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An unhealthy environment – the DUP, environmental policies, and Brexit

Few in Britain have taken a serious look at the DUP’s environmental record. Tommy Greene examines what it could mean for Ireland’s environment – and for Brexit.

Image: Theresa May, DUP leader Arlene Foster, deputy leader Nigel Dodds and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP. in June 2017 PA Images/Dominic Lipinski

Beyond last June’s predictable dinosaur caricatures of its climate-change-denier ministers, few have still taken a serious, detailed look at the DUP’s environmental record. Closer examination shows clear trends in the various ways that Arlene Foster’s party have let down Northern Ireland on the environment for years - and how they have form in using the latter as an instrument through which to make the country as pliable as possible to the extractive interests of international capital.

As Brexit negotiations continue to restate the DUP’s stranglehold over this remarkably weak Conservative government, a slightly clearer picture has begun to emerge of the near-future realignments between the UK and Ireland, as well as the implications they will have for the shared ecology of these islands. And it’s worrying.

Theresa May’s December commitment to no hard border was thrown into serious doubt once again last week, with the government’s customs union statements. But regardless of whether the border is hard or not, the new arrangements look likely to be environmentally devastating either way (not to mention a boon for operating smugglers and fuel launderers).

It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that, after years of watering down hard-won environmental protections around the Irish border, the Brexit negotiations are being seized as a golden opportunity for shock doctrine economics by a group of unaccountable disaster capitalists steering political parties. And the main sacrifice in this catastrophic race-to-the-bottom? Our precious shared resources (both natural and public).

The DUP as a conduit for dark money and murky interest groups

As the rules governing Ireland’s environment are thrown up in the air by Brexit, are they likely to settle on US-style deregulation and stripping of controls of the kind that has already been imported into ‘tiger economies’ including the Republic itself?

The DUP, with their evangelical unionism, their aggressively reactionary, “frontiersmen-like” approach to domestic politics, and their non-existent position on protecting the natural environment, must appear suitable allies for such a venture.

They have already made themselves very useful to the still unknown Brexit ‘dark money’ interests, funnelling almost £450,000 of Vote Leave ad funds via Troubles-era donor secrecy laws. openDemocracy has uncovered links to international gun-runners, a former Saudi Arabian intelligence head, and a mysterious Scottish Conservative, but the source of this dark money is still unknown.

The Legatum Institute - one of the key think tanks fuelling Brexit ministers’ push for ultra-deregulation and privatisation - recently published a paper outlining its proposed solutions for the Irish border, which was criticised by academics and advisory experts alike as “politically crass, scientifically meritless and revives a neo-colonialist tenor that has no place in post-Agreement British-Irish relations”. The DUP’s unrealistic tech fantasies about a post-Brexit Irish border share much with Legatum’s. And there are similarities too between the Brexiteers' hope for a  “bonfire of regulations” and the DUP’s ideology - a look at any DUP party manifesto yields examples of their vocal opposition to any kind of “red tape” which may be “harmful to businesses and costs” and which “constricts economic growth”.

The DUP and the environment: a potted history

Ecological concerns rarely if ever feature in DUP manifesto promises or commitments (their latest tract does not even include the words “environment” or “climate change”). The party actively and openly works against any environmental reforms or initiatives in Northern Ireland (which are usually minor to begin with), while cavalier economic management and misgovernance tend to characterise their stewardship of the country’s most precious natural resources.

In 2008, the DUP were responsible for blocking some form of independent environmental protection agency for Northern Ireland (while England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland all have one). Arlene Foster, Environment Minister at the time, managed to obscure the recognised need for the proposals behind a disingenuous language of “pragmatism” - mainly around an indisposition to quangos and empty promises on a tougher environmental crime stance - and the DUP once again put its stamp on one of many environmental briefs they have made such a point of taking on since the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (the second-smallest Stormont department) was set up.

The legacy of the Troubles has also proven an effective tool for the party in curtailing opposition to dubious plans and in preventing a real conversation about the environment ever taking place in Northern Ireland. An illustrative case here was the recent fracking controversy at Woodburn, (ex-Environment Minister) Sammy Wilson’s own constituency, in which Wilson sectarianised anti-fracking campaigners to combat and divide what was initially a large community resistance to the project.

It’s worth noting that Sinn Féin are not above these tactics either, and have made use of them to help push through projects close to their own interests, as well as to deflect criticism in a number of key infrastructure builds in their own constituencies across the North. The clear gap between Sinn Féin’s progressive rhetoric and the projects or policies they often back is one thing. But the DUP - insisting on taking the environment portfolio as they have so often done during recent administrations - have been the real trailblazers in terms of Northern Ireland’s poor ecological legacy in recent years, having done more to shape environmental governance than any other party.

The environment did not feature at all in the recent DUP Annual Party Conference. The general reluctance of UK national media outlets to run environmental stories from Northern Ireland only compounds problems around accountability, with Stormont departments and the various groups lobbying them rarely encountering scrutiny. Consequently, many of the biggest environmental scandals in Northern Ireland are left to fester and build a rotten precedent for developers, planners, farmers and anyone else with a potential stake.

Something rotten in Stormont’s environmental governance

The DUP may have wished to win back support from their ageing, election-fatigued base last June by exercising leverage over social issues like abortion and LGBT rights. But a quick review of the political playing field mid-2017, the party’s prioritisation of economic concerns and the demands of its many austerity-hit constituencies made it clear that this was not going to be politically feasible, and that it was always likely to cause a backlash.

Less scrutinised – and thus one of the areas they were always going to be able to operate some leverage on – was the environment. And their influence here is two-fold. The DUP now has a £1 billion “bung” (£20 million of which has already been spent, despite not being authorised by Parliament) in exchange for their support for the Tory-led government, for projects in their own backyard. And the party now also has a direct role in shaping, or at the very least influencing, some of the crucial environmental legislation translated into UK law as part of the Brexit process.

To get an idea of what this could mean for Northern Ireland and for the UK as a whole, you only have to take a quick look at some of the environmental standards set by Stormont administrations in recent years. These include: permitting the continuation of a decades-long industrial-scale sand extraction operation at Lough Neagh (despite it being ruled unlawful last year); the use of the Aggregates Levy Credit scheme giving tax relief to unlawful quarries; the granting of unauthorised mining licenses; the biggest factory farms in these islands; Stormont not acting on the promise of a public inquiry in 2014 into the Mobuoy Road illegal ‘super dump’ - the largest in these islands - beside Derry (where the city gets most of its drinking water from); as well as new incinerators and dual carriageways (the A5 and A6 upgrades) being built on flood plains of international importance in ecological, historical and cultural terms. And then of course there is the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, which collapsed the Assembly in early 2017.

Just before Christmas, the Department of Finance published a briefing paper on the Northern Ireland Budgetary Outlook for 2018-2020. The document points at some of the estimated costs of long-term weak environmental governance in the country. It suggests, for example, that the overall clean-up operation of Northern Ireland’s illegal landfill sites could cost upwards of £400 million. Fuel laundering between 2009 and 2014 is estimated to have cost £400 million in lost revenue, according to the brief, while illegal landfilling is estimated to have cost over £100 million in lost landfill taxes and charges. The paper also indicates further cuts to the Department for Environment, after years of underfunding and, environmentalists argue, disproportionate cuts compared to other Stormont departments. It suffered the highest block cuts in 2016/17 (5.7%) and 2017/18 (4%), and received the lowest resource allocations in 2016/17 (none) and 2017/18 (£1 million).

Friends of the Earth NI Director, James Orr, talks of a “systematic failure” when assessing environmental governance standards across Northern Ireland, pointing – among other things – to unchecked government departments acting as “judge, jury and executioner” in many projects, often granting themselves planning permission, ignoring authoritative court rulings and directly fuelling criminal activity (for instance, by purchasing vast quantities of illegally-extracted Lough Neagh sand for major infrastructure builds).

“Brexit will only make matters worse”, Orr says. “The border has always been a vector for extractive industries, many of whom have operated illegally. The fracking company Tamboran targeted the Irish border for extraction…[with] a new suite of huge mining concessions awarded along the border in recent months”. Indeed, the more we learn about the methods used to secure Brexit, as well as the parties involved, the more the picture Orr paints begins to seem like a small-scale impression of the kind of environmental governance that could become common practice across the whole of the UK once the process reaches its conclusion.

”Regulatory alignment” and “unfettered” free trade deals: clear as mud

Despite conflicting statements from the UK government and Brussels last week perhaps muddying the waters a little more, two key connecting phrases echoing around the Brexit mess are still “regulatory alignment” and “unfettered free trade”. What else do Fine Gael and the DUP have in common, after all, if not a devout, unwavering commitment to free market economics? Fiánna Fail leader, Micheál Martin, also recently joined the growing chorus of voices behind this ‘common sense’ pro-enterprise line that makes itself as amenable as possible to the dictates of the barely-restricted market, and the environmental trashing that will in all likelihood involve. Is that what is meant by “regulatory alignment”? And how might this new arrangement be any different from what has been in place up to now?

Across the Irish Sea, Liam Fox’s trade bill currently going through Parliament will pave the way for the lack of parliamentary scrutiny or accountability and the shoddy legislative framework required for the kind of ‘shock therapy’ the interests directing Brexit have planned, via extreme deregulation and democratic erosion, smuggled through future trade deals (so much for Brexit keeping TTIP at bay). A CETA-style trade agreement would also look to replace the ECJ with corporate courts, relegating environmental concerns from their current position on the sidelines to virtual oblivion (many of the environmental judicial review cases being fought in Northern Ireland are done so on the grounds of EU Directives).

We heard in December how Australian exploration firm, Walkabout Resources, is lining up with others to capitalise on Brexit and weak government north of the Irish border. In what’s being termed the Northern Irish ‘gold rush’, companies like Walkabout are now calling Northern Ireland an “exciting destination” with a “stable government” (despite over a year now with a non-functioning Executive, one of several Assembly shutdowns and suspensions since the Good Friday Agreement). The deal will bring little in revenues to Northern Ireland - since many of its gold and silver deposits are owned by the Crown Estate – and at what ecological cost (on top of existing clean-up bills from similar ventures in the recent past)?

The UK government is still refusing to backdate new transparency rules for Northern Irish political parties, thus protecting the source(s) of the EU referendum £435,000 donation to the DUP among other important investigations.

And something else this points to is that, while the environment has been the focus of this article, it won’t be the only prisoner of these increasingly accepted sham political agreements.

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