By Anton McCabe.
For years, coming up to the the marching season news in the North was dominated by controversy over parades and street violence. That still simmers. However, this summer news coverage has been dominated by allegations of corruption in the sale of NAMA properties in the North. There has been blanket coverage of Mick Wallace’s allegation in the Dáil that £7m was being diverted from a property deal to a Northern politician.
This continues a recent trend in the North, where serious questions are being raised over the planning process.
The GAA is seeking to build a 38,000 seat stadium at Casement Park, in the middle of a built-up residential area in West Belfast. Residents fear its size will dominate their houses: that there is insufficient parking provision: and that there are safety concerns. There are questions as to whether it is needed for sporting purposes. Antrim’s Gaelic footballers are in Division 4 of the National Football League, and Fermanagh have hammered them twice this year: Antrim hurlers are in freefall, having been relegated from the All-Ireland championship.
Last year, Environment Minister Mark H Durkan granted permission. Earlier this year, a High Court Judge quashed that, saying the process was “fundamentally flawed”.
The Chief Executive of Sport NI has been suspended amid the controversy, and two-thirds of the Board has resigned. Safety expert Paul Scott gave evidence to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure that he was put under “excessive pressure” to rule the plan safe.
The Casement issue has had a huge political impact. Gerry Carroll and People Before Profit have championed the residents’ case: Carroll seems certain to be elected to the Assembly next year.
Another environmental controversy erupted round the destruction of a crannóg at Drumclay, on the edge of Enniskillen. A report from the (Northern) Department of the Environment was highly critical of destruction of the crannóg between 2010 and 2013, during the building of the Cherrymount Link Road, part of successive Northern administrations’ obsession with asphalt.
The crannóg had been occupied for 1,000 years, from the seventh to the 17th Centuries. Archaeologists discovered 4,000 objects, and the remains of more than 30 wooden houses. It was a vital piece in our understanding of the Early Christian period in Ireland.
A Scheme Assessment Report drawn up by Roads Service (part of the Department of Regional Development) said: “Work for the proposed road will avoid all known archaeological sites.” Environment and Heritage Service was not consulted about this.
Despite the Department’s statement, the crannóg’s existence was known. It was on the Ordnance Survey maps from 1835. Archaeologists had known about it for years. Locals, of course, knew also.
The road was driven through the site because of a simple map-reading error – which was never corrected.
The contractors building the road used a machine to dig trenches through the crannóg. This was done without archaeogical supervision – though it was supposed to be present. Part of the crannóg collapsed because of illegal works. However, the NI Environmental Agency took no action. The Department of the Environment’s report also raised questions about the archaeologist employed by the contractors.
Most dramatically the Green Party claims that Northern Ireland is potentially facing huge fines because of the Department of the Environment’s failure to meet environmental obligations.
The European Commission is seeking clarification on allegations relating to a number of environmental matters including the massive illegal landfill site at Mobuoy Road in Derry and unauthorised sand extraction from Lough Neagh, Ireland’s largest lake. It is the subject of important bird and habitat directives from the European Union. Since the 1930s sand has been extracted by dredger – without planning permission or enforcement. An estimated 1.7 million tons per year is extracted, 25% of the sand used in the North’s building industry.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan issued enforcement notice to the companies involved, ordering them to cease. They have appealed, and are thus able to continue dredging.
Durkan has, however, recently granted permission for an underground gold mine outside Omagh. The North’s Ombudsman had earlier ordered Planning Service to pay compensation to residents round an opencast gold mine on the site, finding there was failure to enforce planning conditions.
Additionally, a whole series of environmental issues are simmering in the background: particularly fracking, and the proposed A5 dual carriageway. The Northern administration’s long-term poor environmental record is coming to resemble the South’s.