Fermanagh and Omagh Council – an undemocratic shambles

Sinn Fein’s Cllr McCaffrey

The Sinn Féin chair of a shambolic meeting of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council has excluded independent anti-goldmining Councillor Emmet McAleer from a Council meeting. During most of the meeting, he only called party colleagues.

McAleer’s offence was to query the stance of Sinn Féin on an application for ‘permitted development’ status for seven boreholes by Flintridge Resources near their goldmine at Cavanacaw, just outside Omagh.

At a previous meeting, Sinn Féin councillors had allowed a similar application through by strategically not taking part in the vote or being absent. This time they opposed the application. McAleer said: “This is absolutely shambolic. Sinn Féin remained mute the last time and are now trying to claim the glory. What is going on with your party?”

At this point the Chair of the meeting, Council Vice-Chair Chris McCaffrey of Sinn Féin, said: “Councillor McAleer needs to be removed.” McAleer was then ejected from the virtual meeting. Continue reading “Fermanagh and Omagh Council – an undemocratic shambles”

Establishment parties silent on corporate policing in Tyrone

Environmental campaigners protest corporate policing

Anti-goldmining protestors have picketed Omagh police station in protest at the detention of fellow-campaigner Martin Tracey. This is the latest turn in the long-running campaign.

Tracey detention stems from an incident when he and another campaigner had challenged three people in two cars acting suspiciously in the Greencastle area of Tyrone.

Corporate policing

The three confirmed they were working for mining company Dalradian. Dalradian’s prospecting licence for that area had expired two years ago. One of the three started shouting she was being harrassed. Then one car reversed, shot forward at speed and struck Tracey on the foot.

He reported the incident to police, who did not come for an hour. Some time later police went to his house seeking him. He went voluntarily to Omagh police station, where he was detained for five hours. He was released on his own bail, which restricts his movements, and may face charges. Police have so far not taken a statement from the other campaigner.

This is the latest incident where police have ignored complaints of threats, intimidation and assult by people associated with Dalradian. In contrast, complaints against campaigners are followed up.

Police Shares

Mistrust of the police role is fuelled by a statement from Dalradian Chief Executive Patrick Anderson. Speaking at a Precious Metals Summit in Colorado, he said: “The police who deliver the explosives bought shares.” (Irish News July 7th 2016).

If police officers involved in policing the mine area have shares in Dalradian, that is a major conflict of interest. The PSNI has been asked what is their attitude. In a reply, a police spokesperson said: “Police officers and staff are not required to declare the purchase or sale of any shares listed for public sale on the stock market.”

Dalradian so respects the law it is reported not to have paid a bill of some £400,000 to police for escorting the explosives. Meanwhile the establishment parties, both green and orange, remain totally silent about corporate policing of environmental protectors.

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.

Defeating the Sectarianisation of the Anti-Fracking Campaign

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.
On the nationalist side, Sinn Fein representatives have promoted themselves as having a ‘Ban Fracking’ position, the SDLP have supported bans on fracking in local council votes in the affected areas but chose not to adopt a ‘Ban Fracking’ position at their party conference.
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.
The UUP have been studeously non-committal although privately their representatives are quite scathing of the social standing and characteristics of those who oppose fracking. Officially, however, they are still awaiting the findings of the EIA which will be conducted on a first hydraulic fracturing test-well. Although the Alliance does not really have a structure in this county, the party co-sponsored a successful motion against fracking in the Assembly but members of the party have voted down anti-fracking motions raised by the Green Party in North Down previously, locally the former Alliance Party candidate in Enniskillen (who has since left the party) has joined Ban Fracking Fermanagh and is an active supporter of the campaign.
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.

(My emphasis)

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.

Minister Foster Comes Out in Support of Fracking

DUP Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Investment, Arlene Foster, was afforded a full page in today’s Impartial Reporter to discuss the relative merits of proposals for extensive hydraulic fracturing ‘Fracking’ to proceed in West Fermanagh. Unfortunately, the paper has not published the article on-line for a wider audience to read as it is significant and needs analysis.

The article’s tone is reticent. Arlene no longer makes the mistake of coming out openly in support of Fracking as she initially did when her Department first awarded the license to Tamboran Resources Plc to investigate opportunities for gas exploration in West Fermanagh.

“As you would expect me to say for Fermanagh in particular it will come as great news if we can follow through on what Tamboran are saying.” – Arlene Foster, February 2012

 Arlene’s more nuanced approach is to detract from the scale and even likelihood of it proceeding while injecting the article with a full account of the potential benefits.

The problem is for Arlene that the positive benefits she seeks to attribute to fracking sourced, of course, from Tamboran Resources Plc themselves, have been thoroughly discredited probably most decisively on this blog.

To recap, Arlene Foster has uncritically repeated Tamboran’s estimates of economic benefit resulting from Fracking proceeding. Well, actually she did more than that – she called their figures realistic!

So she considers ‘realistic’ Tamboran’s estimates of 600 full-time jobs to be created directly with the gas exploration and a further 2,400 full-time jobs created through an economic multipler (indirect and induced).

The first problem with this estimate is that the direct job creation figure appears to be inflated by Tamboran – very few jobs are needed after the initial frack period: Tamboran’s assumptions – which I have to hand – are sky-high. Once gas is flowing at a site – you are basically talking about minimal levels of security and a central office monitoring flow rates across a range of fields.

Meanwhile there is the obvious ‘cost’ in terms of jobs. Fracking going ahead threatens employment in Fermanagh’s two biggest sectors in terms of employment: agriculture and tourism. Those jobs have to be subtracted from any jobs created. When you discount the majority of jobs involved in the fracking process itself – which will go to experts brought in from places like Scotland – there is almost certainly going to be net job losses associated with the process.

What’s even more transparently wrong however is the estimated indirect and induced economic multiplier. Tamboran’s figures mean that for every job created in Fracking a further four jobs will be created in the wider economy. That’s just unrealistic. The best estimate available for economic multipliers for the whole of Northern Ireland (which would be far above that for Fermanagh alone) would be less than half the figure of Tamboran.

Arlene points to the massive potential contribution that fracking could have on fiscal receipts for the UK Exchequer and points to the fact that these underpin public services in Northern Ireland. While this is true, we must question the scale of the potential receipts associated with fracking. The oil and gas industry have proved very adept in the past in lowering taxes paid – as a proportion of total revenues just how much will go into the public purse. After capital investment costs and the like have been written off – probably a very small proportion.

Mysteriously Arlene quotes Tamboran’s figures in relation to the £5 to £6 billion in investment that fracking will bring about but leaves out the estimate of £46 billion in revenues that is associated with that. Of course that is likely to be a massive over-estimate. The oil and gas industry are known to inflate revenue estimates in order to sway political representatives behind them and to attract investors’ money.

Of course, local people might ask why Tamboran’s owners are likely to become billionaires while we gain relatively nothing and risk losing everything from the exercise.

So much