An alleged flagrant breach of planning laws around continued sand dredging from Lough Neagh is like something from a primitive dictatorship, the High Court has heard.
Counsel for Friends of the Earth claimed a former Stormont minister’s failure to halt the extraction has brought the system in Northern Ireland into ridicule.
The charity is challenging Mark H Durkan’s decision to issue an enforcement notice rather than order it must stop immediately.
The move in 2015 by Mr Durkan during his tenure as Environment Minister enabled dredging firms to lodge an appeal with the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC).
Meanwhile, the annual extraction of up to 1.8 million tonnes of sand can continue.
Opening Friends of the Earth’s application for a judicial review, Gregory Jones QC stressed Lough Neagh’s internationally recognised environmental significance.
Mr Justice Maguire was told it has special protection under the wild birds directive and been designated as an area of special scientific interest.
Mr Jones insisted that no planning approval exists for sand dredging on the lough.
According to the charity’s barrister the firms involved in the process had the chance to apply for the necessary permission.
“Under EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) law, even without these designations, the minister has acted unlawfully,” he claimed.
Uncertainty surrounds how long it will take the PAC to reach a determination, Mr Jones added.
“It’s only speculation because of the failure of the minister to bring a halt (to the dredging).”
In a withering assessment of the department’s handling of the issue, counsel contended: “This issue is bringing the planning system in Northern Ireland into ridicule.
“This is something one would not expect of the most primitive dictatorship.”
He went on to describe the situation as “a most extraordinary breach of planning and environment law”.
The case continues.