Environmental Governance Failure in Northern Ireland: High Time to Turn Over a New Leaf

By Ciara Brennan, Ray Purdy and Peter Hjerp

Recent scandals including the RHI debacle and the discovery of illegal dumping on a massive scale (most notably at the Mobuoy Road ‘super-dump’) have catapulted Northern Ireland’s environmental governance failures into the public eye. The divergence from what can be considered ‘good’ environmental governance is clear and the environmental, economic and socio-political consequences of these failures cannot be overestimated.

Protecting the environment is not a one-way cost and there has been very little political recognition in Northern Ireland of some of the serious economic impacts that weaknesses in current systems of environmental governance are having. Conservative estimates suggest that resolution of the RHI commitments alone could cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer over £490 million. Combining the cost of RHI, cleaning up the illegal dumping that has been discovered to date and remediating the consequences of illegal fuel laundering gives a total and already incurred cost of over £1 billion. In addition, weak environmental regulation and the failure to uphold the rule of law present critical disincentives to foreign direct investment, where a top priority for investors is the ‘stability and transparency of political, legal and regulatory environment’. A further risk created by a damaged environment relates to potential damage to the tourist economy (worth £723 million annually to the economy and sustaining 43,000 jobs).

A well-managed environment should be seen as a vital asset for the shared future of the people of Northern Ireland and a greater focus on protecting this common interest would enhance confidence in power-sharing and demonstrate stability. The high membership numbers of environmental NGOs in Northern Ireland indicate that there is clearly an appetite for environmental protection that is currently at odds with the level of importance assigned to it by the previous devolved governments. Given the severe consequences of environmental governance failures and its potentially devastating economic and environmental consequences a reform of the current state of environmental governance is urgently required. With the current political impasse creating significant uncertainty surrounding the NI Assembly’s future, these decisions must be taken by UK government directly or jointly with the ROI government as a matter of urgency to ensure that environmental protection in Northern Ireland is insulated from the surrounding political turmoil. We suggest the following reforms:

  • An environmental audit committee should be established to enhance environmental integration across policy areas and ensure that departments are carrying out their functions within environmental limits.
  • An integrated and overarching environmental strategic plan should be produced in one single document, which contains priorities of the Executive with outcomes to be aimed at.
  • A review of institutional arrangements encompassing an examination of who does what and why, where integration between sectors and other departments applies and where it needs to be strengthened should be undertaken by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
  • A Commissioner for the Environment should be established to ensure effective implementation and application of environmental law.
  • The enforcement function of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) should be delivered by one integrated entity within the Agency to ensure a unified, consistent and proportionate enforcement response across all areas in which the NIEA has an enforcement responsibility.
  • The NI Judicial Studies Board should produce updated and more extensive sentencing guidelines to ensure penalties imposed in environmental prosecutions have a real economic impact and provide a stronger deterrent to re-offending.
  • A clear and robust fly-tipping protocol incorporating improved liaison, cooperation and information-sharing should be established between the NIEA and all local authorities.
  • Waste regulation systems should be modernised through emerging technologies. These offer new avenues for ensuring compliance, such as a mandatory electronic duty of a care based system to replace the current paper-based waste transfer notes system.
  • The issue of an Independent Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) should be re-inserted into political discussions. Although an IEPA is not a panacea for the myriad problems that have characterised the experience of regulating the environment, it would at least inject some much-needed credibility into regulatory efforts in the wake of years of scathing criticism.
  • Formal consideration should be given to enhanced cross-border cooperation to deal with the environmental challenges faced on the island of Ireland. This could present opportunities to ensure maintenance of EU standards of environmental protection post-Brexit, reduction of unnecessary duplication of regulatory services, streamlining of administrative processes associated with any alteration to the border and prevention of divergent regimes on either side of the border from creating opportunities for environmental crime.



Ciara Brennan, Ray Purdy and Peter Hjerp have undertaken a detailed examination of the causes, consequences and potential solutions to Northern Ireland’s environmental governance failures in an article recently published in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly.

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  • Madamarcati

    I had all but given up hope that any in Northern Ireland cared enough to fight for its neglected, abused, carelessly deforested, maliciously polluted but once, not too long ago, beautiful countryside. Just like the issue of animal cruelty, any attempt to legally counter terrible and increasing environmental damage in Northern Ireland seems to be seen as a bit of a joke by Stormont politicians or even as some kind of dangerous radicalism against God and progress. Animals, like nature, aren’t worth much in their economic grand plans. Such extreme wilful ignorance and ecological and scientific backwardwardness just beggars belief.
    Thanks for at least trying to stem the damage. But I won’t be holding my breath. Instead I will brace myself for having to suffer witnessing yet more self righteous destruction of nature and those vulnerable creatures she nurtures.

  • Nevin

    “A further risk created by a damaged environment relates to potential damage to the tourist economy”

    The Dark Hedges location a few miles east of Ballymoney is currently suffering major damage, thanks to over-promotion and under-protection.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    This scorched earth attitude is very interesting. While the 2 tribes squabble over whose the mismanaged acreage ‘rightfully’ is, the contempt with which the ecology is treated by same people means that it might not be fit for any future generations to live in, whatever tribe they will be.
    Ah well, to win the war and make the triumphal omelette we have to break all the eggs although it’ll be a meagre dinner by that stage.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Like Venice as a tourist destination being a victim of its own success, except it’s on a more significant scale.
    John Julius Norwich has been pointing this out for at least 3 decades. It’s funny that NI doesn’t learn from mistakes made elsewhere even when it’s common knowledge.

  • Nevin

    Promotion isn’t all within NI control; Tourism Ireland handles international marketing. As for protection, that might well involve several arms of government so there are opportunities for buck-passing.

  • It is high time that the penalties for environmental damage were toughened up. Enforcement action is an afterthought of departmental policy. Sentencing is ridiculously light.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    The OP above deals with both your points.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    It’s high time something was done, NI is like some sort of wild west. We take things for granted that would be unacceptable on other countries e.g. Fishkills, cleaning slurry tankers in streams, tyre burning and littering that would make ‘Stig of the Dump’ blush.

    In all my wanderings I’d say that the filthiest place I’d ever been to was an impoverished central African city, 2nd is Calabria in southern Italy (mafia controlled refuse collection) and third is Northern Ireland.

    I overheard a group of Belfast kids on the bus from Derry joke “how do we know we’re going the right way?” to which one replied “easy , just follow the trail of litter”.

    If the republic has a strong environmental agency then this could seriously be a clincher for some middle of the road people, I am loathe to point this out lest environmentalism becomes perceived as something for themuns.

    (What IS the environmental protection like in the south?)

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Here, I have an idea;

    Let’s have some sort of administration, one staffed by people that the public can vote for, that way we can ensure that competent, pragmatic, non-corrupt citizens free from vested interests can act in the public interest of the state?

    Oh, wait a minute….

  • Ciara Brennan

    They have very different regulatory and governance structures in the south so it is difficult to directly compare with our experience, but they face similar environmental challenges (e.g. illegal dumping) as we do and have struggled with elements of environmental regulation in the past. An all-island approach could enhance the levels of protection currently delivered on both sides of the border if designed correctly…

  • Nevin

    Tourism Ireland is part of the problem of tourism pollution, a form of pollution which doesn’t appear to be addressed in the article.

    There are now signs on Bregagh Road discouraging coach operators from using it but when I visited yesterday I could see they weren’t working.


    The photo shows a DfI Roads surveyor just about to step aside yesterday afternoon as a coach splashes slowly through a large pool of muddy water. The coach had stopped briefly for a photoshoot and the sump to hold run-off water appears to be unfit for purpose. Pot-holes have been yellow-marked but will they be patched?

  • Madamarcati

    I entirely agree. Most days crippling depression is the default reaction. Rise in youth suiciding is not unrelated. But then I try and consciously remember the efforts made by many of like awareness across our world to reverse the damage. Like the greening of old polluted industrial sites in parts of Germany and life just about goes on. But, yes, this ecocidal paradigm has been in place for far too long for us human beings to escape being culled by our own stupidities.