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Green and orange, sand and gold - an environmental free-for-all in Northern Ireland?

Neoliberal ideas about reconciliation, a formalisation of sectarian pork barrel politics, and political stasis, are all leaving a legacy of environmental destruction in some of Northern Ireland's most beautiful and important regions.

Image: Lough Neagh. Credit: Eskling/Flickr, CC 2.0.

Where do you think the largest illegal landfill in Europe is? Hint: it’s also the place where there’s about to be a bonanza in metals mining, especially if Brexit continues along its current direction of travel. No? Here’s another, not-unrelated clue: it’s the part of the UK with the highest regional number of millionaires after London and Aberdeen, and with the lowest levels of discretionary income in the union.

Where? Most people would be surprised to learn the answer is Northern Ireland.

Something was missed in much of the fanfare surrounding the Good Friday Agreement’s recent anniversary – a much less palatable part of the Agreement’s legacy. A legacy of multiform extraction and neglect, and of austerity and mismanagement of resources, all of which have damaged the Peace Process as much as Brexit may do.

The case of Lough Neagh

While the cameras turned away from Northern Ireland once again following the commemoration week, fresh and damaging revelations have continued to emerge at the ongoing inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme – the scandal which Sinn Féin used to collapse the Northern Irish Assembly at the start of last year, despite it later emerging their own hands were dirtied by the botched ‘green’ initiative. At the core of the RHI scandal was over half a billion pounds worth of wasted public money, unfolding against the backdrop of almost a decade of austerity, a social housing crisis and widening inequality. The scandal’s impact was muffled somewhat by last year’s snap General Election and its aftermath, and other longer-running scandals have continued unnoticed.

Take, for instance, the case of Lough Neagh. Bigger than Malta in surface area, it is the largest freshwater wetland in the UK and Ireland, and one of the largest in Europe, supplying Northern Ireland with around 40% of its water. The vast body of water is home to numerous protected species of flora and fauna (some of them unique), as well as the largest wild eel fishery in Europe. It is this precious shared resource (or ‘commons’, as some campaigners have it) which is being ransacked by an unregulated, decades-long sand extraction operation implicating several Stormont departments.

Studies have shown that insects, snails, eels, and freshwater fish including a rare type of pollan, have all been damaged by the dredging’s impact on the Lough’s bed, while the number of overwintering ducks in the area has fallen by 75%. The sand sourced from the banks of the Lough generates substantial annual revenues for the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, who, through the recently-bequeathed Shaftesbury Estate, owns the theoretically-protected land.

Lough Neagh sand has long been used in many major infrastructure builds within Northern Ireland itself and abroad (some of it purchased directly by government departments), with over 1.5 million tonnes now extracted annually. It was even used in the building of Stormont (well before the operation was judged unlawful). As with all varieties of this type of sand - mined extensively across the world for construction purposes - Lough Neagh’s took millions of years to get there and, environmentalists argue, is now in dire need of some breathing space, with some estimates indicating that only 20 years of it remain at current extraction rates.

Last June, Friends of the Earth won a significant victory in the Court of Appeal, prompting a review of the operation at Lough Neagh. The ruling found that a former Environment Minister had wrongly issued an Enforcement Notice instead of a Stop Notice at Lough Neagh, allowing companies to appeal and continue extracting sand pending the appeal’s outcome. For months after June’s authoritative judgment, Northern Ireland’s Department for Infrastructure argued they could not enforce the Stop Notice, since there was no relevant Minister in place under the Stormont shutdown, before they finally announced in November that the decision and the review it entailed were “not expedient” according to “up-to-date environmental information” which they have never specified or made public. In light of this, Tanya Jones, Deputy leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, told openDemocracy that the Lough Neagh scandal was a “perfect paradigm” representing the widespread, systematic failure of environmental governance in the country and constituting a “deep-rooted neglect of our landscape and our health”.

Pat Close of the Lough Neagh Eel Fishery, whose 250 licenced fishermen are threatened by the depletion of the Lough’s banks and bed, spoke of his disappointment at the time of the November announcement and said there had been “no significant engagement” with the Fishery leading up to it. He added that the Department had not specified what stated “mitigation measures” they would carry out.

The lack of adequate public consultation, especially as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment process, has been a central and recurring issue for many environmental cases in Northern Ireland. Such concerns are likely to be at the forefront of the minds of West Tyrone residents this year, as Dalradian Resources hope a Public Inquiry will be held to speed up their bid to convert the area around Greencastle into Europe’s second-largest gold mine, with plans to build a cyanide-processing plant in the nearby Sperrin Mountains also under consideration. There, some locals and activists say they are willing to “do jail [time]” to stop the mine from opening. One of the fears they cite is the potential for a cyanide spill like the one at Baia Mare in Romania in 2000, where the substance leaked into the water supply and local rivers, killing over 80% of its fish population. It certainly would not be the first significant chemical spill to occur under the watch of a power-sharing government. As well as pointing to a “lack of transparency” on the part of Dalradian, Cormac McAleer from the Save Our Sperrins group has voiced concerns about a “lack of experience [handling cyanide] and of expertise among the relevant environmental monitoring/enforcement statutory agencies”.

The Good Friday Agreement at 20: the concealed legacies of a neoliberal peace solution

Austerity, government corruption and environmental neglect have been core features of the past 20 years in Northern Ireland – and especially of the past ten. Historian Brian Kelly identifies the Northern Irish Peace Process as a key example of the neoliberal conflict transformation model (exported to a number of other countries since), where peace and ‘co-operation’ are incentivised and rewarded with investment.

The foundations for this kind of free market solution were set down right at the beginning of the Peace Agreement. At its early stages Bill Clinton promised to “pump” £100 million into Northern Ireland, Richard Branson made a visit to Belfast at the time as a kind of unofficial ‘open for business’ gesture, there was the ‘peace dividend’ tied up with the Belfast Agreement, and an investment schedule promised around the time of the St Andrews Agreement to help ensure the continuation of the Peace Process at an early sign of foundering. More recently, the austerity-rooted flag crisis yielded a memorable business- and tourism-driven initiative called Backin’ Belfast (rechristened now as Lovin’ Belfast). All of the above represent a kind of ‘conflict resolution via Foreign Direct Investment and tourism-friendly rebranding’ mindset, which has defined the Stormont agenda of the past two decades since peace was established.

The popular saying is that money talks and money was certainly an important part of what got former enemies speaking to each other after years of intractable stand-off. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness’ first public engagement as First and Deputy First Ministers in 2007 was at an IKEA opening in the outskirts of Belfast, as Conor McFall notes in a recent article for the New Socialist, where he outlines how the “focus on international investment was central to the discourse around the Good Friday Agreement and the wider peace process”.

The institutional arrangements generated by the Good Friday Agreement framework have facilitated the extractive dynamics set up during the Agreement’s brokering, and have produced little will for a cross-community response to issues which go beyond orange and green. Critics have argued that it has institutionalised sectarianism and that it has brought with it an accompanying pork barrel politics - all while Sinn Féin and the DUP have, since around the time of the global financial crash, progressively commanded all but a monopoly on Republican and Unionist voting blocs.

Director of Friends of the Earth NI, James Orr, argues: “There’s been a hidden history in the last 20 years in Northern Ireland. We’ve seen a Balkanisation of politics reflected in resource and sacrifice zones – like illegal mining in Tyrone, new mineral concessions awarded along the border, attempts to introduce fracking into various communities and industrialised farming. In this sense, natural resources – [shared] things that unite people: air, land and water - have been a hidden and forgotten victim of the Peace Process. The sectarian carve-up of politics is now manifested in an extractivist mindset and a physical carve-up of many things that formerly people regarded as special and significant. With Brexit, we’re seeing an acceleration of this process, on a much larger scale, with much more money available to the interests who stand to benefit [from these projects]”.

The interests Orr talks about – extending well beyond Dalradian - are openly discussing the anticipated gold rush. Last month, an “Ireland: Open for Business” event was held in Toronto, in which a series of talks and presentations were held to “showcase Ireland’s FDI potential” to international geology and mining companies listed on the Canadian Stock Exchange. Industry heads heard in detail and at length about the variety of precious metals and minerals waiting to be excavated, with a policy update and green light from senior Irish government officials. Sean Kyne TD, Minister for Natural Resources in Leo Varadker’s government, was a speaker at the event, giving an indicator of the intentions Dublin may have for playing its part in a great sell-off of mining interests in Ireland in the coming years.

The prospect of this Conservative Brexit being propped up by a party so clearly driven by economic gains, and willing to roll back environmental protections in pursuit of those gains, all while a number of extractive interests openly line up for a post-deadline free-for-all, is indeed cause for concern. All the more so given that the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement is flanked by long-running political stasis in Stormont, and a devoutly pro-enterprise Fine Gael government in the Republic of Ireland, who would have few qualms in helping to sneak environmentally-disastrous free trade agreements through a post-Brexit “regulatory alignment” package. And with the precautionary principle likely to be torn out in Brexit’s translation of European environmental legislation, the door would be left wide open for the kinds of prospective ventures discussed in Toronto.

Besides a deep-seated neglect of the natural environment, public services and reconciliation matters in Northern Ireland have also been neglected. The resulting legacy? A sharp rise in homelessness levels, 250,000 on hospital waiting lists, and a number of ways in which sectarian violence in the country has increasingly been filtered into or replaced by structural violence. This was most recently borne out in shocking figures on the elevated suicide rates during the last 20 years of peace, in comparison to killings from the 30-plus years of the Troubles.

To be clear, pointing out and advancing a critique of this concurrent legacy of extraction and of neglect is by no means to declare ‘Open Season’ on the Good Friday Agreement, as ultra-Brexiteers like Daniel Hannan would have it, or to attack its undeniable achievements and continuing necessity. On the contrary, for a sustainable and lasting Peace Process to work, it’s vital to take note of what has been neglected by the Agreement in practice and, more importantly still, to point to another kind of Open Season which may be declared in the Agreement’s name.

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