Nature knows no borders
Dummy’s Lough, two kilometres northwest of Clones in Co Monaghan, looks like any other lake in rural Ireland. It is one of four lakes in the Kilroosky Lough cluster, nestling in farmland and surrounded by pockets of woodland.
Dummy’s Lough is of interest for its classic marl lake water chemistry and extensive calcicole plant communities – marl lakes are relatively low in nutrients, high in calcium and have good water quality. These types of lakes are rare due to their sensitivity to pollution.
But what also makes Dummy’s Lough interesting is that the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland cuts right through it. And it’s a Special Area of Conservation in the Republic but not in the North. Bizarrely, this creates a designation boundary in the middle of a lake habitat.
Contamination of lakes in Northern Ireland has been making headlines this year. The current situation in Lough Neagh which is literally dying and at risk of collapse due to run-off from agriculture, sewerage and septic tanks as well as sand dredging brings into sharp focus the problems of pollution of waterways in the North. As has been pointed out by many, the situation in Lough Neagh is not due to bad luck or some sort of naturally occurring phenomenon, but driven by a combination of neglect and a growth and expansion policy, particularly in agriculture.
And this highlights a huge problem facing environmental protection on the island. Nature and the environment don’t recognise boundaries or borders. A policy which can have a detrimental effect on the environment of one side of the border will impact on the other. What happens if a lake or any other landscape for that matter straddles the border? What would happen to Lough Dummy’s SAC if the lake suffered from similar levels of contamination as Lough Neagh. Different policies, added to different regulation, management and enforcement, add up to a recipe for an environmental mess in both jurisdictions.
It is a an issue that was highlighted in a report ‘Linking the Irish Environment’ which was commissioned by the Irish Environmental Network, Northern Ireland Environmental Link and Environmental Justice Network Ireland and published earlier this year.
Diverging environmental regulation and policies north and south could have a negative impact on efforts to protect and enhance the shared landscapes, water sources, flora and fauna, the report says. This now could be exacerbated by Brexit which threatens further cooperation and shared standards, it warns.
Despite the shared nature of almost all environmental challenges, the logic of a collaborative
approach to these challenges and the acceptance on a policy level that the island of Ireland is
one single bio-geographic unit, cooperation on shared environmental challenges between
governments north and south of the border remains under-developed, according to the report.
The two jurisdictions which exist on the island of Ireland have developed (with some exceptions) almost completely segregated environmental governance structures, legal and policy frameworks, and implementation processes.
This has the potential to diverge further post-Brexit with the removal of the underpinning
set of common EU legal requirements and environmental standards on both sides of the
border. Brexit has also removed the important scrutiny and enforcement role of EU institutions
in respect to environmental outcomes from one part of the island, as well as shared EU
governance mechanisms in policy development, implementation, monitoring and design.
Significantly, it has also removed the unifying and over-arching ‘direction of travel’ on
environmental and social concerns brought by membership of the EU. The extent to which
these factors will be mitigated by the contentious NI Protocol and other post-Brexit governance
arrangements remains uncertain.
In addition to the governance implications of having two discrete sets of arrangements for
protecting the environment, meaningful cooperation in an advocacy context between
environmental NGOs and civil society on the island is significantly inhibited.
So, what does this mean for Dummy’s Lough and how do we protect the SAC in the lake? We can’t ignore the fact that the island of Ireland is a single biogeographic unit with shared landscapes, water sources, flora and fauna. Added to that we are in the midst of a climate and biodiversity crisis on the island and both sides face similar challenges in addressing these crises. Protecting this common environment is dependent on coherent policy-making, high standards and regulations and enforcement on both sides of the border.”
The Linking the Irish Environment report outlines a number of key recommendations and actions to address these challenges, including:
- The British and Irish Governments (in the absences of a devolved government in Northern Ireland) should develop a joint political or legal commitment on the environment.
- Better use of the Good Friday Agreement to increase cross-border work on the environment And ensure civil society organisations can engage with these Good Friday Agreement structures.
- The British and Irish Governments should ensure continued and enhanced support for sustained, collaborative research on all-island/cross-border environmental matters.
- Provision should be made for adequate, ring-fenced funding from the British and Irish Governments for both short and long-term all-island collaboration on environmental issues.
- Ensure greater resources for environmental NGOs for cross-border work.
Funding and resourcing NGOs is crucial, according to the report which says that Environmental NGOs north and south have been working on the frontline of efforts to protect and enhance our shared natural world and these NGOs have a key role to play in all-island environmental cooperation. Greater resources and funding would enable the environment sector across the island to cooperate and engage on an all-island and cross-border basis to deal with the shared environmental challenges, risks, and opportunities we face.
The only way to preserve the environmental integrity of both Northern Ireland and Ireland is through a coherent system of environmental management. Increasing cross border cooperation and policy-making provides a real opportunity to improve the environment on an all-island basis is key.
Civil Society – Key Actors in All-island Environmental Protection
As the report argues, civil society environmental groups such as ENGOS are important actors in promoting all-island environmental protection, conservation and policy development. However, civil society groups are stymied by lack of resources, time and often knowledge of the situation on the other side of the border.
It will take significant effort on the part of civil society to rise to the challenge of tackling our shared environmental issues. Coming together in dialogue to discuss both the challenges and the possible shared solutions is an important step in this journey. As part of efforts to improve environmental management on an all-island basis and foster co-operation between environmental groups on both sides of the border, Northern Ireland Environment Link (NIEL) and the Irish Environmental Network (IEN) have received funding from the Government of Ireland Shared Island Civic Society Fund to develop and deliver a series of five facilitated thematic dialogues and a final in-person networking forum between January and September 2024.
The main purpose of this project is to promote and deepen cooperation and dialogue between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland eNGOs and environmental civil society groups so that the sector is equipped to fully engage with, and respond to, the new environmental regulatory and governance context post-Brexit.
Each of the five dialogues, will be held online to maximise access. The first dialogue will take place online using Zoom on Wednesday 14 February from 10.30am until 1pm (Register here.)
To help plan the dialogues, NIEL and IEN is asking participants to respond to a short survey All Island Civil Society Forum on the Environment Survey which will take approximately 5 minutes to complete.
Participation in the forum is open to all those working (in any role) in a paid or voluntary capacity in an environmental civil society group/ENGO and participants can take part in as many or as few of the sessions as they wish. The dialogues will be rounded off with an in-person networking event later in the year.