Last month I headed down to Carrick-on- Shannon in county Leitrim for a public meeting on the impact of the Irish government’s austerity policies on rural communities and families. It was a warm summer evening with a clear blue sky for most of the way there. Carrick-on-Shannon was quiet but the public meeting was packed to the doors.
Later we drove to Monaghan along dark windy roads crisscrossing the border. Leitrim is one of our most underrated counties. Fewer mobile phone calls than usual meant I had an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the countryside.
Last week I was just across the border from Leitrim in Derrylin in county Fermanagh for the national hunger strike march and rally. Like its Leitrim neighbour Fermanagh is a wonderful county – stunning scenery, lots of small and large lakes and countless rivers all feeding into the Shannon river basin. Small towns and villages are connected by twisting narrow roads.
For several decades the road network was broken by British Army border crossings and roads that were blocked with concrete blocks. The adverse impact on the local economy was considerable.
Today Leitrim and Fermanagh like all of the border counties suffer from higher than average levels of unemployment and poverty, poor road systems, a lack of investment and inadequate public services. Both are very dependent on farming and tourism to provide jobs.
When the Derrylin event was over local MP Michelle Gildernew climbed into our car and directed us to an old quarry some miles away at Belcoo where Australian shale gas exploration company Tamboran is planning to drive a bore hole over 700 feet into the underground rock in search of gas.
The search for gas from shale is focused on the north-west carboniferous basin which covers Leitrim, Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo, Cavan, Donegal and Fermanagh. It covers an area of some 8,000 square kilometres and is the source of two of the islands largest water systems, the Shannon and the Erne.
When we arrived at the Belcoo site we were met by local activists who are camping outside the entrance to Tamboran’s camp protesting the use of fracking to extract shale gas. The gates to the quarry are covered in posters and slogans and one large sign proclaims it to be the ‘Gates of Hell’.
As well as the local activists there are also a large number of PSNI officers on duty, directing traffic and monitoring developments. Local MLA Phil Flanagan joined us as did Sandra McLellan TD and Michael Colreavy TDS. In a large tent across from the gates the anti-fracking activists make tea and coffee and there are sandwiches available for protestors and visitors. The atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming, but there is a clear determination among all of those in the Belcoo camp to oppose fracking.
What is fracking? It is a means of extracting natural gas trapped in layers of sedimentary rock between one and two kilometres beneath the surface. Horizontal wells are drilled into which a mixture of water and sand and chemicals are forced at high pressure. This fractures the rock and allows gas to seep into the wells where it makes its way to the surface for collection and distribution. An average well will use up to 20,000 cubic metres of water. Of these high volumes of millions of gallons of water about a third, containing treatments, sands and other chemicals, is returned to the surface where it has to be disposed of.
Fracking is a hugely controversial method of extracting gas. In 2011 at our Ard Fheis Sinn Féin discussed the use of fracking, listened to the arguments and passed a motion stating our opposition to it and our “full support to local communities who are opposed to this unsafe procedure.”
As a process it has been banned in several European countries, including France and Bulgaria, and there is credible evidence of damage to drinking water; to human health and to animal health. It can cause serious environmental pollution, is a significant and dangerous threat to our countryside and can damage fish stocks. There is evidence that fracking was responsible for several small earthquakes in the north of England several years ago.
Fracking poses a very real risk to the success of our farming industry, and to the health and safety of rural communities, across the island of Ireland, as well as undermining our tourism industry. In addition to the dangers posed by the drilling and extraction processes there is significant disruption to local communities by lorries full of materials regularly entering and leaving the fracking site.In January 2011 the British based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research published a report, Shale gas: a provisional assessment of climate change and environmental impacts. The report set out concerns about ground and surface water contamination, possibly even affecting quality of drinking water and wetland habitats, depending on factors such as the connection between ground and surface waters.
The report noted that: “The depth of shale gas extraction gives rise to major challenges in identifying categorically pathways of contamination of groundwater by chemicals used in the extraction process. An analysis of these substances suggests that many have toxic, carcinogenic or other hazardous properties. There is considerable anecdotal evidence from the US that contamination of both ground and surface water has occurred in a range of cases.”
Fracking is not the answer to the energy needs of the island of Ireland and the farmers of Fermanagh have given a lead by signing a pledge that they will not allow fracking on their land.Renewable sources of energy must remain the main focus for the future. Tidal, hydro, wind and biomass all have the potential to satisfy Ireland and Europe’s energy demands.
There was widespread public concern at Tamboran’s drilling. The announcement on Monday by the Minister for the Environment that Tamboran's proposal to drill a core of rock from Cleggan Quarry would require a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and planning permission, is a welcome decision. Public concern had been heightened by the north’s Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment’s, DUP Minister Arlene Foster’s decision to award the licence without any public debate.
I want to commend the efforts of local communities and of my party colleagues who have consistently raised their concerns about fracking. The threat to the people and environment of Fermanagh and Leitrim and surrounding counties remains high and we must all remain vigilant.The focus will now shift to the Irish government and to the decision by the previous Fianna Fáil government to permit fracking licence options to Tamboran Resources and The Lough Allen Natural Gas Company, and the failure of the Fine Gael and Labour to put a halt to proceedings.
Let me be clear; Sinn Féin is opposed to fracking north and south and we will use our political strength to resist it. If any application is made for fracking Sinn Féin will be bringing it to the Executive to oppose it.