Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without an independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). An independent panel, commissioned under direct rule by Westminster, reviewed environmental governance in Northern Ireland and recommended an EPA. But devolution returned to Northern Ireland, and the Environment Minister rejected the calls for an EPA. She resigned 13 days after announcing her decision.
Ministers opt out of environmental planning
In October 2002, the European Commission highlighted Northern Ireland’s falling compliance of sewage treatment works with EU standards from 53 percent in 2000 to 35 per cent in 2001.
In response, Northern Ireland’s Planning Service recommended that the Executive pass a ban on further developments where current sewage infrastructure was inadequate.
But the Minister of the Environment, then Dermot Nesbitt, issued a statement that: “Such an approach, despite the high level of environmental protection that would afforded, would have carried high risk in respect of constraints in economic growth and social progress.”
Professor Sharon Turner, an environmental law professor at Queens University Belfast, explains that: “In the 1970s, Northern Ireland started a steady decline into the Troubles. But by 2000, the European Commission had run out of patience and was no longer prepared to allow Northern Ireland – or indeed the UK – to let the situation continue.”
Review of Environmental Governance launched
“That coalition was one of the most successful NGO campaigns I have ever seen,” says Professor Tom Burke, CBE and Chair of the Review of Environmental Governance in Northern Ireland.
Prof Turner and Gordon Bell, the managing director of Liberty IT, were the other two panel members. The independent review began in 2006.
“One factor that was really clear to the panel was that there was an overwhelming lack of confidence in the Government institutions from the people of Northern Ireland,” Prof Burke said.
Prof Burke explains that an independent EPA would allow policy to be separated from delivery and it would bring Northern Ireland into alignment with the rest of the UK.
But the one exception in the support from the public for an EPA was with the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU).
“I never understood what the UFU’s problem with it was; they seemed to have an ideological view that you shouldn’t have an EPA, which was not really based on any analysis,” Prof Burke said.
Stephen Farry, an Alliance party representative, points out that the UUP, Sinn Fein, Alliance and SDLP were all in favour of an EPA. “The only party not in favour of an EPA was the DUP, and the only DUP lobby group against it was the UFU,” he said.
David Ford, the leader of the Alliance party said: “The UFU were concerned that farmers would not have their views taken into account.” He added: “Ian Paisley said these men just want to farm the way they have always farmed, but the world has changed.”
The panel on the Review of Environmental Governance were commissioned while Northern Ireland was still under direct rule from Westminster. But while working on the review for two years, the political situation changed.
Devolution granted to Northern Ireland
The power-sharing arrangements were Ian Paisley (DUP) as First minister and Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) as Deputy first minister. Peter Robinson (DUP) governed Finance and Personnel, Catriona Ruane (Sinn Féin) Education, Arlene Foster (DUP) Environment, and Michelle Gildernew (Sinn Féin) Agriculture.
The review panel knew that might be problematic for any recommendations they made. “We knew that, quite rightly, when you put the democracy back in, the democratically elected representatives want to have a say.” Prof Burke said.
Minister rejects calls for an EPA
In May 2008, Arlene Foster, the Minister of the Environment, announced that she rejects the calls for an independent EPA. She stated: “I and my party take the role of environmental governance too seriously to externalise the organisation.” She resigned 13 days after her decision.
“The Environment Minister then, went against the will of the majority,” says Lisa Fagan of Friends of the Earth (Northern Ireland).
“I believe there are underlying political and economic issues that the UFU have to answer for regarding the rejection of an EPA for Northern Ireland.” Ms Fagan said.
Tom Burke believes it was unfair to the majority of people in Northern Ireland that one institution had disproportionate power.
“If direct rule had continued, then Northern Ireland would have an EPA. Yes, I’m sure it would have an EPA,” Prof Burke said.
But he adds that this was not the only reason. “I think it was partly the shift from direct rule to Stormont, partly the terms under which portfolios are allocated inside the power-sharing peace and partly the opposition of the UFU.”
Stephen Farry spoke of how the power-sharing dynamics should not depend on the ‘lucky dip’ of which party gets what office.
“Particularly on significant and controversial matters, there should be a collective view, to ensure that all interests represented in government are buying into decisions” he said.
This decision continues to have an impact on Northern Ireland’s environment. For example, Northern Ireland Water (NIW) was granted permission to open a sewage treatment works that provides only primary treatment of sewage before it is pumped into the North Channel. By the time the plant opens, the new Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive will require any sewage works serving over 2000 people to apply secondary treatment.
Ms Foster has yet to respond to many questions sent to her regarding this matter.News & discovery.