Margaret Ritchie demands Westminster action after weekend explosives scare in Ardglass.
A leading Northern Ireland politician is pressing the British government to come clean about a munitions incident that closed down part of a County Down community in Ardglass last Saturday.
Former South Down MP Margaret Ritchie is demanding answers about how a fishing boat managed to snag Second World War munitions in its net among its catch of prawns.
The vessel, a 57-foot prawn trawler owned by Simon Wills and skippered by Stuart Curran, was fishing up in the Clyde Estuary for prawns last week and had trawled up the munitions find.
The crew members never thought the old shells fused together in a clump were dangerous at any time. They looked like anti-aircraft shells given their size.
But when the vessel returned to port in Ardglass at the end of their fishing week, the small WWII shells came to the attention of the Harbour Master James Lenaghan who reported the matter to the police.
Subsequently, the bomb squad was called and the harbour was cordoned off while army ordnance officers were deployed on the scene as the vessel was berthed at the fish market.
The crew had lifted the shells onto the fish market along with their catch thinking nothing of it.
Lady Ritchie has now tabled a series of questions in the House of Lords and asked for a statement from government ministers on the event.
She has also tabled a series of questions about the massive undersea munitions dump known in Beaufort’s Dyke that the device may have been washed out of with the strong tides up towards the Clyde Estuary.
“People living in Country Down coastal communities are getting sick and tired of the regular danger and disruption caused by explosives from this area either being landed in fishing boats or washed up on local beaches,” Margaret Ritchie said.
“We know that Beaufort’s Dyke in the North Channel between Scotland and Northern Ireland was used as an underwater dumping site for unused ammunition after the two world wars where over a million tons of munitions were dumped.
“Unforgivably, full records of what was thrown into the sea weren’t kept, though we do know that 500 pound high explosives are in the trench along with grenades, mortars, rockets, cluster bombs, anti-aircraft shells, poison gas canisters and even radioactive waste and possibly phosphorous bombs.”
Lady Ritchie added: “This massive arms dump is far more than just an irritant for our coastal communities.
“These munitions remain dangerous even after all these years and could well be deadly if someone disturbs or touches them. They could still be viable.
“I am asking the British government to provide details of assessments it has made of exactly what is in Beaufort’s Dyke and when dumping of munitions there was finally halted.”
Lady Ritchie also wants ministers to reveal details about incidents involving fishing boats catching explosive devices in their nets over the last decade.
“To dump more than a million tonnes of arms in this way was totally irresponsible at the time and the effects of this reckless and ill-considered action on our coastal communities is being felt to this day”, she said.
“These devices cause real disruption and worry. They remain unstable and dangerous and cause constant worry to local residents when they get washed up on beaches occasionally.
“I want to be assured that the government is doing everything it can to mitigate that danger.”
(The idea of building a bridge suggested by the DUP from Northern Ireland to Scotland may certainly be less attractive as potentially works on the sea bed could be dangerous. And even a finished bridge itself could be compromised by these underwater explosives now in a possibly unstable condition.)