Local politicians from all hues across Fermanagh have been forced to take up positions on the issue of proposals to take forward high intensity, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) locally. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Fracking will affect everyone in the county regardless of religious or political affiliation, the parties’ positions reflect their association with either Catholic or Protestant communities.
The DUP representatives have largely been silent on the issue but voted against a ban and have supported their Minister, Arlene Foster’s position that the county needs to explore the economic growth opportunities from this industry. Not to be outdone, the TUV have recently came out strongly pro-fracking giving the usual excuses that it will provide a magic bullet solution to the local economic crisis being felt in Fermanagh.
This declension of the political parties is not accidental. The immediately affected community in West Fermanagh is predominantly Catholic and although it is clear that the effects of this industry will be felt across the county, this realisation has not been reached by many living outside of the area.
From the very get-go, some on either side of the divide sought to sectarianise the issue. Opposition was portrayed as coming from the nationalist/republican community and primarily focussed on attacking Arlene Foster. This was an easy argument to make considering the debate was largely perceived as being between Phil Flanagan on one side (for Sinn Fein) and Minister Foster on the other. There was a natural tendency for the argument over fracking to be presented in a divisive manner, e.g. the political point scoring about revenues raised from fracking going to Her Majesties Treasury which only served to reinforce the respective communities behind ‘their’ side.
This was only ever going to reinforce Protestant ambivalence to the anti-fracking campaign. Another angle that was often played by those keen to promote wider political agendas was that of the fact that this was an ‘all-Ireland’ campaign. While it was obviously true that this was naturally a cross-border campaign, there is a very real risk that presenting it as such would alienate unionists from the campaign. For this reason, campaigners ensured that attempts to set up an all-island campaign were only taken forward in conjunction with linkages with British anti-fracking campaigns (e.g. through BIFF – Britain-Ireland Frack Free).
Statements from dissident Republican groups backing anti-fracking groups and lending support to G8 Summit protests were carried prominently and in close association with the locally-based, cross-community G8 Not Welcome committee, especially by the unionist-leaning Impartial Reporter. The same journalists provided prominent coverage of statements made by senior police officers who sought to link dissident republican terrorists, violent anarchists and local anti-fracking protesters ahead of the G8 protest. Of course, in the end, these lies were exposed to the general public and the protest was a highly successful and entirely peaceful one but it certainly helped those who wished to sectarianise our campaign.
This tendency has a material base. It is known that members of the former security services have an interest in establishing security companies which would benefit from ‘policing’ assignments associated with the Fracking of West Fermanagh. Similarly, those who might hope to lease land to fracking companies will clearly be seeking to advance its promotion through their political representatives. It would appear clear to me that should fracking proceed there will be an unavoidable and serious deterioration in community relations locally as communities are pitted against each other on this issue.
Success in Building a Cross-Community Campaign
Campaigners have sought at every turn to prevent the campaign from being sectarianised. They strategically developed a cross-community leadership, they censured statements which purported to support the campaign but which were phrased in a divisive manner, they were determined in working with PSNI where possible and reinforced the cross-community ethos and politics at the heart of the campaign at every opportunity.
This is not simply because of their ideological predisposition to divisive, communitarian politics but because unity of opposition across both communities is essential to success. Although they constitute a minority of the population in the licensed area, due to historic reasons Protestants own a disproportionate amount of land in the area. Support from Protestant farmers will be critical to success here just as the role of farmers in France was critical to that country placing a ban on this polluting industry. Furthermore, it should be obvious that while Arlene Foster will feel no pressure from outrage in the Catholic community, opposition from Protestant farmers and small business owners has already been instrumental in Arlene adopting a less overt pro-fracking line generally and will continue to mount on her and her party locally as this proceeds.
On the other hand, Sinn Fein has recently been forced by weight of criticism to commit to use their veto within the Executive to vote down fracking. Obviously the campaign welcomes this move but it is clear that campaigners need to maintain pressure on the party to ensure that this commitment is actualised. So far all we have is the commitment of a local MLA. Sinn Fein has had many opportunities to take on fracking which they have failed to avail of, to date, a commitment under popular pressure at a public meeting to veto the industry has been made by one MLA but it is not in any sense a final decision. Indeed, only seconds after making the commitment publicly, Phil Flanagan went on to say that this would be stopped via community protests on the ground (a necessity that should not be necessary if it was vetoed in the Executive).
It is likely that Fracking will continue to be used as a political football by the main parties. Sinn Fein’s announcement in September 2013 that land owned by Forestry Service NI was ‘off-limits’ for the frackers (note that this did not extend to a ban on pipelines running through forestry lands which is potentially a more formidable ruling and one which has been requested by myself as part of a FFAN delegation to the Minister) was only made following on from the DUP decision in August 2013 to not proceed with the Long Kesh development. It would appear clear to grassroots activists that fracking and its effect on our communities is being used as a political negotiating chip.
Sinn Fein’s Opposition to Fracking – Just What does it Mean?
It is perhaps apposite to take a small diversion to identify some areas where Sinn Fein has not followed through on their purported opposition to fracking. The decision to award a fracking licence was taken during the election, when Arlene Foster was not supposed to be active as a Minister, but it is clearly controversial and could have been challenged as such within the Executive at the time. Sinn Fein could have immediately laid down a commitment to use their executive powers to veto Fracking there and then but chose not to. Such an announcement would have been devastating for the frackers in securing financial backers. It is also noteworthy that licenses have since been issued for three other areas in Northern Ireland, at least one of which includes provision for ‘unorthodox’ gas exploitation, and there has been no petition of concern raised or demand for a cross-community vote of confidence despite the clear cross-departmental and controversial nature of these licenses.
At that early stage, Sinn Fein could have tabled legislation to prevent further fracking licenses being awarded. They could have tabled similar legislation to upgrade the very imperfect legislative base which exists in the Department of Environment, which according to a presentation given by a leading QC recently, does not require an Environmental Impact Assessment for a proposal for a fracking well. It is well over two years since popular opposition to this industry has been established and coming up to three years after the license was originally awarded and yet we have had no legislative response. This is hard to reconcile with Sinn Fein’s purported opposition to fracking.
It is important that we also consider the numerous studies which should be conducted to fully appraise ourselves of risks associated with this industry which were raised (largely by myself) in meetings with the DARD Minister. These include the potential impact on forest integrity of numerous interconnecting gas pipelines running right through the trees, the impact of the massive volumes of traffic associated with constructing and repeatedly fracking 2,800 wells on c-class and forestry roads, the impact of massive water diversion associated with fracking 2,800 wells on local wetwaters and elevated boglands as well as on water table levels and the concentration of nutrients in the oligotrophic (low nutrient concentration) Lough Melvin and the meso-trophic (medium nutrient concentration) upper and lower Lough MacNean. There is also an obvious need for studies on the potential for fracking to damage the extensive underground cave systems in West Fermanagh (through seismic activity and flooding) and the threat that at least 160 (and I believe that this figure is understated given the plans for 2,800 wells) seven to nine-acre concrete lined frackpads to destroy local environmental beauty. These are just some studies which should be taken forward by either DARD or DCAL which would provide a robust base of evidence for submission to the DOE (NIEA) when they come to produce an Environmental Impact Assessment. It is unclear just why these necessary studies have not been taken forwards if parties are really opposed to this industry but powerless to stop its advance?
SDLP Prevarication or Opportunism?
The last article on this blog dealt with the failure of the SDLP to adopt a proposal for a Ban on Fracking at their recent SDLP conference – this has been matched by a complete lack of certainty at higher levels of the party.
Hansard (22nd October 2013) quotes Minister Durkan as potentially favourable to the polluting industry:
In the absence of any details, nothing, including fracking, in my opinion, could be ruled in or out, especially in light of comments by colleagues from across the Chamber about the economic significance of fracking.
In a similar vein, it is clearly a failure by the purportedly anti-fracking SDLP Minister Mark Durkan to revise legislation which does not require an Environmental Impact Assessment for a proposal to frack a well. It is essential that this legislation be changed post-haste in order to prevent frackers taking advantage of this situation.
The verbal assurances that have occasionally been offered by the SDLP that they will put a stop to fracking
How We Keep This Campaign Non-Sectarian
It is clear that the continued efforts of both Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network and Ban Fracking Fermanagh to prevent the case against fracking to be viewed as a sectional one has been highly successful. People attending public meetings held by both groups come from all sections of the community but it is equally clear that local campaigners have so far failed to really reach into the heart of the communities themselves and, as such, the cross community engagement is perhaps at risk of being ‘surface only’.
Just as leading campaigners, like myself, have strove to not be seen taking the lead in the campaign and enabling our wily and ruthless opponents of seeking to box off or marginalise our opposition to fracking, there is an onus on us at this stage to stand forwards to show leadership. This leadership must be to insist on a reorientation of the campaign back to the local communities themselves. Only such a reorientation will engage people in the campaign on a truly cross-community basis.
I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority in our communities are quite strongly opposed to fracking. I also believe that should fracking, or even drilling in advance of fracking, proceed local people from across the community divide will join with the activists in very large numbers to stop it and quite quickly. However, we need to redouble our efforts to engage these communities now to build capacity for that involvement, to organise resistance to this being enforced over the heads of local people.
Redoubling our connection to the local communities is the only way to defeat fracking. Such a connection will force politicians (of all hues) to take a real stand against this industry, more than words is required.