Northern Ireland is ‘Europe’s dirty corner’

Experts have indicated that Northern Ireland is unlikely to see benefits from heightened EU standards due to its current non-compliance with existing rules, resulting in an environmentally “grossly degraded” state. While the region might avoid a decline in UK environmental regulations post-Brexit, it still faces significant environmental harm due to governance deficiencies. Northern Ireland lacks a functional executive, an environmental protection agency, and has not published an environmental strategy. Despite being subject to EU laws under the Windsor framework, which are often more stringent than those in England, Wales, and Scotland, the region struggles to take advantage of this opportunity.

Ciara Brennan, director of the Environmental Justice Network Ireland, emphasized that Northern Ireland cannot capitalize on the EU standards opportunity due to its already severely degraded environment. The crisis at Lough Neagh exemplifies the dire situation, with an algal bloom affecting the largest lake in the British Isles, the source of 40% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water. Campaigners attribute these issues to a lack of scrutiny, enforcement, and accountability, dubbing Northern Ireland the “dirty corner of Europe.” The Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs (Daera) has been accused of prioritizing farming interests over the environment.

James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth in Northern Ireland, highlighted how poor governance undermines ambitious EU rules, emphasizing the need for effective watchdogs and enforcement bodies. The divergence of Great Britain from EU rules might result in higher standards for Northern Ireland, but Orr argued that this is of limited value when the region is an environmental “basket case” with no effective rule of law.

Former Stormont assembly member Jim Wells criticized Northern Ireland for being decades behind the rest of the UK and Europe in environmental standards. He accused political parties of favoring the Ulster Farmers Union, leading to the neglect of environmental protections. The collapse of the Stormont executive has left the civil service struggling to fill the void, hindering the region’s potential to be more ambitious than Great Britain in environmental matters.

Viviane Gravey, a politics lecturer and EU environmental policy expert, noted the stress on the civil service and the absence of essential governance structures, hindering the implementation of environmental law. Despite the lack of clarity on the extent of standards divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, Gravey identified some hope in the newly established Office for Environmental Protection, which, although lacking enforcement powers, encourages transparency and decision-making.

The ongoing boycott by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the resulting absence of a functioning executive have further contributed to environmental neglect, exacerbated by historical factors dating back to the Troubles. Gravey mentioned the surreal situation of Northern Ireland not adopting an EU ban on single-use plastics, while the rest of the UK enacted their own ban. However, the newly established Office for Environmental Protection is seen as a potential catalyst for positive change, prodding the civil service toward greater transparency and decision-making. Despite questions about the extent of standards divergence, Brennan emphasized that without proper governance structures, the specifics of the law become inconsequential.

The collapse of power-sharing in January 2022, led by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) protesting post-Brexit trading arrangements, has left Northern Ireland in a state of political inertia. The resulting absence of a functioning executive has placed the region on a type of auto-pilot, overseen by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris, who seems unable or unwilling to make significant decisions. This political vacuum has exacerbated the long-standing environmental neglect that stretches back to the Troubles.

Analysts argue that the neglect persisted even after the Good Friday Agreement when major parties supported the rapid expansion of industrial factory farms, particularly in pigs and poultry, contributing to a substantial yearly volume of slurry. The situation is highlighted by Northern Ireland’s failure to adopt an EU ban on single-use plastics, in stark contrast to England, Wales, and Scotland, which implemented their own bans.

Despite these challenges, there is a glimmer of hope with the establishment of the Office for Environmental Protection in Northern Ireland. Although this office lacks the authority to enforce regulations, it plays a role in prompting the civil service to make decisions and increase transparency. Viviane Gravey believes that this could be a positive development and a potential step towards addressing some of the governance issues that have hampered environmental progress.

The divergence in environmental standards between Northern Ireland and Great Britain remains uncertain, but Ciara Brennan emphasizes that this question is somewhat academic without the necessary governance structures to implement and enforce environmental laws. She cautions against celebrating the retention of EU rules without effective mechanisms to ensure compliance.

In summary, Northern Ireland faces significant environmental challenges stemming from its existing non-compliance with environmental regulations. The absence of a functioning executive, environmental protection agency, and a clear environmental strategy exacerbates the situation. The potential for divergence in standards between Northern Ireland and Great Britain may be overshadowed by governance failures. While the newly established Office for Environmental Protection offers a glimmer of hope, much work remains to be done to address the root causes of environmental degradation and to build effective governance structures for environmental protection in Northern Ireland.

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