Keywords: Sustainable development, environmental NGOs (ENGOs), environmental regulation, environmental governance, DOE(NI), devolution
When devolution was restored in Northern Ireland in 1998 there was finally hope that after decades of unresponsive government by Direct Rule a new era of political accountability was beginning. The Good Friday Agreement was first and foremost a peace agreement; however, the ambitious scale of legislative and executive powers transferred under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 raised expectations that the devolution settlement would provide a sound basis for local governance towards a shared future. In particular, the devolution of extensive legislative and regulatory powers affecting the environment raised hopes that the Assembly and Executive would finally take action to redress the neglected arrangements for environmental governance in the region. Much has been written about the impacts of the Troubles and Direct Rule on environmental governance in Northern Ireland.1 Suffice it to say that years of neglect during the civil conflict and the highly centralised and unaccountable nature of Direct Rule had led not only to a loss of quality in both the built and natural environment, but also a degraded institutional capacity for environmental governance, and a significant loss of public confidence in the role of government in these processes.
In so far as the environment was concerned, a shift in the capacity and expectations of the regions environmental NGO sector was one of the first impacts of devolution. Under Direct Rule, responsibility for environmental policy and regulation had been completely centralised within the DOE(NI). The democratic deficit created by Direct Rule, combined with the ascendancy of the civil service within this regime, undermined the incentive for public campaigning and heightened the operational risks of offending officials in a small community who frequently personally identified criticism of the Department. However, the restoration of a devolved Assembly led the major national ENGOs to expand their presence in Northern Ireland. This increased capacity, and the organisational expectations that devolution would bring with it a responsive and accountable system of government, stimulated a willingness to engage in the form of public advocacy that is commonplace in the rest of the UK.
The first evidence of this process of normalisation came in response to the issue of environmental regulation, which had become the subject of intensifying public concern. In 1998 and 2002 the Northern Ireland Audit Office had published two highly critical reports concerning lax standards in the context of water quality protection and nature conservation.2 These were followed by several other similarly critical analyses by professional, academic and other scrutiny committees.3 In addition to a manifest loss of public confidence in the process, one of the central conclusions emerging from this collective analysis was that government should give serious consideration to externalising responsibility for environmental regulation to an independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
However, the fundamentally compromised nature of environmental regulation in Northern Ireland was ultimately cast into graphic relief in 2002 when the consequences of years of under-investment in sewage infrastructure collided with the pressures for economic regeneration which had escalated in the wake of devolution. Bv the late 1990s the UK faced a series of advanced infraction cases as a result of Northern Ireland's essentially endemic failure to comply with the EUs Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. Although the devolved Executive announced the launch of a major programme of infrastruclural renewal designed to ensure compliance, the scale of the necessaiy works meant that compliance would not be achieved for several years. Intensifying pressure for economic regeneration rendered the imposition of an indefinite moratorium on development in areas known to have inadequate sewage treatment unpalatable, to say the least, to the regions newly devolved Government. However, rather than requiring developers to install interim sewage collection and treatment in these areas, the devolved Minister for the Environment instead announced that the DOE(NI)s environmental regulator (then known as the Environment and Heritage Service) would not be permitted to object to applications for development consent on environmental grounds.