Fermanagh and Omagh Council – an undemocratic farce!

Fermanagh and Omagh District Council has again descended into farce. At the latest meeting, the DUP Chair has muted left-wing councillors. First Donal O’Cofaigh, Cross-Community Labour Councillor was muted. Then it was anti-goldmining councillor Emmet McAleer. Independent Eamonn Keenan indicated he wished to speak, but wasn’t even called in.

This was at a meeting where Sinn Féin and the DUP rammed through a 2.72% increase in the rates.The SDLP enthusiastically supported. The DUP Chair only called councillors from the mainstream parties during the discussion.

Donal and Emmet were not called until after Council voted through the increase. Calling in Donal, DUP Chair Errol Thompson told him “and I’ll just remind you that the vote has been taken overwhelmingly.” He reminded Donal he only had three minutes.

Donal said he wanted to protest that “we were completely excluded there from having any input into probably the most important…” At that point, the Chair interrupted: “Can I just stop you there. You weren’t excluded.” As Donal resumed, the Chair spoke over him. “Our voices weren’t heard,” Donal protested. “There’s no public debate on it,” the Chair interrupted. Continue reading “Fermanagh and Omagh Council – an undemocratic farce!”

Stormont must stop Petroleum licensing to end fracking threat

The continued reality of that threat was revealed with the publication before Christmas of the long-delayed Sinn Féin White paper which the party promised would outlaw fracking. Campaigners have long demanded to see the content of the White paper but were bitterly disappointed when newly co-opted MLA Áine Murphy finally did make it public. While the bill does set out a ban on fracking it also specifically limits the definition of fracking to shale rocks – in a way that the legislation which banned onshore fracking in the Republic did not.

This is concerning precisely because Tamboran, the company which sought to frack Fermanagh, specifically identified fracking opportunities in Bundoran sandstone – which would fall outside the narrow ‘shale’ definition identified by Sinn Féin’s bill.

The concerns are even greater as it would appear inexplicable that Sinn Féin would bring forward a bill similar in so many regards as that passed in Leinster House – but mistakenly then adopt a definition of fracking which is at variance to that in the southern legislation. The question is doubly troubling since Sinn Féin is a party which seeks to burnish its all-Ireland credentials at all times. Continue reading “Stormont must stop Petroleum licensing to end fracking threat”

Latest housing stats expose Stormont parties are in the hip pocket of property developers

The latest statistics by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive confirm the long-term decline in public housing at the behest of policies enacted by consecutive Stormont Executives. The parties have consistently failed to properly invest in public housing despite a huge sell off of stock over recent decades.

Unfortunately, the latest statistics are released on a council based basis and not all councils have the 2021 figures published yet. That said, it is clear that public housing policy is totally inadequate in the face of massively mounting demand.

Continue reading “Latest housing stats expose Stormont parties are in the hip pocket of property developers”

Enniskillen needs a Post Office!

Enniskillen plays a vital role in the economy of our county but over years it has been neglected by politicians of all stripes. The shutdown during the Covid pandemic brought things to a head and left in its wake empty buildings across the town. We face the prospect of a multi-million pound public thoroughfare upgrade being delivered at the very time when the future of our town as a commercial centre hangs in the balance.

Supports for workers who lost their jobs from both Westminster and Stormont government were inadequate leaving many prey to unscrupulous bosses who have sought to capitalise on the opportunities posed. Zero hours workers in our town were made redundant overnight – those with less than a year on the job found themselves jobless with no redundancy payments. Many have turned to the trade unions as the best guarantee of protecting themselves from fire and rehire, to win basic health and safety protections and even special Covid payments. This is to be welcomed but the reality is that Stormont continues to preside over an unfair playing field in which workers find the laws stacked against them.

In order to reverse the trend, Stormont must deliver public investment for Enniskillen from Stormont for quality job creation. Cross-community Labour councillor Donal O’Cofaigh has demanded the council take the lead in securing a planned approach to town regeneration, reversing the combined effects of market failure and the pandemic. Efforts by him alongside independent councillors to pass a ‘no cuts, zero rates increase’ budget failed last year but earlier proposals to reduce opening hours at leisure facilities were averted.

Continue reading “Enniskillen needs a Post Office!”

Support Education Welfare Officers in their fight for pay parity!

Education Welfare Officers (EWOs) work to make sure children from disadvantaged households or vulnerable backgrounds don’t lose out on getting an education through absenteeism. They also have a particular role in supporting young people coming from newly-arrived families, including Syrian refugees.

Protesting Education Welfare Officers demand pay parity

Their role is not an easy one but it is vital to protect and support some of our most vulnerable young people.

EWOs are qualified as social workers but perform an educational welfare role. In so doing, they are paid £5k less than they would be if they worked as social workers for the Health Department. The huge differential in pay has resulted in a staffing crisis as EWOs and newly qualified leave to take up positions as social workers in the NHS.

The result is that fewer and fewer EWOs are left to bear the burden of empty desks. That is a huge pressure on the workers themselves but also means that the needs of the most vulnerable children are being sacrificed. In the former Western Education area, union sources estimate that there is a shortfall of eight in staffing levels – with each EWO having a caseload of approximately 30 children – that means that up to 250 children are not getting the support they need.

The situation in the Belfast area is even worse with large waiting lists.

As usual, Stormont has done nothing on this developing crisis for years. The workers, almost all members of NIPSA recently voted overwhelmingly in a ballot for both industrial action short of strike action and strike action.

Work to rule

Thursday May 4th workers commenced a work-to-rule. Given the huge caseloads on workers, it is certain that the impact of this industrial action will be severe. It is imperative that the DUP Education Minister is forced to move and address fully the demands of these workers.

On the same day I stood with striking Educational Welfare officers on their picket line in Omagh, I took their fight into the council chamber. That night I expressed my full solidarity with the striking workers and put forward an emergency proposal that the council write to the Education Minister to demand he provide full pay parity to the striking workers. It was adopted unanimously with independent (anti-Gold mining) Councillor Emmet McAleer in particular indicating his solidarity with the workers’ fight.

All sections of the trade union movement and Left politicians need to support the EWOs in this struggle. Their fight is not just for pay equality but to secure the staffing needed to make sure young people from severely disadvantaged backgrounds access life-changing educational opportunities .

Decades of underfunding by Stormont and Westminster have led to a wastewater pollution crisis

Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK where the water service has not yet been privatised. That fact largely reflects the strong campaign fought by the trade union movement, in many cases led by members of the Committee for a Workers’ International, that defeated cross-party attempts (including from Sinn Féin Ministers) to roll out water charges in the early 2000s.

Zones where houses can’t be built in NI due to inadequate wastewater infrastructure

Northern Ireland water was established as a government-owned company – owned by the Department for Infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Stormont Executive has repeatedly failed to prioritise investment on this infrastructure – despite growing warnings of both economic and environmental impacts arising.

The impact of untreated wastewater entering water bodies has been catastrophic for the fresh water ecology and fish stocks. Angling has been hugely impacted and water quality in virtually all major water bodies has deteriorated.

Such impacts have largely been ignored by the Stormont parties, as they are largely non-economic. 

What is starting to focus minds; however, is the fact that the ability of property developers to build houses is now increasingly constrained by the inability of wastewater treatment works to cope. Northern Ireland Water estimates that 116 cities, towns and villages have had their development constrained. 

Continue reading “Decades of underfunding by Stormont and Westminster have led to a wastewater pollution crisis”

Richie Venton Vindicated

Enniskillen trade union protest in solidarity with Richie Venton

Maguiresbridge man Richie Venton has received a pay out from the IKEA multinational shopping chain that stands accused of victimising him for his trade union activity.

Unfortunately Richie was not reinstated. But his solidarity campaign did carry the union message to every IKEA across the country. That message was clear – we can’t let these anti –union companies drive unions out. We need to stand and fight.

The Campaign Against Fracking Heats Up

Fracking (or high pressure hydraulic fracturing) was developed in the USA by a number of large oil/ gas MNCs to enable them to recover gas that was uneconomical through conventional means of extraction. The process involves drilling straight down for about 1km before diverting the well tunnel horizontally along the target ‘shale-rock’ layer for another 1km. Over a dozen rig-compressors are used to build up huge pressures (over 50,000 psi) exploding an injected water-sand suspension (much like a pipe-bomb). The sand is blown deep into the resulting cracks where they act as props allowing small bubbles of trapped methane to escape and be piped away.
A single well can be fracked over 10 ten times. On average up to 6 million gallons of chemically-treated water are used per frack. About 60% stays in the ground (where it can percolate through the resulting cracks reaching up to 600 feet vertically) – the other half explodes back to the surface as ‘muddy water’ contaminated with the toxic chemicals injected to hold the sand in suspension and any chemicals present in the shale layer (including cancer-causing hydrocarbons, poisonous heavy metals  and radioactive elements (like radon). This mud is ‘treated’ –usually burnt on site – and the ‘cleansed’ water stored in huge tanks before being reused.

Approximately 1% of frack water injected is toxic chemicals used to keep sand in suspension and proposals for fracking in Fermanagh (first phase) are for up to 2,800 wells (giving a sense of the scale of water and chemicals involved).

The proposal to frack Fermanagh will see its large-scale industrialisation. The company claims only 60 frack-pads will be needed (area of each 7-acres of concrete) but this would result in between 16 and 24 wells at each pad – the higher this ratio goes the more likely well walls are to collapse as the ground under pads becomes ever more weakened.
The threat is not just to health but the water supply in Fermanagh as any chemical leaks in the area will eventually find their way to Lough Erne (which is the county’s drinking water source). Local tourism (one of the only major employers) and agriculture/agri-food (the main employer) are very much threatened by despoliation of the countryside and threatened benzene leaks.
Local opinion on the ground across the country is strongly anti-fracking (one recent report suggest at least 70% were against with most of the rest still not knowing enough). Two anti-fracking groups are very active and conducting activities on a weekly basis.
DETI awarded a license to Tamboran Resources providing them rights for two exploratory frack-wells back in 2011. Despite the stated opposition of both Sinn Fein and the SDLP to fracking, the veto that they have through the Executive has not been used and three other licences for Gas exploration have been issued (including one for ‘unconventional’ gas in Rathlin). The DUP locally are more reticent on the issue (they only want to explore opportunities not push fracking) while the UUP are undecided. Only the TUV have come out fully in favour of Fracking on the grounds that it will benefit HM Treasury.
Before Christmas, a presentation from Tamboran Resources was leaked highlighting their desire to proceed with ‘exploratory’ drilling over the next few weeks. Local campaigners responded by organising a gathering of anti-fracking activists from across the island and Britain. The meeting was combative reflecting the strength of activist opposition.
In a powerful intervention, a socialist campaigner suggested that local activists study the experience of Rossport protesters and supported the idea of working towards a large anti-fracking march on Stormont. Local Sinn Féin MLA, Phil Flanagan, then spoke and in response to the hostile reception and incisive questioning, committed his party to using their Executive veto to stop Fracking. If this was delivered, fracking would be stopped in its tracks but almost immediately afterwards he reverted to a contradictory position that only local campaigners on the ground would stop fracking.
Ban Fracking Fermanagh placed a large Anti-Fracking billboard at a prominent position in the town over the busy holiday period.  Upon hearing that a Tamboran representative was going to present to a closed session of the local council, campaigners organised a protest and twitter-storm targeting Stormont politicians on the issue. The initiative received strong interest with the campaign facebook page receiving over 47,000 hits in two days.  Following this and only days before he was due to appear, the Tamboran representative called in the council saying that he was unable to appear.
Campaigners plan to continue with the protest and twitter-storm despite the cancellation (as it is not clear that a miraculous recovery would not occur). It looks clear that the campaign will heat up further over the next few weeks and months as Tamboran moves to drill exploratory wells locally.