Article in the Belfast Telegraph by Alliance Environment spokesperson Anna Lo MLA who is Chair of the Assembly Environment Committee
Northern Ireland’s environment has some truly outstanding areas such as the Giant’s Causeway, the lakes of Fermanagh, the Sperins, the Mournes and Strangford Lough. However, one thing that we are lacking in Northern Ireland is a National Park.
Unfortunately it now appears that the Environment Minister Alex Attwood has admitted defeat in attempting to establish a National Park in the Mournes. He has used the phrase that the proposal is now in a “take stock phase”, which we all know is code for it has been put on the shelf as the Minister could not get agreement on it.
A National Park would give a boost to tourist driven economies in the area such as hotels, restaurants and shops that sell local produce and souvenirs. People have a higher view of produce from a National Park and would give it a preference over other produce.
While I do acknowledge that this idea is not without controversy, I do believe that it would bring major benefits to our environment and increase the prestige of one of our areas of beauty.
I know that there is opposition from some farmers in the Mournes to having a National Park, I talked to a number of them at the recent Balmoral show, but this location was by no means the only place that could have had a National Park.
Places such as the Sperins, the Giant’s Causeway, the Fermanagh Lakes and Strangford Lough could easily have also been chosen. I am disappointed that the Minister has not attempted to show some vision by exploring other options.
His Department has mismanaged the handling of this debate. We should be talking to people on the ground to answer their questions and dispel any myths around the consequences of having a National Park.
In England and Scotland, they had an extensive consultation process when they were introducing National Parks and have a continuing communication and engagement link with land owners where one was set up. There is clearly not enough information being given to local people as to what a National Park would mean for them.
It has been suggested that we should set up an independent working group to look into this matter. I would support such a move to ensure that all matters relating to this issue are presented in a clear and concise manner in which all stakeholders are involved.
This is just the latest in a series of backtracks that the Environment Minister Alex Attwood has made in recent months. When he took office last May, I was very heartened by the comments he made in his first couple of weeks in the job.
I hoped that we would finally have an Environment Minister who would want to make radical reforms. One of his predecessors after all was Sammy Wilson who was not the most dedicated supporter of the environment to put it kindly.
Despite the fact that the Minister promised us the heaven and the earth, he has fallen short of delivering these promises. It is not just the National Park that is dead in the water but the new Marine legislation that has been watered down.
When you look at the rest of the UK, the names of their national parks are easily recognisable, such as Lough Lomond, Snowdonia and the Lake District. I think it is a crying shame that Northern Ireland does not have its own National Park. The Republic of Ireland itself has several including the Wicklow Mountains and Connemara. This means that Northern Ireland is the only region in these islands that does not have a national park.
That is not to say that we should have a National Park just because we do not have one. We should have a better process in place to find out what type of National Park the public wants, especially in the potential locations. It would clearly bring a tourist boost and help create prestige for the area.
I think we should also remember that a National Park would help protect the environment and natural heritage. It is time that the Department of the Environment changes their attitude as to the shape of this debate otherwise we may lose the opportunity to have a National Park for a generation.