“I am determined to develop a response which fully matches our responsibility under the Habitats Directive…”

With the Northern Ireland Fisheries Minster, Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín, displaying Helleresque logic in her efforts to avoid European Commission fines over the Executive’s failure to act to conserve atlantic salmon stocks, BBC NI’s environment correspondent, Mike McKimm, has an update on the NI Executive’s continuing inaction over environmental vandalism at Strangford Lough – a designated Special Area of Conservation, an Area of Special Scientific Interest and a Ramsar (protected wetland) site.  From the BBC report

Unless the departments can persuade the European Commission otherwise, they could face a fine of at least £8m plus a fine of tens of thousands of euros for every day the problem persists. And they have only weeks to make their case following the formal warning they have just received from the commission.

“Our response must be decisive,” said environment minister Alex Attwood.

“We need to demonstrate that the horse mussel reef issue is being conclusively addressed. We have until May this year to convince the EU that any deterioration is being addressed, beyond which infraction awaits.”

The BBC understands that Mr Attwood has meet with senior EU officials in Northern Ireland and Brussels to try and reassure the commission.

But it will be the Department of Agriculture who will have to do the lion’s share of the reassuring. Only they can introduce the necessary protection required by Europe and it needs to be done immediately.

Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill said that she is disappointed with the commission’s interpretation of the situation.

“I am determined to develop a response which fully matches our responsibility under the Habitats Directive,” she said.

“I have undertaken to meet fishermen in the near future to discuss options with them and officials from both departments will be working hard together to develop a satisfactory management regime for the future.”

Which is what her predecessor, and party colleague, Michelle Gildernew, MP, MLA, and NI Agriculture Minister from 2007-2011, should have done…

Instead, as I noted in November last year

Eight years after first drawing attention to the problem, and six years after a formal written warning was issued from the European Commission, the Ulster Wildlife Trust have made a second formal complaint alleging a “systematic and deliberate failure” to protect and restore the special habitat. 

In January 2009, the then-ministers concerned did manage to summon the press for a photo-opportunity on the issue.  But that’s about the only activity we’ve seen – despite evidence that the NI Department of Environment, at least, is aware of the potential for EU fines.

But, as Mike McKimm points out, it may be too little, too late.

But that may not satisfy Europe. They have made it clear that at this late stage they are looking specific action, not options. With just a few weeks until the May deadline there is little time for more discussions.

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