains the Lough., the Bann. I have been told that changes by DAERA vastly reducing the fines levied to farmers has contributed to increased slurry spills into rivers and even allowing farmers to spray in the rain, all of which had been prevented for years, but now contributes to filling one of the largest rlakes in Europe with harmful waste.

I am not going to go into the state of the Lough or how this has happened in too much detail as this is well documented in Sam McBride’s excellent article Lough Neagh has become a scene of Biblical disaster, and Stormont was central to its destruction | BelfastTelegraph.co.uk

Ownership of the Lough appears to be a little confusing, however I believe the base of the Lough and commercial rights belong to the Earl of Shaftesbury, which was taken in a land grab in the early 17th century. The current Earl lives in Dorset, describes himself as s DJ and has a net worth of around £5,000,000. He has offered to sell the land to the Executive for £6,000,000, however we don’t have an Executive and I am use Land and Property Services may have something to say on that valuation. The East Village D.J. Who Became the Savior of a Decaying British Esta | Vanity Fair

There are technical solutions such as LG Sonic.

YouTube video

So what are the options for the Lough. McBride is on record as stating “When they see the cost few politicians will want to be associated with their own policies”, and has estimated the cost of a clean up to be £500,000,000 and take up to 20 years to complete, and that is only if we stop pumping nitrates into it now. So what are our options:-

  • Doing nothing seems to be the current option being applied with no one being prepared to touch this hot potato.
  • We could sue the person claiming ownership of the Lough for neglect, for allowing untreated water into the Lough and for failing to prevent other activities on the Lough which may have contributed to this disaster.
  • We could encourage the person claiming ownership to sue the Department responsible, DAERA, and have a judicial review into the changes it has made in relation to fines for slurry spills and for failing in inspections. This will take time and money.
  • We could purchase the Lough for £6,000,000


  • We could vest the Lough from someone who never bought it in the first place and use the £6,000,000 saved to establish a working group to bring about urgent measures to help address the current issues, to reverse them and to ensure this never happens again.

We need to do something quick. We need to do something positive and this needs to be a cross Departmental, cross Agency and inter Council approach to address this catastrophic biblical disaster.

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