Lough Neagh campaigners accuse Earl of ‘brazen greenwashing’

Keynote speaker Ayisha Siddiqa pulls out of Realisation Festival at Earl of Shaftesbury’s Dorset estate 

Campaigners trying to save Ireland’s largest lake from ecological catastrophe have accused the Earl who owns Lough Neagh’s bed and banks of “brazen greenwashing” and have called on speakers to pull out of a ‘Realisation Festival’ due to be held on the Earl’s 5,500-acre Dorset estate later this month. 

A keynote speaker for the festival, Ayisha Siddiqa, a climate adviser to the UN Secretary General, has already pulled out after receiving an open letter from campaigners. [1]

The 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, claims ownership over the beds, banks and soil of Loch nEachach (Lough Neagh) in the north of Ireland, and benefits from the issuing of licences to dredge over a million tonnes of sand from the Lough every year.

The sand dredging has been highlighted by researchers and campaigners as a factor in the ecological crisis at the lough. [2]

“This festival is the most brazen greenwashing I have seen – and I’ve been an environmental scientist for 15 years,” said Dr Laura Kehoe, a member of the campaign to protect the lough. 

“The fact that an Earl can earn a profit from industrial activity that is damaging such an important lake, and then host a party in his mansion on societal transformation shows the level of deeply unnerving insanity we are currently living through.” 

Ashley-Cooper is hosting the Realisation Festival from June 27th-30th at his 5,500-acre estate, St Giles House in Dorset, for those “who feel the gravity of our times”. 

According to the festival website, the event arose from “a conviction that we live at a pivotal but precarious juncture; a time of reckoning that calls for candid, careful and courageous reflection in order to ‘realise’ a more beautiful, imaginative and thoughtful society.” [3]

A message on the festival website now says: “Sadly Ayisha is no longer able to join us at Realisation.” [4]

Other high-profile names due to speak at the festival include former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. 

The grassroots activists who penned the open letter are also busy organising their own festival to push for strong action to recover the lough. Climate Camp Ireland is set to take place on the shores of Loch nEachach from August 7th to 11th, where environmentalists, community campaigners and others from across Ireland will come together to share skills and strategies for building a radical climate movement.

Loch nEachach came into Ashley-Cooper’s ownership via his great-great-grandfather’s marriage into the Chichester family in 1857. The vicious conquest of the lough in 1601 is described best by Sir Arthur Chichester: “We have burned and destroyed along the Lough even within four miles of Dungannon, where we killed man, woman, child, horse, beast and whatever we found.” [5]

Pól Ó Néill, a member of campaign group Slí Eile, said:
“Unfortunately, this bloodshed was by no means the end of the destructive activities to take place on Loch nEachach.”

The lough, which supplies 40% of the North’s drinking water, hit a major crisis point last summer. In shocking footage that made international news, large areas of the lough were choked under a thick blanket of toxic blue-green algae. [6]

“This was an inevitable consequence of ongoing industrial and agricultural pollution along with rising temperatures. With no action taken to abate these threats, the algal bloom is expected to be even worse this summer,” said Ó Néill.

Padraig Cairns of the Save Lough Neagh Coalition said:
“In addition to what is already a catastrophe, more than a million tonnes of sand are dredged from the bed of Loch nEachach every year, posing another serious threat to local wildlife. The Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative report that the ongoing dredging has caused dead zones for fish and other aquatic wildlife. Ashley-Cooper profits directly from every tonne that is dredged from the bed of Loch nEachach.” [7]

St. Giles House, Ashley-Cooper’s 17th century Dorest estate, has recently undergone extensive renovations. The costly restoration is a selling point of the Realisation Festival, an “agenda-setting event that seeks to advance societal transformation in a soulful way”. Ashley-Cooper is also on the programme to speak, offering a session: “Reflecting on life at St Giles House”.

Dr Laura Kehoe continued:
“Beloved pet dogs have died of poisoning after swimming in the toxic algal bloom choking Loch nEachach, whilst festival-goers at St Giles are encouraged to enjoy wild swimming in the sparkling streams surrounding his estate.”

See our slideshow about the Realisation Festival here:

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  1. Open letter from Lough Neagh campaigners:


  1. The Detail: Lough Neagh – Facts on sand dredging


  1. Realisation Festival – About page


  1. Realisation Festival – Programme page


  1. Lough Neagh: Tumultuous, tragic history, death, destruction, murder and centuries of controversy:  


  1. Guardian: Lough Neagh ‘dying in plain sight’ due to vast algal blooms 


  1. The Detail: Lough Neagh – Facts on sand dredging