At what price are those in government prepared to sell this country’s natural beauty and archaeological heritage? Not very much it would seem. In the case of the north’s environment minister, Edwin Poots, the prospect of 30 permanent jobs (yes, 30) was enough for him to grant permission for the building of an incinerator on the shores of Lough Neagh.
When the sound of the Celtic Tiger’s roar was drowning out wiser counsel — which was concerned that all was not well with the southern economy — an Irish government minister approved the building of a road which threatened the renowned and ancient site of the Hill of Tara in Co Meath.
This act of institutional vandalism provoked the anger of this nation’s poet laureate Seamus Heaney who wrote: “The strings of the harp are being lashed by the tail of the tiger.” The Hill of Tara was bequeathed to the people of this country by those who settled here more than 5,000 years ago and left evidence of their existence through their burial rituals.
These tranquil mounds of posterity with their hidden archaeological treasure of human history remained undisturbed for several millennia until this era when the crass sound of the tinkle of a cash register was allowed to drown out the knowledgeable voices of those custodians of our past and mentors of our future.
Lough Neagh is as old as Ireland itself. Its scientific origins are to be found in the cooling of the earth’s volcanic activity millions of years ago.
Its mythological origins are to be found in the Celtic mist where the imagination of our antecedents freely roamed and produced the giant Finn McCool with hands powerful enough to scoop out a patchwork quilt of land to produce Lough Neagh and the Isle of Man.
Lough Neagh has provided a living for families and communities for centuries. It has a thriving eel-fishing industry. Under European Union law it is designated a Ramsar site. The wetlands surrounding the Lough have a special conservation status.
The EU has also defined it as a zone to be protected for birds, flora and fauna and is considered an area of ‘high scenic value’ and ‘outstanding natural beauty’. It is a huge draw for visitors local and foreign. It is a source of drinking water for 40 per cent of the north’s population. Mr Poots’s decision threatens all of this. The land surrounding the Lough is tilled by hundreds of farmers; house prices already under pressure in these harsh economic times will be adversely affected if an incinerator is built. The roads around the Lough near the proposed location of the incinerator are built for transporting families not huge articulated lorries laden with poultry waste.
Life for hundreds of families is already disrupted by the lorries which service the Ulster Farm By-Products plant which burns offal. The intention is to locate the incinerator next door to this factory.
For the past three years a Glenavy-based campaign group, Communities Against Lough Neagh Incinerator, CALNI, has opposed the application by Rose Energy to locate the incinerator on the shores of Lough Neagh. Their campaign has been very effective, drawing support from most of the area’s population and all the elected representatives for Lagan Valley, including its MP Jeffrey Donaldson, its MLAs and councillors on Lisburn Council. The campaign had successfully reached the point where it was expected that the environment minister would approve a public enquiry into the proposal to build an incinerator.
Instead he decided to ignore the call for a public enquiry backed by the largest number of objections in the history of planning, some 7,000. Sinn Fein’s Lagan Valley MLA Paul Butler accused the minister of “double standards”, given his approval of public inquiries into a number of other projects.
Rose Energy needs £30 million of public money from the north’s executive to build the incinerator. Ray Clarke of CALNI has called on the executive not to use public money to pollute Lough Neagh. Mr Poots is also facing a legal challenge to his decision to refuse a public inquiry.
The battle to preserve Lough Neagh as one of nature’s jewels is far from lost. The incinerator must not be built.
© THE IRISH NEWS Jim Gibney