The water is only six degrees. It doesn’t stop Ricky Holmes and Mary O’Hagan. They swim with calm strokes to the other side of the harbor and back. A handful of boats are still moored at the jetties, most of them have been hoisted onto the quay for the winter.
O’Hagan and Holmes change clothes under the tailgates of their cars and put on a thick towel jacket over their workout clothes. Teeth chattering – “it’s part of life, it’s going well” – they explain how important this lake, Lough Neagh, is to them. Last year they could not swim for five months because the lake was covered with a thick layer of toxic blue-green algae. Mentally he still feels the consequences of that, says Ricky Holmes. “I need the summer to get through the winter well.”
The polluted Lough Neagh is has become a symbol of a long-term political deadlock in Northern Ireland. The country has been without a functioning government for almost two years. “The stalemate means that nature and the environment are given little priority,” says Mary O’Hagan. “There is no minister to make decisions and take action. That is a big problem.” One of the country’s two largest political parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is refusing to form a government while is necessary to drive with.
Is dead swans, foxes and some dogs after coming into contact with the green gunk. And the pollution posed risks to the drinking water supply. The freshwater lake supplies approximately 40 percent of Northern Ireland’s drinking water. But the water stank and although manager NI Water assured residents their water was safe to drink, many Northern Irish people did not trust it. Holmes: “It was unclear what chemicals they used to filter it and whether they had any consequences for your health.” Some residents still drink bottled spring water, even though the algae have disappeared from the lake due to the colder weather.
In addition to this ecological disaster of 396 square kilometers – Lough Neagh is by far the largest lake in the United Kingdom – public facilities also suffer from the lack of a normally functioning administration. The government in London is now setting the budgets for ministries, which are lower than in previous years, while prices in the UK have risen sharply in recent months.
Thursday is the legal deadline to break the long-standing political impasse. If that does not work, the overarching British government in London should officially hold new elections. It is more likely that the minister responsible for Northern Ireland will come up with an emergency law to push that deadline further into the future – that also happened last year. To increase the pressure on politicians, thousands of employees from healthcare, education and public transport will leave their work on Thursday.
The DUP is dissatisfied with the agreements that the London government made with the European Union regarding the British withdrawal from the EU, regarding the borders between Northern Ireland and Ireland. According to the DUP, these agreements promote an undesirable separation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. So in February 2022, the DUP quit the government in protest. The DUP is one of the unionist, loyalist political parties in Northern Ireland, which likes to keep ties with the UK as close as possible.
After the elections a few months later, in May 2022, the DUP had an additional reason to maintain their blockade: they lost their position as the largest party in the country. The nationalist party Sinn Féin, which wants a united Ireland, won and became the largest. For the first time in history, Northern Ireland would have a prime minister who would prefer to dissolve the country and merge it with Ireland. And although they would never admit it out loud, it feels like a great loss of face for the DUP to have to govern under the leadership of Sinn Féin. So they prefer to hold that off as long as possible.
But they are condemned to work together. According to the Good Friday Agreement, which ended The Troubles in 1998, the years-long civil war between unionists and nationalists, the largest parties on both sides must share power and form a government together. The violence has indeed ended since 1998, but Northern Ireland regularly remains without government for years because one of the two parties withdrew cooperation. For example, from 2017 to 2020 it was Sinn Féin that blocked government.
Senior officials have taken over most of the work in the past two years, but they cannot make political decisions. Around Lough Neagh, for example, new agricultural policies could stop the dumping of cow manure into the lake. Or there could be an independent environmental agency, as Mary O’Hagan and Ricky Holmes would like to see. Last year they founded Save our Shores, a citizens’ initiative with which they draw attention to the problems surrounding the lake. O’Hagan: “Such an agency can seriously go after the polluters.” Environmental matters are now transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture.
The consequences of the blockade are also noticeable in other sectors. Healthcare waiting lists exist across the UK, but Northern Ireland is by far the longest. Mary O’Hagan has a disabled brother: “When he recently had a seizure we had to wait seventeen hours for an ambulance.” From NHS data also appears, for example that last autumn only 34 percent of cancer patients in Northern Ireland can start treatment within two months of an initial referral from their GP, which is a decrease of 5 percent compared to 2022.
Another example: in education, Northern Ireland teachers have not received a salary increase for three years. Their wages are thousands of pounds lower per year than in England, Scotland and Wales, where they did get a pay rise – and they are also considerably lower than in neighboring Ireland. The nationally cut budgets mean that schools parents have to ask for contributions for toilet paper, glue sticks, swimming lessons or even computers.
During her lunch break, primary school teacher Jane McConville tells us in her classroom, the walls are covered with cheerful drawings, that her school no longer has the money for full-time classroom assistants. “We did a few years ago, but we had to cut back. I have a class of 25 six and seven year olds and I have help one day a week. Furthermore, I am alone in helping all those children move forward.” There are also students at her school who should actually go to special education, but who stay anyway because there is no place for them.
Her school, Elmgrove Primary School in east Belfast, is in a heavily Protestant area. “The hard core of the unionist supporters live here. I am open-minded myself, I think we should try to help young people develop mutual respect and understanding for other groups through education.” Her own two daughters go to a school with ‘integrated education’, as they call the schools in Northern Ireland that accept students from both sides and do not choose sides between unionists and nationalists.
McConville will also strike on Thursday. She is frustrated because the government in London has billions of pounds ready for Northern Ireland, but the DUP still refuses to budge. “Our situation is getting worse, but those who could solve the problem apparently don’t want to.” In the negotiations in recent months between the British government and the political parties in Northern Ireland, London £3.3 billion (3.8 billion euros) have bid to persuade the DUP to return to the table. “We need to rethink our entire political system. One political party can now hold the rest of the country hostage, but that shouldn’t be possible.”