THE 12th Earl of Shaftesbury - the owner of Lough Neagh - has firmly insisted that he has “no plans” to sell the lough despite calls from Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly that the NI Assembly should vest the British Isles’ largest expanse of fresh water “as a last resort”.
The Earl, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, inherited the lough from his long lineage, and this week, the Assembly - with the exception of the Ulster Unionists - agreed “to consider whether the vast waterway should be brought into public ownership”.
Mrs Kelly, who was brought up beside the lough and still lives in Aghagallon, was the most fervent advocate of the move to establish a working group - as proposed by Sinn Fein - with DUP’s Jim Wells stating it made ecological and commercial sense.
She said yesterday, “Lough Neagh provides 40 per cent of the province’s drinking water, it supports a vital fishing industry, it accommodates comprehensive water sports, it has tremendous tourism potential, and it isn’t right that the landed gentry - an absentee landlord - should own and control it.
“Eel fisher people will tell us that the quality of water out in the lough is unsatisfactory. It should be the responsibility of the Assembly to oversee these things. However, it would be useful to have a working group with the Earl involved to put things right.”
DUP supported the motion, although Jim Wells said the party would not be happy with compulsory purchase. He recalled that the lough had been given to one family by the king many centuries ago, “and it is not being properly managed”.
“The water quality, fish stocks and wildlife are a disaster,” he added. “There is sewage - human and animal - in it and you wouldn’t swim in it. Water supplies have to be heavily bleached before you’d dream of drinking it.”
But Upper Bann’s Samuel Gardiner (UUP) felt that “bits and pieces of the lough should not be sold all over the place”. He added, “I would much prefer to keep it as it is - things are working alright.”
This prompted Mrs Kelly to retort that she was very disappointed with UUP for not supporting the motion, “as they seem to be stuck in the landed gentry mode of the past”.
The following statement was sent from the Earl’s 5,500 acres estate in Dorset said, “The Shaftesbury Estate has no plans to sell its Northern Ireland interests and the decision of the Northern Ireland Assembly was unexpected. That said, the estate will assist the working group in whatever way it can and will cooperate with an appraisal of the Lough and all the relevant stakeholders.”