Since being selected as the Green Party Parliamentary candidate for Fermanagh & South Tyrone, I have started a new blog, greenlassie.com which will be my campaign diary. It will be updated much more regularly, but have shorter, more narrative posts. If there’s anything unconnected with the election campaign that I want to write about in more detail, that will happen here, but otherwise please visit the new one.
“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” So it seems this evening, following Arlene Foster’s announcement that Tamboran will receive no further extension to its petroleum licence in Fermanagh. Fracking, at least for the time being, has been turned away at our county boundaries, and everyone is celebrating.
Everyone, that is, except Tamboran itself, which has stomped off, Malvolio-like, with the promise “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, translated into the modern idiom as proposed judicial review proceedings of both the DoE and DETI decisions. It was probably inevitable that it would do this, slender as its chances of success are. After all, the whole shale gas industry is a giant speculation; one more gamble is hardly a surprise.
Meanwhile even the DUP, the last bastion of pro-fracking sentiment, can bask in a little green glory. It’s odd to look back to the situation three years ago, when in Stormont only the Green Party was unequivocally opposed to shale gas exploitation, and FFAN was the only community group asking awkward questions. Now no one wants to be fracked, at least not in the UK’s most marginal constituency.
That’s fine. We’re used to having our policies pinched; we hang them out in full view, with all their supporting arguments, and positively invite our neighbours to run away with them. But they ought to realise that they really need the whole ensemble to look the part. Being anti-fracking makes sense, but not when it’s combined with support for TTIP, growth-at-all-costs, other polluting industries such as gold mining in the Sperrins, and the continued failure to enact a Climate Change Bill in Northern Ireland.
Fracking is a terrible business, but it doesn’t stand alone. To banish the spectre for good, we need to make some fundamental changes to the way that we do politics, and the way that we live in our communities. I’m proud to have played a role in what has been achieved, but even happier to be a part of what we can do together in the years to come.
It seems to me that there are two questions which the MPs recalled to Parliament to vote tomorrow on the proposed renewed bombing of Iraq need to ask themselves: “Is it right?” and “Will it work?” It is quite possible to answer the first with ‘yes’ and the second with ‘no’ or indeed vice-versa. The media consensus, so definite that the early evening BBC news used the simple future rather than the conditional in talking about the air strikes; “we will” rather than “we would”, is that the answer to both is an unassailable affirmative.
In considering both questions, I would like to hope that the MPs will strip from the discourse the extraordinary epithets which have been used to describe the members of what I think today we are calling ISIL (otherwise ISIS, the Islamic State etc.) “Barbaric”, “beyond evil” and “worse than demons” are just a few that have lodged in my mind from mainstream political speeches; what the tabloids are saying I can’t even imagine. But the language of witchfinders and Gothic horror is scarcely useful in making far-reaching geopolitical decisions, especially when defining your opponents as religious fanatics. Yes, we react with understandable revulsion to the beheading of hostages, but is it objectively worse than a slow death from shrapnel wounds? Not all that long ago, in our proud Western democracies, beheading was considered as a humane and high-status form of execution, reserved for the aristocracy who were too important to be hung. Saddam Hussein wasn’t so fortunate.
The moral case for military action this time, in the absence of a clearly defined group of ethnic victims, seems to rest primarily on vengeance. Indeed, the justification for air strikes on the city of Ar-Raqqah is that ISIL (or whatever) have established “soft power” in the region. (Soft power, by the way, means acts such as the provision of water and electricity, taxation and welfare services; the kinds of things that governments do, or used to, before their functions were privatised.) When we first heard about ISIS, as it was known then, the news stories concentrated on intra-Muslim sectarian violence; now it’s all about white men, and we’re really angry. Again, that’s understandable, but decisions of this kind, which will inevitably lead to the suffering and death of the innocent, including children, need to be made on firmer foundations than fury and revulsion.
As for the second question, none of the hawks seem prepared to consider it properly. As they must be aware, ISIL is not a discrete organisation with a defined number of members who can neatly be removed from the “battlefield” (Obama’s particularly inappropriate term) until they are all gone. This is not a game of Risk. ISIL, like Al Quaeda, and all the similar groupings that have gone before, (and will come after if we don’t start learning some lessons) thrives on feelings of injustice, victimhood and persecution. The more widespread such emotions are among the young and not-so-young Muslims of the world, the more recruits will arise. So what is the best way of producing these feelings? The movement’s leaders know perfectly well; those beheadings didn’t get onto YouTube by accident.
I’m not going to say anything about oil; it is a given that no prospective war is ever about resources, and only cynical conspiracy theorists ever think that it is. Somehow most past wars turn out to have been, but that’s a different matter. I won’t say anything, either, about the cost of these politely termed “air strikes”. (They sound so harmless that way; a sort of invisible Swingball.) Public spending, of the kind that is so sadly unaffordable when it comes to children, disabled people or even libraries, is miraculously abundant for drones and missiles.
In fact I’m not going to write any more at all. I’ve got Peter Lee’s Blair’s Just War out of the library, and it’s due back in a week. Maybe someone else will want to read it by then.
Well, we’ve had some good news, as those of you keeping up with these things will know, and our good news has spread as far as Peru, where the threat of fracking is looming on the horizon. One of their campaigners has contacted us in Northern Ireland and asked for our story, and any lessons we have learned. I suppose there are as many stories as there are activists, and that we’ve all taken slightly different conclusions from the past three years, but for what it’s worth, here is my bit of the jigsaw.
I first heard about fracking in the summer of 2011, from one of my teenage sons. A fistful of new petroleum licences had been issued by DETI (our Department of Trade) earlier in the year. One of those licences, granted to an unknown Australian-registered company called Tamboran, covered a large part of western Fermanagh, a rural region of unparallelled beauty, including lakes, mountains (small Irish mountains – you’d probably call them hills in Peru) rivers and forests. Much of the area is designated as being of special scientific interest for its wildlife, habitats and geology and it includes rare species protected under European law and even a UNESCO Global Geopark.
Incredibly, despite this complex and unique ecology and hydrology, Tamboran’s licence gave it the right to drill and frack two test shale gas wells. Provided that it kept to the terms of the licence (which gave hardly any protection to local people or the environment) it would be able to renew the licence for a total period of at least forty years and to drill and frack over a thousand wells in the region.
For a few weeks in the summer we spread the word via social media and conversation, and in the autumn met up to form what would become the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network. Meanwhile in other parts of Northern Ireland, especially in the capital, Belfast, others were doing the same. Most of us, in those early stages, were, broadly speaking, environmentalists and/or health professionals who were aware, from the studies beginning to come from the USA, how many hazards the industry created.
Personally, my initial concern was related to climate change, as I knew that we could not afford, for the sake of the vulnerable and future generations, to extract and burn even the fossil fuels we knew about, let alone to find more sources of greenhouse gas emissions. This has remained the core of my opposition to fracking, supported by what I have sadly learned about its other effects, on human health, wildlife, livestock, social well-being and the economy.
It wasn’t always easy. The local media, especially in the early months, tended to parrot, uncritically, the company’s line that fracking would create jobs, reduce energy prices and stimulate our lacklustre economy. We were presented as Luddites, Nimbys (‘not in our backyard’ i.e. people who only care about their own comfort and prosperity) or daft tree-huggers, idiots who wanted to hold Northern Ireland back for the sake of their crackpot views. The film Gasland, which had been shown in rural travelling cinemas, made many people aware of the issues, but also, with its burning tap water, presented an easy target and distracted attention from our other, less dramatic concerns.
Even when we did manage to explain why fracking would be bad for Fermanagh, the reaction of local people was often muted. “Well,” would come the response, “if it’s that bad, they won’t let it happen.” Who exactly They were, nobody seemed quite sure.
Within the group, and the wider frack-free network that was building up across Ireland, there were sometimes difficulties; personality clashes, political differences and varying ideas about what was the best way to resist fracking, whether by education, lobbying or demonstrations. We had to work hard to ensure that these differences did not create damaging rifts, and to create a tolerant and positive environment in which different groups and individuals could use their own strengths, skills and talents.
Between us, we made films, wrote novels, performed in fundraising gigs, started prayer networks and letter-writing campaigns, assessed and summarised scientific papers, examined the fracking companies’ claims, brought about anti-fracking motions in local and regional assemblies and bombarded government departments with Freedom of Information requests. There are so many different aspects to fracking, and so many different ways to resist it that there is room for everyone, and everyone’s help is needed.
Tamboran was very slow in carrying out the initial work under its licence (which was extended for it by DETI) and so not much seemed to be happening for a long time. It almost appeared as though this ‘phoney war’ was a permanent part of the landscape. “How’s the fracking going?” people would ask me in jolly tones, as though it was an eccentric hobby of mine that couldn’t possible affect them.
Then, suddenly, though we knew it was likely, shortly after dawn one morning, Tamboran’s trucks, fences and security guards arrived in the corner of a remote quarry close to the village of Belcoo. Instantly there was a change of pace. People who had never noticed our public meetings, posters, newspaper articles, election campaigns, social media posts or leaflets, all of a sudden woke up to the reality of fracking on their doorstep. New groups sprang up and new ways of getting the message across appeared. In addition to press releases, now there were tractor rallies, and as well as committee meetings, a fully-fledged community protection camp.
But it was vital to continue the behind-the-scenes work that had gone on for so long. Tamboran was planning to drill a borehole that would then allow it to go ahead and construct and frack the two test wells. If we could hold up the borehole, then the test wells, and the prospect of full-scale fracking, would be pushed further down the line. Already public opinion and vote-hungry politicians were moving in our direction, while more and more international studies were showing that fracking helped no one but shale gas executives and shareholders. The more time we had, the more likely it was that fracking could be banished forever.
The solution, it seemed, was within reach. Tamboran was proposing to construct the borehole under what is known as ‘permitted development rights’, without needing to apply for planning permission or to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment. But it was the duty of the Department of the Environment, and its Minister, to assess whether these ‘permitted rights’ really applied in the particular circumstances of the case. In our view, they should not, particularly as the quarry itself had been the site of unauthorised activity for which planning permission had not been obtained.
We needed all the technical, legal and political expertise that we had built up in order to set out to the Minister the reasons why permitted development rights should not apply. Old and new networks got together in an urgent email campaign presenting solid and sensible arguments based on fact, evidence, precedent and the operation of the precautionary principle.
And it worked. The Minister made his decision and it was in accordance with the clear and rational reasoning which we had set out. If Tamboran wished to drill a borehole in that location, it would have to apply for full planning permission with the necessary environmental information. As I write, the company is considering its position.
It isn’t the end of the struggle by any means; this licence is still valid, as are others across Northern Ireland where the danger is more imminent. Even here, we have a breathing space rather than a reprieve. But it is a significant step, and worth celebrating.
Why have we succeeded so far? I think there are six main reasons.
1. We have all had principled and deep-rooted reasons for opposing fracking, whether these have been Green or Socialist political beliefs, a religious faith that prioritises the care of creation, a concern for public health or the environment or simply a love of our locality.
2. We have taken the trouble to find out as much as we possibly can about the issues surrounding fracking, not relying upon rumours or second-hand ideas but researching solid scientific evidence.
3. We have taken care to find out about the legal and political background against which decisions would be made, and have spoken with politicians and officials in a rational and courteous way which has won their respect.
4. We haven’t given up when we’ve been opposed or frustrated, but have stood by essential principles of tolerance, non-violence and respect for those who disagree with us.
5. We have used individual and group talents creatively, understanding that we come from different places and use different techniques and strategies.
6. We have worked together generously, especially when the situations have been most urgent.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, there will be as many stories as there are campaigners, and others will take away different lessons for the future. That is as it should be. One final personal note: I have made some of the best friends I have ever known through the frack-free campaign and I look forward to continuing to work with them for as long as this takes. And for others who are wondering whether or not to get involved – come and join us! I won’t say that the water’s warm, but it’s certainly bracing…
[Tanya Jones is a member, and former committee member of the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network, and chair of the Fermanagh & South Tyrone Green Party.]
The reported petrol bomb attack on the home of one of Tamboran’s security guards was cowardly, stupid and potentially damaging to the frack-free movement. Quite possibly it was intended to be so. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to realise that there are a lot of people and organisations who would benefit from the discrediting of the massive public outcry against fracking in Fermanagh. There is also, very sadly, a generation in Northern Ireland brought up on tales of paramilitary heroes, young men who have imbued a nostalgia for violence, and for whom any target would be sufficient for their blooding.
My personal view is that one or other of these phenomena explains whatever happened in Letterbreen early on Sunday morning. The newspaper reports are somewhat confused, but the opportunity has been taken by fracking’s apologists to smear us, and we have been left feeling uncomfortable and, for we’re a conscientious bunch, obscurely responsible. But we shouldn’t feel guilty; it isn’t our fault. I am as certain as I can possibly be that none of the people I have worked with over nearly three years of frack-free campaigning would ever contemplate such an action; and that neither would the gentle farmers I met in Belcoo on Friday evening and at yesterday’s tractor run into Enniskillen.
There is a tendency of the media now, when talking of ‘extremism’ to assume that the more strongly someone feels about a cause, the more likely they are to use violence to further it. In the case of the frack-free movement, this is emphatically not the case. Fracking is fundamentally violent, from its initial explosives, through shattering of the shale rock, uncontrolled expulsion of toxins into water, soil and air, to the fracturing of communities and the health of the most vulnerable. The more we learn about the process, and the more we see its effects, the more committed we become to our alternative vision of peace, non-violence and compassion. The code of conduct tied to the security fence at Tamboran’s site remains true, and I will make no apology for standing alongside the people of Fermanagh who make it their watchword.
April 1st 2011 (sadly not an April Fool) As part of a new licensing round, the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) granted a licence to Tamboran Resources to ‘search for bore and get petroleum’ (which includes gas) in the Lough Allen Basin.
The licence incorporates a work programme divided into two parts. Part 1 was supposed to cover years 1-3 of the licence, i.e. the period ending on March 31st 2014. It includes the acquisition and analysis of data, a seismic study, a ‘preliminary environmental review’ (not a very onerous requirement) and the responsibility to ‘drill shallow cored boreholes at target intervals and analyse core material’. At the end of this part of the work programme the company is supposed to make a ‘drill or drop decision’ i.e. decide whether to abandon the licence or to proceed to Part 2 of the work programme.
Part 2, which was supposed to cover years 4-5 of the licence, i.e. 1st April 2014 to 31st March 2016 includes the requirement to finalise drilling locations and also, crucially, to drill two exploration wells ‘including fracturing’ i.e. fracking. (Remember this; it’ll come up again later.)
It also includes provision for an application for a second term of the licence. This again is very important. The core legislation under which the licence was granted is the Petroleum (Production) Act of 1964. This Act was passed long before most people knew anything about climate change, when Silent Spring had only recently been published, and just after Harold Wilson had spoken of the ‘white heat’ of technological revolution. There was no conception at the time that extracting and burning as much fossil fuel as possible was anything but a Good Thing.
The details of the licensing process are set out in the Petroleum Production Regulations of 1987 (by which time the government should have known better, but probably didn’t). Under these regulations, a licence is granted for an initial period of five years (as Tamboran’s is). At the end of the five years, provided that the licensee has complied with the terms of the licence (i.e. the work programme etc.) it can apply for the licence to be extended for up to another five years. At the end of that second term, again if the terms have been met, and petroleum is shown to be extractable in ‘commercial quantities’, the licensee can apply for the licence to be extended again, this time for a full production period of thirty years. Yes, thirty.
The grounds upon which DETI could refuse to extend the licences for these second and third terms are very limited, and none of them provide any effective protection to the health or well-being of local people, to the natural environment or to local industries and employment. Of course, it might not even be Tamboran which holds the licence by then; it can be transferred to any other operator with DETI’s consent.
Autumn 2011 The Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network (FFAN) was set up including several Green Party members as founder members with key roles. Over the past few years FFAN has worked consistently and effectively to increase local knowledge and understanding of the fracking process and its side-effects, and to raise our concerns with ministers, civil servants and organizations across Northern Ireland and the world.
December 6th 2011 Led by Steven Agnew MLA, the leader of the Northern Ireland Green Party, the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont debated the issue of hydraulic fracturing and passed a cross-party motion calling for a moratorium on the technique. Following the vote, the Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, stated that ‘no hydraulic fracking licence has been issued’, apparently unaware of the terms of her department’s April 1st licence. This insistence that no fracking licences exist has been DETI’s continuing justification for ignoring the clear decision of the Assembly.
January 9th 2012 Fermanagh District Council passed a motion ‘that this council opposes the use of hydraulic fracturing for gas exploration in the Lough Allen Basin and that in the light of the backing by the Northern Ireland Assembly for the motion put forward by Steven Agnew MLA on hydraulic fracturing, we call for the Minister for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster to place a moratorium on the licence granted to Tamboran Resources.” Again, this motion led to no change of policy by DETI.
At some point, as was discovered later by a Freedom of Information request, and confirmed in response to an Assembly question from Steven Agnew, Tamboran decided that it didn’t want to drill the shallow cored boreholes provided for in the licence but would prefer to drill one deep borehole instead. This was agreed to by DETI with no apparent consultation or publicity. It would not be the last time that DETI agreed to Tamboran’s demands to change the licence terms.
2012/13 Tamboran kept rather quiet in Fermanagh, as more and more research from the US and Australia revealed the serious health and environmental damage caused by fracking, and the speculative nature of the industry, making money by financial instruments while selling shale gas at below cost price. The immediate focus turned to England, where fracking operations in Lancashire and Sussex met with widespread opposition. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was arrested at a peaceful protest in Balcombe, West Sussex (and subsequently found not guilty of all charges). Meanwhile the powerful documentary film Fracking in Fermanagh, made by local young people, had its premiere in Enniskillen to widespread acclaim. Shortly afterwards, the G8 summit was held in Fermanagh, met by a peaceful and dignified local protest, mainly concerned with the issue of fracking.
March 12th 2014 As the deadline for the completion of Part 1 of the licence approached, Tamboran made a last-minute request to DETI for a six month extension. Despite the clear decision of the Assembly with regard to fracking, the weight of evidence showing its ill-effects, and the disturbing implications of Tamboran’s failure to comply with the timescales set down by the licence, DETI appear once again to have had no hesitation in granting the request. No public consultation, discussion with concerned bodies or debate in the Assembly took place.
April 10th 2014 The Green Party MLA Steven Agnew, deeply concerned at the democratic deficit revealed by the DETI’s action and at its facilitation of fracking in Fermanagh, launched a petition calling for the decision to be debated by the Executive. This would have forced the issue of fracking to be properly considered at the highest level and would, if the extension was revoked, have lifted the immediate threat from the county. The petition required only thirty signatures out of 108 MLAs. Not a problem, you might think, since Sinn Fein alone has twenty-nine MLAs, all of whom, according to their party propaganda, are deeply committed to the anti-fracking cause. Oddly enough, none signed, not even Fermanagh’s own representatives. Neither did any MLAs from the SDLP, Alliance or the DUP. (All right, the last one isn’t a great surprise.) Opposing fracking, it seemed, was a matter for headlines, leaflets and reassuring noises on local doorsteps, not for real political action. In fact, the only gentlemen brave enough to make their way to Steven’s office were members of the Ulster Unionist Party, not previously renowned for its frack-free credentials. The petition, therefore, despite huge public goodwill and pressure, was unable to go ahead, and Tamboran’s licence was safe.
July 21st 2014 With its licence secured for another few months, Tamboran, by all reports, chose 5am as an appropriate time to bring vehicles, machinery and security men and fencing on to the quarry near Belcoo where it plans to drill its deep borehole. (That’s the one not provided for in the original licence, nearly four months after the original deadline.) This might be seen as slightly premature, as it was not until a more conventional hour in the morning that the Department of the Environment appears to have received notification from the company that it wished to commence drilling.
Tamboran are assuming that the borehole can be drilled under what is known as ‘permitted development’ without the need to apply for planning permission. (Planning permission, of course, allows ordinary people to scrutinise and discuss, and put in objections, and all that messy democratic stuff.) There is a real question, however, as to whether permitted development is appropriate in these circumstances. The DoE website describes it as being intended for ‘minor non-contentious development’. The hundreds of people who gathered peacefully at the site within hours of the announcement certainly don’t see it as either minor or non-contentious. Though tiny in impact in comparison to actual fracking, the drilling of the borehole will not be negligible. Tamboran director Tony Bazeley’s own letter to local householders, also dated 21st July, said that it would be on site for thirty days and that the actual drilling would be “a 24-hour process” (i.e. the noise and vibration will continue day and night for as long as it takes).
There are further questions as to the environmental impact of the borehole. The DoE website states that permitted development rights can be withdrawn or limited in ‘protected and sensitive environments’. There are few parts of Europe with so many Special Areas of Conservation, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other crucial habitats as west Fermanagh. Environment Minister Mark Durkan appears to be aware of this, and has stated that:
“before the company is given permission to proceed, a full “screening” process under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations will be required to ensure that there is no potential for significant environmental impact. I will ensure that this screening process is rigorous and definitive before permitted development rights are considered. If any aspect of this development is likely to have a significant environmental impact, permitted development rights will not apply. I have instructed officials to consider carefully whether or not these rights apply and I will make a statement about the Department’s decision in due course.”
It is to be hoped that the DoE will indeed have the time, resources and independence to carry out this scrutiny, without being bounced into the wrong decision by Tamboran’s precipitate arrival on site or by pressure from DETI. After a couple of years of comparative peace, the focus is back on Fermanagh, and we need to keep it as clear as possible.
One afternoon last summer I was sitting on a rock in the middle of the Dreisdam river in southwest Germany. The family was on a camping holiday in Freiburg im Breisgau, and my son Rory and I had gone down to the river, like many of the locals, to read, with our feet pleasantly cooled by the babbling water. But I’d left my book on the bank; I had a lot of thinking to do. It was one of the first days in nearly two years that I hadn’t written the word ‘fracking’, mostly because I hadn’t written anything at all that day. Since the news had emerged of the granting of a petroleum licence for Fermanagh, where I live, to Tamboran Resources, a licence with an integral work programme including the fracking of two shale gas wells, I’d been very busy. As one of the first members of the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network (FFAN) I had taken on the dual roles of editing its website, frackaware.com, which in practice meant writing almost all of its articles, and of legal co-ordinator, which involved lots of research, more writing, and plenty of Freedom of Information requests. I’d even written a book called Fracking Up.
It was a tiring business, but satisfying; we could see around us the change in public opinion that solid scientific and economic evidence had brought about. At first people had been dazzled by wild promises of jobs and cheap energy but now these were proving to be largely mythical, and the reality, of potential health problems, damage to the region’s essential tourism and agriculture sectors, and irreparable destruction of an extraordinary natural environment, was becoming ever clearer. But public opinion could only do so much; more was dependent on the actions of politicians, and though we were able to talk to many ministers, MLAs (members of the Northern Ireland legislative assembly) and local councillors, their ultimate motivations were beyond our influence.
It was with that, rather dampening awareness, that I’d gone away on holiday, grateful for a few days’ respite from well casings and the Habitats Directive. But Freiburg was beginning to make me think again.
The distinctive nature of the place had been shown to us on our first evening, sitting outside a small bar drinking beer, eating pizza and noticing that forty bicycles passed us for every car. And those cars that did pass were driven with such courtesy and care that we, a few feet away, scarcely noticed them. A major road separated the campsite from the river, but at night all we could hear was the lapping of water. But it wasn’t only transport that was different. Freiburg is a centre of solar power industry and research, and home of international organisations such as Local Governments for Sustainability. All new buildings in the city must comply with low-energy specifications and neighbourhoods have been designed and constructed with sustainability as their guiding principle.
How had all this happened? For most of the twentieth century Freiburg had apparently been a rather sleepy and conservative place. But the threat of a nuclear power plant nearby had galvanised the local people into action, and they had succeeded in preventing its construction. An inspiring example, but if that had been all, Freiburg would simply be another pleasant small European city without a nuclear power plant. Instead, the success of the anti-nuclear campaign catalysed the growth of environmental politics in the area, and the Green Party in particular. Freiburg has had a Green mayor since 2002 and the Greens have the greatest number of seats on the city council. It is this that has allowed Freiburg not simply to oppose destructive development, but to lead and champion positive changes that have benefited all its citizens.
There seemed to be a message here for me. I had been a member of the Green Party for many years, but my energies had been so bound up by the anti-fracking campaign that there was little left for the wider questions. But now, still perched on the rock, I began to wonder whether I was missing the bigger picture. A world without fracking but with runaway climate change, plundered resources and growing inequality would be a cold comfort, while our best chance of eradicating the process for good would be to get more Greens into government. For now it was only the seed of a thought, and I collected my book and towel and wandered back to the campsite.
It’s now nearly eight months later, and though still a committed and enthusiastic anti-fracking campaigner and member of FFAN, I’ve stood down from my website and legal roles. There are plenty of people who know the issues now, people with a longer-term stake in Fermanagh than I have, who are better placed to take the campaign forward. Meanwhile elections, local and European, are looming, and fracking looks to be a major issue, at all levels. Some parties are still gung-ho about the process and its so-called benefits, though I suspect that the enthusiasm may be tempered as it reaches frackable constituencies. Some are still sitting on the fence, while others are keen to court the anti-fracking vote.
Does it matter who we vote for, as long as she or he claims to be opposed to hydraulic fracturing? I think that it does. The following are my thoughts, addressed to a hypothetical anti-fracking voter . One or two of the points are particular to Northern Ireland, where I’ve lived for the past eight years, but most apply equally to Britain, the Republic of Ireland and indeed most of Europe. I think that voting Green is the best way to stop fracking – this is why.
Why your anti-fracking vote works better in Green
1. The Greens are a European-wide party. It is only on a European basis that fracking can be eradicated permanently from the UK and Ireland. It’s no good expending energy on campaigning against one gas licence when another can be granted the next week. We need to ensure that we get robust environmental and health legislation that prevents fracking altogether, and that can only realistically be done at European level. The Green Party is working across Europe to do just that, with representatives at every level; on local councils, in national assemblies and in the European Parliament, a network of informed and passionate people committed to preventing fracking in our communities, and to outlawing it for good.
2. The Greens are consistently anti-fracking. Whether it is José Bové, the campaigning French farmer turned MEP, Caroline Lucas MP, who was arrested while protesting against fracking in Balcombe, Steven Agnew MLA who led the successful vote for a fracking moratorium in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Ross Brown, the Northern Ireland European candidate and founding member of Belfast Not For Shale, or the many grassroots Green Party members who have been tirelessly active in local frack-free groups, the Green Party at every level is solidly opposed to fracking. Members of other parties may make high-sounding pronouncements at their conferences and cosy promises at local meetings, but back at Stormont or Westminster it’s business at usual, and that means making life as easy as possible for the fossil fuel industry. Only the Green Party, which accepts no corporate donations whatsoever, is able to speak with one voice, saying that fracking is unacceptable always and everywhere.
3. The Greens have the policies we need for a frack-free future. “How will you keep the lights on?” “What about jobs?” “Won’t we have to depend on the Russians?” You know them, the questions that always get raised when you say you don’t want fracking. But they need answers, and the Greens have those answers. The Green Party has spent years developing sensible, fair and workable policies on energy, the economy and all the areas of political action that affect our daily lives. These policies show how we can have secure and safe energy supplies and a sustainable economy without depending on damaging and scarce fossil fuels or on the boom and bust of greedy speculation. The Greens don’t just say no to fracking; they say yes to a bright and better future for the common good.
4. The Greens are committed to a shared and non-violent future. Fracking is an emotive issue, bringing out our deepest feelings about the place where we live, our homes, our health and our children’s future. It’s natural that people should feel angry and upset about it, whatever their views. But it’s also very dangerous. We live in a society which has been tragically torn apart, again and again, and with wounds that are only beginning to heal. Issues like fracking can all too easily be used to reopen sectarian divides or to justify the use of violence. The Green Party is free from the damaging divisions of the past, entirely cross-community and committed to non-violence. You can have confidence that in voting for a Green representative at any level, you will be choosing someone who will present the anti-fracking case peacefully, fairly and in a way that works towards a genuinely shared future.
5. The Greens are growing. In 2010 we saw the first Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, voted into the UK Parliament, a significant achievement in a first-past-the-post electoral system. Since then she has spoken fearlessly and effectively, often acting as the only real opposition, especially on subjects such as fracking, to the dismally similar policies of the Coalition and New Labour. The following year Steven Agnew became the second MLA to be elected as a Green Party candidate. Like Caroline, he has been the effective opposition to the Sinn Fein/DUP consensus and the voice of conscience on many issues, including fracking, in the Assembly. More Green Party groups are springing up across Northern Ireland, including in the potential fracking zone of Fermanagh, and more and more people are recognising that Green policies represent common sense and fairness in a world of intensifying climate change, bloated banks and the greedy and callous exploitation of both people and natural resources. A first preference vote for the Green Party will not only be a powerful anti-fracking message, but also a step towards a greener and better future for us all.
Tanya is the current chair of the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Green Party.
I decided that the sunny sky was too fussy, so we’re minimalist now. Meanwhile I have quite a substantial post to upload, but am having problems with the images, so it’s on hold until the technical support team (a.k.a. M.) can take a look at it for me.
She did immense harm, but she didn’t do it all by herself. She left the country bruised and fractured, torn between those now proud to be greedy and heartless and those embittered or broken by the contempt with which they were spat upon. The cracks have only widened since then, as the smarmy procession followed: Major, Blair, Cameron, each smoother and nastier than the one before. (Brown was just a blundering bear who accidentally found himself on the stage and knocked down a few pieces of scenery before being led out.) She was a monster, but if it hadn’t been her, it would have been another one. There were plenty of people ready to listen to the comforting nostrums of Milton Friedman, to lap up the good ol’ boy platitudes of Reagan and to look wistfully across at Chile. Millions of them voted for her party, delighted to find that their good fortune was earned, that they didn’t need to worry about the poor or the sick or the old, that society, and the long tradition of compassion and co-operation and co-dependence, were just fairy stories made up to console life’s losers. If it had only been her, we could have gone back again, that day when she resigned and we sang, for the first time, ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead.’ We could have awoken from the terrible nightmare, followed the ovine leadings of Geoffrey Howe and recovered our sense of justice and compassion. But they didn’t want to; those who followed in her wake; politicians, directors, journalists – and voters. For the winners, the brave new world was still shiny; it was only its figurehead who was looking her tarnished age. The losers were already lost. There is nothing more distasteful than the braying young (and old enough to know better) bucks in Westminster and what was once Fleet Street, hee-hawing their complacent pieties. But I can’t feel that rejoicing at her death is quite right either. Not now. She was old and sick, in body and mind, and still, however ferrous, a woman. And none of those disabilities, in the harsh world she ushered in, can be forgiven. I feel no delight at her death, no more than at the hole-in-the-corner despatch of Saddam Hussein or Bin Laden by the next generation of neo-cons. If we want to change the brutal scramble that has replaced our communities, if we want to stand shoulder to shoulder with the poor, the immigrants, the disabled and the billions we are killing through climate change, then we have to ask ourselves some hard questions. If we, to any extent, are the winners, then who are the losers, and how are we going to take our fingers off the scales? If, behind all the shouting, we can take the time to ponder these, then perhaps the fuss has been about something after all.
As my long-standing and observant readers may notice, we have a new theme, a sunny blue sky in place of the, let’s face it, rather bleak, lonely tree under which we’ve pondered for so long. Does this represent a new optimistic attitude, a confidence that, despite appearances to the contrary, the world is becoming a better place? Is it, perhaps, a response to the election of Pope Francis I, with his inspiring call for a poor church for the poor? Is it a reflection of the fact that, notwithstanding the blizzards, we are well into March, and the daffodils are out? Or am I just an unreconstructed flibbertigibbet?