Sadly, Ayisha Siddiqa cancelled her appearance at the festival. Ayisha is a poet and climate activist, we were looking forward to her participation and wish her well. That said, we are delighted to have refashioned the Saturday morning session while keeping the connection between international governance and the human soul, and will be joined by two new speakers. Siva Thambisetty, Associate Professor of Law at the London School of Economics will speak about her role in several UN high-stakes negotiations where she describes the ‘trust, text and theatre’ involved in creating a treaty that works, while Barrister and Activist Paul Powlesland will address the connection between his love of nature and the need for legal imagination.

Ayisha’s decision to withdraw follows pressure from what appears to be one activist group and a few signatories from civil society attempting to establish a connection between the festival and the ecological plight of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. The festival organising team recognises the value of activism when it is grounded in sound understanding and intentionality. However, on reflection, this current campaign is based on a misunderstanding of the festival, a misrepresentation of the predicament of the lough, and it reduces a complex multidimensional predicament to simplistic solutions in a way that risks compounding the problem.

The tenuous link that the campaign has tried to amplify lies in the details of the inheritance of one of the co-founders and organisers of the festival Nick Ashley Cooper. Since inheriting the Shaftesbury Estate unexpectedly in tragic circumstances in 2005 after his father was murdered and his brother died young in quick succession, Nick led a collaboration to restore St Giles House as a site of historical interest and a beautiful venue for many events, only one of which is The Realisation Festival. Nick also inherited the bed and soil of Lough Neagh, not the water or surrounding land. It’s also worth saying that, there is no substantive or financial connection between The Realisation Festival and Lough Neagh. The festival grew out of a partnership between the charity Perspectiva and St Giles House and is now run as a separate community interest company with five directors. But to say more about Lough Neagh.

The ownership of the bed and soil of the Lough does not afford any agency to deal with these problems.

It is huge, the biggest Lough in the British and Irish Isles measuring over 300 square kilometres. It contains over 800 billion gallons of water, enough to fill 7 million swimming pools. The Lough is in a bad way, with various markers indicating poor ecological health, including a reduction in biodiversity, and the water is increasingly toxic. However, pollution causes the current ecological crisis in Lough Neagh, and it has nothing directly to do with the ownership of the bed and soil of the lough. If you would like to understand why, there is an excellent 11-minute radio interview with Newton Emerson of the Irish Times, and the BBC recently released a crisp half-hour documentary about Lough Neagh, presented with graceful authority by Patrick Fee. If you are in the UK you can watch it here and learn about the commercial and governmental negligence and misfortune that has led the Lough to be in such bad ecological shape. The problem is mostly excessive phosphorous and nitrogen from industrial waste, agricultural pollution (including animal waste), and poorly treated human sewage, alongside failures to enforce regulations. These problems are compounded by climate change and an invasive species of zebra mussel.

The ownership of the bed and soil of the Lough does not afford any agency to deal with these problems. Those who insist on making that connection conflate two separate issues – pollution coming into the Lough, and ownership of the Lough. In that conflation, sometimes accidental but often deliberate, the real culprits, the governments concerned and large international corporations especially, but also the underlying economic model and societal ethos, are let off the hook, while a relatively minor stakeholder is scapegoated.

That said, the festival organisers recognise that a private individual owning the bed and soil of the largest Lough in the British and Irish Isles can seem surprising and controversial. A 2023 report by the Environmental Justice Network in Ireland explores the policy and legal issues relating to ownership, but there is also a matter of what ownership means. Northern Ireland is a contested political space and the ownership matters partly because it stems from a colonial legacy, but mostly because there is a clear community and societal interest in the ecological value of the Lough and all that it means for the health, economy, biodiversity, and vitality of the surrounding areas. However, we also note that the government of Northern Ireland has no apparent interest in taking the Lough into Public ownership, that they were advised against doing so in 2014 because it is such a liability, and that their recent plans for the ecological restoration of the Lough do not see ownership as a necessary or even desirable part of the plan (see here, c18.30 especially).

What follows is that ‘giving back’ the Lough makes no sense, and will not solve the ecological governance crisis of the Lough.

The festival organisers also recognise that sand extraction in about one per cent of the Lough is controversial. While this activity is licensed, approved by planning after an extensive environmental impact assessment, and currently essential for the building industry in Northern Ireland, concrete is not climate-friendly, there is an open question about the ecological impact of the practice, and it contributes to the distress of those who do not wish to see nature being industrialised. We also note however that this practice has taken place for almost 100 years and that the existing licence extends to 2046, subject to confirmation of existing planning approval in 2032. A change of owner would not stop the practice, and a strong coalition of actors is required to contest the planning.

We also recognise that the owner of the sand receives a royalty payment for this practice and that this is also controversial. However, again the details make it harder to see what should follow as a result. Only 50% of the royalty paid is received by the estate, and as recently published records indicate, when set against administrative and legal costs in some years the company made a loss, and it has made about £25,000 per annum on average, none of which was redirected to the restoration of St Giles House.

What follows is that ‘giving back’ the Lough makes no sense, and will not solve the ecological governance crisis of the Lough. It is also unclear whether the government even wants that outcome, given the liability it entails. However, there is an important conversation to be had about the future ownership of the Lough. Nick has mentioned the desire to explore models of community ownership and innovative rights of nature approaches as possibilities he is open to exploring. It also follows that sand extraction cannot just be stopped in the short term. Yet there is scope to stop sand extraction in the medium term if the right coalition of actors can prevent planning from being approved in 2032. In the meantime, it is up to Nick to decide what to do with the royalties from the sand extraction, and how best to reinvest them in the restoration of the Lough.

Pippa Evans, Ed Haddon, Jonathan Rowson, Nick Shaftesbury, Mark Vernon
The Realisation Community Interest Company

For more on these issues, in particular Nick Shaftesbury’s views and plans on how best to secure the long-term health of the lough, do have a read here.

All blog posts