Rob Bell talks to Northern Ireland environment minister Angela Smith MP about the progress being made in the province
Northern Ireland's social and political turmoil has meant environmental legislation has in the past been left by the wayside. There are other challenges - it is the only part of the UK sharing a land border with another EU state.
But Angela Smith MP, appointed under secretary of state for Northern Ireland in October 2002, and with responsibility for the environment while the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended, believes progress is being made, and fast.
"Prior to the Good Friday Agreement we didn't make the progress we should have," she says. "However, the Executive really set the ball rolling and we've continued that. The environment has certainly been a priority for me, and work has continued at some pace."
In areas such as waste treatment, recycling, contaminated land remediation and renewable energy, Northern Ireland has lagged behind the rest of the UK, but Smith says that since devolution, over 60 pieces of environmental legislation have been enacted. "We're starting from a low base and are having to play catch up.
"But the backlog of environmental regulation in NI has been addressed in a sense, as we've transposed all the EU directives now," Smith insists. "For the first time we are pretty much up to date and we have the means to enforce the legislation." This has meant taking on a huge number of staff - the Department of the Environment's Environmental Policy Division has tripled in size from 30 to 111 staff.Cross-border offences
Waste offences are perhaps the most well-publicised of Northern Ireland's environmental problems, with attention focused on the illegal transportation of waste by racketeers on both sides of the border. This led to the an EU-funded joint campaign to increase awareness of waste issues and recycling, launched by Smith and her opposite number, Irish environment minister Martin Cullen.
"We're doing considerable amounts of work on cross border issues, and we will be able to pursue prosecutions for some time after offences have taken place," Smith says. "Once people see the effects of the legal action we're taking, they are reassured - and it sends a strong message to those who would dump waste. Also, I'm willing to look at increased penalties if we find we're not getting the deterrent sentences we want."
While Smith believes the problems Northern Ireland faces are in many ways similar to those the rest of the UK and the rest of the world are dealing with - "sustainable development, ensuring that economic growth doesn't automatically lead to the over use of natural resources, climate change and loss of diversity" - the province still has a long way to go.
"Getting the network of waste management facilities we need to build to meet EU targets for recycling and the diversion of waste from landfill in place is a real challenge, although we are making progress," she says.
"And the Water Framework Directive and its consequences both for industry and of course agricultural run off will need to be addressed too."Engaging business
Smith also believes that business is catching up on the environmental agenda. "There is more willingness by business to engage on environmental issues," she says, quoting a study by Business in the Environment that found that of 169 businesses surveyed in Northern Ireland, over 90% had a written environmental policy. "In talking to business, my general sense is that environmental awareness is beginning to grow.
"Northern Ireland's industry is making that leap from awareness to 'this is what we have to do about it' and the realisation that it is not just an environmental argument, it's a social argument and an economic argument. But you have to be proactive with business, you can't expect companies to do it all themselves."The future
Overall, Smith believes that real progress is being made, and that the outlook for Northern Ireland's environment has never looked better. "We're going in the right direction on the right issues, such as recycling, reuse and reuse. And in Northern Ireland we've moved from making people aware of what the problems are to engaging people and business to do something about it."
And she is adamant that progress is essential for the province's future: "We've recognised how much work we need to do to catch up - it is essential for the economic and social wellbeing of Northern Ireland."