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Green Lassie

Since being selected as the Green Party Parliamentary candidate for Fermanagh & South Tyrone, I have started a new blog, 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.

As the Dodo said

“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.




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.

The Fracking of Fermanagh – the story so far

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.







PeaceJam: music breaking down barriers

Music, with its power to inspire emotion, conjure memories and create bonds, has played a significant role in the history of our community.   Sometimes this has been a part of the problem, when musical traditions have emphasised exclusion and conflict.  Often, however, the experience of sharing music, of singing, playing, listening and dancing, has brought people from different traditions together and inspired them to work for peace and a shared future.  One outstanding example of this reconciliation in action was the Miami Showband whose members, themselves from different traditions, brought together Catholic and Protestant young people throughout the worst times of the Troubles.  As we know, the young musicians paid a terrible and tragic price for their courage and vision.
Here in County Fermanagh, we have a rich and vibrant cross-community musical life, with dedicated musicians sharing their talent in many genres.  In celebration of this success, and of the commitment of our young people to a shared and non-violent future, the Fermanagh Churches Forum is hosting PeaceJam, a unique evening of inspiration and hope.  The event will take place on Saturday February 25th, at 8pm at the Westville Hotel, Enniskillen.
We are delighted to welcome as our guest speaker Stephen Travers of the Miami Showband, who will talk about his own experiences of the ways in which music can break down barriers, dismantle prejudice and bring people together.  Following Stephen’s talk, a buffet supper will be served, after which young Fermanagh musicians and rock bands will play until the early hours.  (The not-quite-so-young needn’t stay quite so long!)
Tickets for the event are £5, including supper, and are available now – email me at – or on the door.  We look forward to seeing you for what promises to be a great night!

The tent and the temple

Last night I was reading Kester Brewin’s book Other: Loving Self, God and Neighbour in a World of Fractures, when I came across this passage:

“The temporal nature of these moments runs against the culture of permanence that runs right through the Church. We speak of eternity, of an undying body of Christ, of the constancy of our witness in stone cathedrals that appear to have been there since the dawn of time. Our unending prayers end with ‘forever and ever, Amen’; our song and liturgy hang heavy, invested with hundreds of years of history. Tradition is good. It can be a healthy momentum that carries us straight when the winds of change blow hard. But central to our tradition is the story of a man whose ministry lasted but three years. He had the choice – he could have sustained a far longer time with his followers, could have delayed his necessary death for many years. Instead, he allowed himself to be cut off. What is it then about the temporary that is to be celebrated?” (p. 143)

The moments he is speaking of are cessations in violence, are feasts, festivals, miracles and what Hakim Bey called ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’ such as the eighteenth century pirate utopias which flourished in the gaps between the maps and the earthly reality. To these, I think, could be added the temporary communities of radical politics, from the women’s peace camps of the 1980s through climate camps to this year’s Occupy movement. But it is only now, in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, that the two impulses of Christianity, the temporary and the permanent, have been brought into such fierce relief.

St Paul’s Cathedral, perhaps, contains some of what is best about permanence: architectural splendour, music, liturgy and art, but also what is worst. When people stopped being primarily hunter-gatherers and became farmers, a new imperative arose: to enclose, control, build and preserve. As the Church became established, in both its lower and upper-case meanings, the same kind of change took place. Buildings and structures, constructed to celebrate and facilitate the work of the Gospels, began to obstruct that very work, their own requirements for maintenance overshadowing the tasks which they were meant to serve. And so we reach the state of St Paul’s today, with a board of trustees embedded at the heart of the financial industry, and an admission charge of nearly £35 for a family of four. You can imagine how it happens: each step leading logically from the one before, all for sound reasons, until we find ourselves in a barricaded glittering temple with the Gospel going on outside.

It was brave and honest for members of the clergy at St Paul’s to resign rather than allow themselves to be complicit in the state violence that will, it seems inevitably, be used by the Etonian chaps against the occupiers. But how much more would it have said if, rather than working out their notice within the cathedral, they had furnished themselves with a cheap tent and sleeping bag and joined those in the square.

I’m not Anglican-bashing: as a Catholic convert I have chosen to belong to a church with far more cathedrals, bigger bank accounts, a more rigid structure and a far more shameful history of complicity with money and power. One of the very facets of Catholicism that drew me towards it, twenty-six years ago, was its tradition. And yet within that tradition, the two thousand year-long, ragged gaudy procession of believers, those whose light shines the fiercest are those; St Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, who are most truly pilgrims and strangers, hunter-gatherers of the faith, with no place to call their own.

It’s a difficult tension to hold, and so not surprising that Rowan Williams, with his finely-tuned sense of nuance and ambiguity, has so far remained mainly silent. Not surprising, but a little disappointing. For this is an opportunity for the Church to recalibrate itself, to reset the compass of its heart. As Kester Brewin concludes his chapter:

“The beauty of TAZ is that it injects hope into these overpowering situations. The forces at work against us are huge. The powerful own the maps and have legislated for every last inch. But in the interstitial spaces, under the radar of those who would want to configure the world for their own benefit, brief festivals of hope are taking place. They are temporary flashes of light in dark places, but long after they have gone the air hangs heavy with a generous odour, and those who thought they saw something different are, in miniscule ways, penetrated by the marvellous for a second and can never quite get rid of that feeling. ‘Hush’ says the Church, leaving its petrified walls and tiptoeing mischievously toward the public square, ‘I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?’ (p.150)

This shale of tears: why Christians should care about fracking

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking’, is big news all around the world, and especially on both sides of the Irish Sea.  It is a technique first used in conventional wells, where a mixture of water and sand was pumped at high pressure to extract the last vestiges of oil or gas.  Over the past decades the method has been developed, with the addition of powerful chemical agents, in order to obtain gas from deep layers of impermeable shale.

In contemporary shale oil operations, wells are dug deeply, typically several kilometres, into the earth and thence horizontally into the shale layer.  A pipe gun is sent down with explosives which are detonated to cause mini-earthquakes.  ‘Fracking fluid’, made up of water, sand and chemicals, follows at high pressure,  further fracturing the shale and allowing the gas, which is mainly methane, to escape.  Because shale is so impermeable, even using this method, a large number of wells have to be dug within the mined area.  Typically, a concreted site will contain up to sixteen wells, with a couple of kilometres between each site and around a hundred wells in total (though obviously operations can be significantly larger or smaller than this).  In addition to the wells themselves, the sites, which the industry call ‘pads’, also contain heavy machinery, ponds full of toxic waste liquid, storage and treatment facilities.  Networks of access roads link the sites   for the heavy goods vehicles bringing and removing water (each individual well requires millions of gallons of water), materials and waste products.  A conservative estimate is that one thousand return lorry journeys are required for the construction and maintenance of each well.

Obviously, this type of industrial operation has a significant effect upon the surrounding, usually rural, locality.  Its visual impact, often replacing forests and meadows, combines with the noise of twenty-four hour heavy machinery, noxious smells and clouds of smog, to transform the landscape.  But it is the unseen effects that are causing even more concern, especially in the United States where the industry has been operating for the longest.  Both human and animal (wildlife and livestock) health can be seriously damaged by the poisons contained in diesel exhaust gases, the chemicals contained in fracking fluids and the ‘mud’ used to lubricate the drill bits, by heavy metals and radioactive materials brought out of the shaft and by the escape of methane into air and domestic drinking water.  Meanwhile the huge quantities of water required leave local water tables depleted; the  fracturing process has been implicated in earthquakes and the highly flammable nature of the gas has led to serious fires and explosions.

As a result of these widespread problems, many American people, who once embraced shale gas as the answer to their energy dilemmas, are now speaking out against it, so much so that at an oil and gas conference in Denver this month, delegates were told that only 7% of the public view the industry favourably.  “The public do not believe us.” said the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.  “We need someone else delivering our message for us.”  Speaking of those who oppose hydraulic fracturing, she said, “These nuts make up about 90% of our population, so we can’t really call them nuts any more.  They’re the mainstream.”

Now we on this side of the Atlantic are being faced with the same questions.  The company exploring the Blackpool area claims to have discovered a huge exploitable quantity of gas while licences have been granted for both the Republic and Northern Ireland, including the unspoilt lakeland region of County Fermanagh, incorporating lakes, mountains and the Marble Arch Caves Geopark.

How should Christians view this process?  Has God given us the gas hidden deep in the shale to use, if we can smash our way into it, however the industry and government see fit?  Does our desire to continue our oil-based way of life justify using this resource, no matter what the consequences?  Do we have any responsibility towards the earth, our brothers and sisters in its poorer regions, the other species with which we share it, and our children who will inherit it, or is looking after ourselves our divine mandate?

I have been looking into this subject recently and have identified three areas of Christian life and teaching which seem to me to be relevant to our thinking, and our consequent words and actions.  This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, but I hope that it may provide a starting-point for others to think, pray and act upon this vital contemporary issue.


Our stewardship of creation

Throughout the Old Testament we learn of God’s intimate care for his creation and of the special role and responsibility borne by the human race in sharing in this relationship.  It is we who are given the privilege of naming the species we discover, of looking out for the vulnerable, taming the strong and enabling them all to thrive and multiply.  The story of Noah is of an individual taking on this responsibility, ensuring that every type of creature, the entirety of what we  now call biodiversity, is kept safe and sustainable.  And at the end of the story the rainbow confirms God’s covenant not only with humankind but with “every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth”  (Genesis 9:16).
The New Testament gives us an even more compelling reason to cherish the universe and everything within it.  We learn that all things were made through Jesus, the Word, “and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). So there is nothing anywhere, no molecule of water or methane, no drop of oil or atom of oxygen that is not imbued with divine life.  As Jesus himself said of the sparrow, “not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father” (Matthew 10:30).

In the first millennia of human life on earth, our stewardship work was physically hard.  It was a struggle to find food, to grow crops, to raise livestock and to collect wood for fire.  Wild animals were as likely to kill us than we them, and forests were places of danger and disorientation.  But, gradually first, and in a sudden rush over the past century, the balance has shifted.  Now we are lords of creation, able to wipe out species, raze huge jungles, split atoms and delve deep into the earth for coal, oil and gas.   In our voracious appetite to set fire to these fossil fuels, which took millions of years to form, and which we burn in an instant, we have even changed the composition of our atmosphere, changing our climate critically and, for billions, tragically.  For we have learned little that is new about how to create and nurture, and much about how to destroy.  But our theology has not always kept up with our changed position.  We are still talking about taming and subduing nature, when it is more often our own greedy and violent impulses which really need to be tamed and subdued.

As the collective people of God, humankind has a shared duty to care for the whole earth and its inhabitants.  But individuals and local communities also have, I believe, a particular responsibility towards their own patch of the planet and its land and water, creatures and plants.  It is not enough to assume that this responsibility will be discharged by some government agency on our behalf.

Where, as here in Fermanagh, the landscape is exceptionally beautiful, with lakes, mountains and wide stretches of unspoilt woodland, we know from our own experience how it gives glory to God and brings peace and healing to tired souls.  There is something about looking out across a lough, with wildfowl quietly scuttering along its surface, that calms our turbulent thoughts and helps us to get our lives and priorities back into proportion.  Our noisy, stressful world needs such places, now more than ever, and we should be keeping them safe and available to those who need them most.

Not, of course, that our landscape is simply a backdrop to the drama of our souls.  It is home and habitat, shelter and nourishment to many species of wildlife, fish, birds and livestock.  As built development encroaches, and climate change alters breeding patterns and food availability, these few enclaves become more and more important in keeping the most vulnerable of God’s creatures alive.  Trees, plants and other vegetation naturally thrive within our wetlands and forests, forming part of complex, interdependent webs of life while the unfolding mysteries of our geological heritage humble us before the aeons of their creation.

It is also the source and treasure chest of our most valuable resources; more important than oil, gas, gold or diamonds: fresh water, healthy trees and fertile soil.  As glaciers melt and sea levels rise, unsalted water will become the world’s most precious commodity.  Woodland, absorbing carbon dioxide, and providing sustainable fuel, will be more and more sought-after.  And across the world spreading deserts and the effects of intensive chemical-based agriculture are already leaving the ground a barren dustbowl.  Soil that can nourish food will be worth more to our children than all the  precious stones in a jeweller’s catalogue.

Hydraulic fracturing operations threaten all these aspects of creation.  Our landscape, broken and scarred by concrete sites and their brutal machinery will bring no balm to the broken-hearted.  The sounds and smells of constant HGVs, pumps and processors will preclude peace and contemplation and instead of breathing the clear woodland air our visitors will cough on clouds of smog and dust.

There is a very real danger that the air and water will be poisoned, either by the chemicals used in the industry or the deep-buried materials suddenly brought to the surface.  Communities where this type of mining has begun have found dead and deformed animals, birds and fish, and their livestock stricken by hitherto unfamiliar diseases.  Evaporation tanks, as their name suggests, allow toxins to evaporate into the air, while the atmosphere is further contaminated by the high levels of diesel exhaust.

Water may be affected by the breaching of underground aquifers, by leaks and accidents, almost inevitable given the amounts involved, and by the removal of such huge quantities from the local water table. Because the water brought back up from the shaft contains high levels of salt and heavy metals, it cannot be treated and recycled like ordinary waste water but would require expensive desalination before it could safely be returned to the local water system.

Most of us would probably assume that, given this range and severity of risk, the shale gas industry would be very rigorously regulated.  Unfortunately this proves not to be the case.  In the United States, the industry is exempt from the rules which safeguard drinking water, and environmental protection agencies have proved largely unable or unwilling to investigate serious safety breaches.  In the UK the situation is similar, with a range of agencies on the fringes of involvement but none having much by way of actual responsiblity.  If we are concerned, therefore, it is going to be up to us as individuals, churches, community groups and networks to speak out on behalf of the creation we love.


Love of our neighbour

We are all acutely aware of the economic disasters which have overcome most of the world, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and of the fact that those who are suffering most are those who are least to blame.  These are hard times when jobs are, for many, almost impossible to come by.  In these circumstances it is natural to greet with hope and optimism any suggestion of fresh employment possibilities, especially in rural areas.  Many will have seen headlines such as those in our local paper proclaiming ‘800 jobs’ and have felt their hearts lift.  But sadly the truth behind the headlines is unlikely to be so bright.

In our area the licensee’s stated estimate is of a maximum of 700 jobs (so the real figure could be very much lower) spread across all the locations, north and south of the border, where it proposes to mine, and over a period of fifty years.  Moreover, although the company has said thatit will give priority to local people in filling these positions, it would of course be illegal under EU law for it to do so.  These few jobs, if they materialise at all, are likely to be unskilled, low-paid and hazardous. (We have, of course, been reminded very recently of the tragically dangerous nature of all mining work.)  They are likely to bring no significant training or career opportunities and to be offered to those prepared to work with the least dignity for the lowest pay.

But if hydraulic fracturing is unlikely to provide a job for most of our neighbours, it is far more likely to take away the livelihoods of many others. The main industries of rural counties like Fermanagh are tourism and agriculture, with hundreds of small businesses: farms, hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, pubs, activity centres, shops etc. providing the bedrock of our community.  Most of these businesses depend, directly or indirectly, upon visitors; people from all over the world who come here to fish, climb, kayak, ramble or simply relax and enjoy the scenery and atmosphere of tranquility and calm.  How many will still come to see landscapes ravaged by concrete, to hear the roar of pumps and generators, to dodge huge tankers in our country lanes and to wonder what is lurking beneath the surfaces of our precious loughs and rivers?  If the tourists stop coming, the whole structure of our economic life, built up with so much hard work and commitment, will crumble and crash, each failure triggering the next, until every person in the county feels the blow.

It is the same for the farmers.  It only takes one instance of contamination of milk or of meat to bring about the collapse not just of the farm where it happens but of the entire sector across a wide geographical area.

And it isn’t only in their economic lives that our neighbours could suffer as a result of shale gas extraction.  There is growing evidence of health problems among people living near, or even some distance downwind, of this type of gas well.  And, as is usually the case, it is the most vulnerable; children, the elderly and those whose health is already delicate or compromised who experience the most painful and serious consequences.

If we are truly to love our neighbours, even in the narrowest of geographical senses, we must do more than simply salivate, Pavlovian-fashion, at the mention of potential jobs.  When the Good Samaritan came across the robbed man he treated him with dignity and compassion and ensured that all his needs were met, for health, shelter and companionship as well as for food and drink.  In the same way, viewing our own neighbours with respect means seeing them as complete human beings and not just as economic units, and acknowledging all they have to lose as well as what they might conceivably gain.  And as for our neighbours a little further away …


Being peacemakers

Over the past few years, Christians of all traditions have become increasingly aware of the huge challenges posed by climate change and peak oil and of the conflicts which these are stoking throughout the world.  Again, it is those societies principally responsible for the problems who suffer least from their effects, and those who have played the smallest part who reap the fiercest whirlwind.  We know now that to continue emitting greenhouse gases as we do will make huge swathes of our planet uninhabitable and create unbearable tensions between peoples and nations.

We know, too, that the oil upon which our whole way of life depends is rapidly running out.  Everyone is looking for a quick fix, some way that we can limp on, keeping tight hold of the consumer lifestyle to which we feel entitled.  Shale gas seems, at first glance, to offer this opportunity.  But gas is a fossil fuel as much as coal or oil and, because methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and because the extraction process is prone to a high frequency of leaks, its total emissions are probably higher than either.  The mining and use of shale gas will accelerate the process of climate change as well as threatening our supplies of the other resource for which the world is desperate; fresh, clean water.

The chairman of the company who hold the licence to operate here has described those who oppose his plans as ‘anti-development’.  But as moral beings, we can never be pro- or anti- development per se; it all depends on what is being developed and what it is going to become.  There are many types of development that would use our natural resources, not the dangerous and finite ones a kilometre below our feet, but the abundant and renewable energy of wind, waves and sun.  The island of Ireland, north and south, is rich in appropriate locations of wind, wave and tidal electricity generation which could power our world cleanly and justly.  It would use our traditions of engineering expertise and innovation and provide real, skilled and permanent jobs and export revenues.  All that is needed to make this sustainable development a reality is will, leadership and a little courage.

For we are not called either to despair or to false, head-in-the-sand  optimism.  There is hope for our world, an earth ‘charged’, as Hopkins wrote, ‘with the grandeur of God’, and a family of mankind each of whom bears his image.  But in order to realise this hope, we must look clearly at the pass to which we have come, and take our future path with great care.  The values of the Gospel call us to speak out against the turning of our Father’s house into a marketplace.  I believe that it is time to speak.

My new book

My latest novel, Summer 17, is now available from Amazon on Kindle format. I originally started writing it around thirteen years ago, after finishing Trotter’s Bottom, the third in the Ophelia O. trilogy. Then I went back to work as a solicitor, went to Italy, taught English, wrote Survival Guide for Chess Parents and Girotondo, came to Ireland, set up Crystal Bard Books and generally forgot about it until a couple of months ago when M discovered the draft on an old computer. So, it’s been revised, rewritten and brought to slightly belated birth in the brave new ebook era. Click here to find out more, download a sample or buy it for Kindle or Kindle for PC.

How Green Were My Ballies

A few weeks ago I read on my friend Gladys’ blog that the informal, inter-faith Northern Ireland Thomas Merton Society was holding a one day retreat in Knockayd, a centre in the Glens of Antrim run by the Corrymeela Community.  Since I have, for more or less as long as I can remember, been reading and cherishing the works of Merton, and knew very little about Corrymeela except that it was a Good Thing, I resolved to try to attend.  This proved slightly more tricky in the execution than the intention, as although participants were travelling from across the north of Ireland, none were coming from our particular south-west corner of the north and Ulsterbus can’t envisage the possibility of anyone wanting to get to Belfast before eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning.   The expedition seemed entirely stymied until M, cutting through the Gordian knot with his customary panache, suggested that I stay in a nearby B&B on the Friday evening.

Eureka!  The B&B (in Ballycastle) was booked, Translink (Northern Ireland’s integrated (pause for slightly hollow laugh)public transport network)’s website extensively consulted and a fellow Mertonite delegated to ferry me the few miles to Knockayd.  As the trip to Ballycastle appeared to involve at least three buses and/or trains, I decided to make a few book-hunting stops en route.  This was faciliated by a form of bus ticket which used to be called, rather grandly, the Freedom of Northern Ireland, which sounds more like the kind of thing Mo Mowlam might have been awarded than a small blue piece of flimsy paper permitting one to travel, at no extra cost, all the way from Belleek to Bangor.  It turned out, however, that the FONI (probably best not pronounced aloud) has been replaced by a natty little smartcard called the iLink which, once purchased, is rechargeable for a day’s travel at less than the usual day return fare to Belfast. Jolly well done, Translink.

The operation of the iLink is most exciting. You merely place it on a piece of plastic nothingness on the bus, the sort of grey panel that, on a car dashboard, indicates that this is the economy model, without the integral DVD player-cum-chopstick holder, and miraculously a ticket splurges out from the machine beneath it.  The drivers seem pretty thrilled about it, too.  ‘For my next trick…’ said one, which, for Dungannon on a grey February morning, is pretty much Perrier award stuff. So, the journey:

Fit the First: Enniskillen to Dungannon.

Having taken an extraordinary leap of technological faith and brought no printed books whatsoever with me (rather akin to a Swedish alcoholic setting off on a Sunday without an emergency stash of vodka) I started reading some of the free sample chapters downloaded onto my Kindle.  The first was a book called Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark, which has been repeatedly recommended by one of the more conservative commentators on Gladys’ blog.  I might have been warned by the subtitle, which is How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success or by the fact that another of this gentleman’s voluminous outpourings is entitled God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades.  Undeterred (or, to be honest, slightly deterred but feeling that I should give the thing a fair hearing) I read that China had no science, Islam no theologians, and (obviously) that unfettered capitalism was Good for Everyone before reaching the end of the sample and declining Amazon’s kind invitation to download the rest. Janet Street-Porter’s memoirs, Why My Parents Were Awful and Why I Dumped My Friends (or words to that effect) were similarly sampled and despatched to whatever a Kindle has in place of a wastepaper basket.


There isn’t much to say about Dungannon except that the main street, which runs from the bus station up to the library, is steep. I marched up it, bought a vintage Hardy Boys mystery and copy of Frost At Christmas (which I’d recently listened to on my iPod without managing to turn off the Shuffle feature and in consequence knew most of what happened but not, as Eric Morecambe so cogently put it, necessarily in the right order) and marched down again. At this point I imagined that I had time to pop into Tesco to buy a packet of biscuits and can of wine (I know) for my supper.  What I hadn’t factored in was the number of elderly ladies before me at the checkouts who had just received money-off vouchers for a range of precisely delineated grocery items.  On the positive side, it was encouraging to discover that I can still run, albeit a matter of yards, and succeeded in boarding the next bus.

Fit the Second: Dungannon to Belfast

If there was very little to say about Dungannon, there is even less to note about the journey from thence to Belfast, most of which took place on a grey motorway under a sky of a slightly paler grey.  But I now know in what order Inspector Frost’s bodies were found.


My standard dash from the bus station (behind the Europa hotel, famed for being the most bombed in the world shortly before we spent part of our honeymoon there) down Botanic Avenue (please feel free to adapt the Eddy Grant song and sing along at this point), honed over the past five years, was dramatically arrested by the appearance of a large new charity bookshop on Victoria Street.  Once I’d perused the well-stocked, if less than meticulously classified, shelves,  I only had time for a quick sprint (well, shuffle) to the War on Want shop and an apologetic nod towards Oxfam before getting back to the Europa for Bus Number Three.

Fit the Third: Belfast to Ballymena

This was uncharted territory, but sadly all I can recall of the journey is the very large lady who sat next to me as far as Antrim and seemed under the impression that my nose and shoulder were Ulsterbus-supplied armrests, and the hyperactive bus driver who, when he wasn’t engaged in criticising the driving of his fellow road-users, or in drumming complex rhythms on his dashboard, whistled, slightly sharp, Lord of All Hopefulness, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, All Things Bright and Beautiful and Daisy, Daisy.  The Battle Hymn of the Republic seemed to be his favourite; I suppose he imagined himself trampling the driver of the small blue car who had the temerity to try reversing into a parking space within fifty yards of us.


Ballymena has trains, upon which I could have used my iLink card if I’d known in advance.  As it was, this transport of delight must await another occasion.  It also has charity shops with a large proportion of comedy books in them.  I shall take the optimistic view that the residents of Ballymena are merry, light-hearted folk who enjoy laughing and enjoy providing their fellows with matter for laughter rather than that they take one look at their unwrapped Christmas presents, say, “Bah humbug, bloody Welsh/American* comedians” and order their underpaid clerks to dispatch the same immediately to Oxfam.  No, no.  Ballymena was a nice place, with a particularly fine, furniture-themed Red Cross shop and doubtless a very good reason for flying the Union flag from the shopping centre.

(*as they were, as shall be seen)

Before leaving the bus-and-train station, which is some distance from the town centre, I had double-checked the time of Bus Number Four, to Ballycastle and confirmed that it would leave at 3.45. This would give me plenty of time to mooch about the shops until half-past three before wandering back.  Foolish woman.  As the mother of two current teenagers, I really should have known better.  As I approached the bus station at twenty to four, the previously empty, echoing shelters were teeming with hundreds of multicoloured blazers (I mean, obviously, many different colours of blazer, not that the secondary schools of Ballymena have adopted a Joseph and his Dreamcoat theme for their uniforms).  By the time I had squeezed my way through these to the approximate location of the Ballycastle stop, the bus had long departed.  There was another one scheduled for a quarter to six, but having surveyed the range of leisure activities offered within the vicinity (sitting on a  metal chair, sitting on a different metal chair, buying a Mars bar, buying a packet of crisps) I decided to enquire further.

The enquiry office, conveniently located round a hidden corner and halfway down a darkened alley, had, oddly enough, few enquirers.  Me, in fact, outnumbered two-to-one by enquirees.  These, a friendly man and woman, obviously appreciative of human contact after many decades of isolation, kindly consulted a range of timetables on my behalf before concluding that I could recover one of my lost hours by catching the bus to Ballymoney and thence to Ballycastle.  For those of you less than familiar with Northern Ireland placenames, whose minds may be spinning slightly at this stage, I’ll briefly recap.  Having missed the bus from Ballymena to Ballycastle, I was now going to catch a bus from Ballymena to Ballymoney and thence to Ballycastle.  I’m sure that, to a native, it’s no more confusing than Newcastle, Newport and Newhaven in England and Wales, though it’s probably unlikely that anyone without a serious alphabetic compulsion would try to travel between those three by bus on a Friday afternoon. There was a danger, I was warned, that the tricky change at Ballymoney Town Hall might come unstuck, only five minutes being allowed for the passing of the baton, but it was a risk I was prepared to take, fortified by my iLink card, which meant that I wouldn’t have to pay any more, and the fact that there was another, albeit final, Ballymoney-Ballycastle bus an hour later.

Fit the Fourth: Ballymena to Ballymoney

We were on the country buses now, the ones that say Ulsterbus instead of Goldline on the side and where you have to take your luggage with you rather than stowing it in the special compartment.  Connoisseurs of Irish bus travel, by the way, will be aware that in the North you have to open the luggage compartment yourself, with much consequent hand engrimement, whereas in the Republic Bus Eireann coaches have an automatic mechanism accompanied by a disembodied voice, no doubt one of the supporting cast from Father Ted, who intones ‘Stand clear, luggage doors operate’ throughout the entire process.  There are those who claim to be able to hear a final ‘ing’ at the end of the ‘operate’, thus rendering the statement intelligible and almost grammatical, though I’ve never managed to discern it myself.  Just one of the ways in which the tragedy of a divided Ireland manifests itself even in these peaceful times.  During the wait at Ballymena station I’d started reading Keith Barret’s Making Divorce Work: In 9 Easy Steps ,Keith Barret, being, for those who get out too much, Rob Brydon, and the book a slightly padded-out version of his very funny stage show.


Grown older and wiser during the day’s earlier time-scrambles (as we chess players call them) I resisted the temptation to employ my six minutes (yes, the bus arrived early) in Ballymoney in any extensive exploration of the metropolis, contenting myself instead with photographing the Town Hall and shivering.  Several teenagers used me as a windbreak (memo: should perhaps have resisted the chocolate bar at Ballymena) providing further anecdotal evidence of the negative magnetism between persons of 12-24 years and the molecules comprising a coat.

Fit the Fifth: Ballymoney to Ballycastle

A real country bus now, heading through real countryside towards the sea.  Hooray!  I was slightly disconcerted when the remaining other passengers all got off before Ballycastle, leaving me and the driver alone as the bus plunged and rose, apparently at random, along seaside streets. I hoped that he wasn’t expecting me to ring the bell before the final stop, Marine Corner, as I had no idea when we were likely to be there.  I imagined him absent-mindedly taking me, along with the bus, home with him for tea, and my having my usual problems understanding when Ulster people ask whether I want butter on my sandwiches.  Fortunately, however, we stopped at last, at the sort of concrete turning circle on the seafront that I remembered from long-ago bus trips to Scarborough, and the convenient confirmation of the Marine Hotel beside us.


By some fluke of Fate, or Google, if the two entities are still functionally separate, I had chosen a B&B only few yards uphill from the Marine Hotel.  Up, however, was certainly the apposite adjective, and I was a little out of breath by the time the landlord opened the door to me.  The Ardaghmore is, I’m virtually certain, the nicest B&B I’ve ever stayed in, even better than the excellent one in Pitlochry whose name I’ve forgotten, and certainly than the slightly odd one with the cross-examining landlady ‘Where have you been?  Where did you eat?  Which fish and chip shop?’ we stayed in last time we visited the Antrim coast and the name of which I wouldn’t tell you even if I could remember it.  The Ardaghmore, however was lovely: spacious room with interesting but not tricksy furniture, stunning view of the sea and the ferry to Rathlin Island,  delightful owners, friendly and very helpful without being in the slightest intrusive and lots of thoughtful bits and pieces like fresh milk, a powerful hairdryer and binoculars on the windowsill.  Not that I availed myself of the latter: the sky, grey all day, was growing steadily darker and mistier, and the biting little breeze I’d encountered in Bally -er- money was working its way up into something distinctly galeish.  I abandoned any thoughts of further exploration and hunkered down with my hard-won cheesy biscuits, discounted fruit salad and a Dilbert cartoon book.  Later in the evening the Dilbert, completed, was exchanged for Mark Watson’s excellent Crap at the Environment(see what I mean about the Welsh thing?) and, gratefully, sleep.

Incidentally, according to the AA, the most direct route from Enniskillen to Ballycastle is 104 miles.  Going via Dungannon, Belfast, Ballymena and Ballymoney the journey is 146 miles.  I calculate, therefore, that travelling by bus and using my magic iLink card granted me a free 42 miles, coincidentally, of course, the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.  If that’s not a clinching argument for not having a car . . .

Next morning looked optimistic from the start, with a narrow sliver of blue in the white sky which gradually widened to allow an extravagant and unseasonable outpouring of sunshine.  After an excellent vegetarian breakfast, complete with scones and an interesting chat with a birdwatching couple from Southampton, I made a brief survey of the Irish Sea before being collected by Una, a fellow retreat attendee and associate member of the Corrymeela Community.  My vague idea of walking to Knocklayd if a lift had not been easily forthcoming was revealed not to have the brightest I’ve ever had, especially accompanied by a suitcase of books, not least because Knocklayd is a mountain.  Well, a mountain in Irish terms; it’s 514m, which, I appreciate, is barely a pimple to a Himalayan.  It’s an extremely pretty small mountain (all right, hill) though, and the Knocklayd centre is fetchingly perched halfway up, surrounded by grazing sheep and interesting bumps in the ground which I’m sure would mean all sorts of exciting things to a geologist.

There were twelve of us at the retreat, including Scott Peddie, the organiser, who is a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister (which means, I gather, that they don’t have to sign up to certain doctrinal statements rather than that they don’t put anything in the collection plate), monks of the Cistercian and Buddhist varieties and an eclectic and interesting group of lay people.  After coffee and more scones (the residents of Ballycastle must have wills of iron not to end up like barrage balloons) we watched, if watched is exactly the word, maybe experienced, a meditative presentation prepared by Scott using Cistercian chant, photographs of the natural world and quotations from Merton’s works.  It was a perfect opening.  Afterwards came an open discussion, on contemplation, prayer, meditation, surrender, the life and works of Merton and the necessity of feeding cattle.  I think everyone contributed, and each with humility, honesty and humour – I’ve rarely received so much richness and depth from a group conversation.

As the weather was by now unseasonably stunning, we went outside, walking alone or in small groups, talking, listening, looking and simply being.  The transparency of the world, and God shining through, about which Merton wrote, could not have been better illustrated.  The rest of the day continued in the same way, a balance of talk and prayer, ending with a meditation led by the Buddhist monk, wishing good and freedom from suffering for all our brothers and sisters and the sentient creatures of the earth.  I thought of Robbie, our border terrier and promised to be less impatient with him (a resolution, by the way, that I have already broken, as he dripped milk across the floor this morning).

At the close of the retreat two of the members kindly gave me lifts down to Belfast and I caught the bus (with sad lack of enterprise just one bus this time) back home to Enniskillen.  I finished the Mark Watson on the way and began the last of my Ballymena comedy hoard, A. J. Jacobs’  The Year of Living Biblically.  I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it was a good two days.

changing the world…

I’ve recently been reading Stop Global Warming, Change the World by Jonathan Neale and was surprised, impressed and heartened.

The rather naff title led me to expect the usual guff about appliances on standby, celebrity recipes and encouraging your neighbours (it’s always your neighbours, I notice) to use their cars less.  If I’d known anything about Jonathan Neale, I’d have realised that it would have none of this nonsense.

Actually, he could have got away with stretching his material into several books, and is to be commended for fitting it all into one.  The book is made up of five parts, most of which I’ve read twice already, so densely packed are they with good stuff.

Part One, The Scale of the Problem has three chapters: Abrupt Climate Change (a vital adjective), Poor People are not the Problem and Sacrifice is not the Answer.  From the titles alone, Neale’s argument, that social justice and climate change action are complementary and symbiotic, is evident, but the detail is well worth investigating.

Part Two, Solutions That Could Work Now is especially useful for the campaigner, setting out viable goals in areas of electricity, buildings, transport etc.  A chapter called Solutions that Won’t Work Now (carbon capture, nuclear power, hydroelectric dams, biofuels) is particularly helpful.

In Part Three, Why the Rich and Powerful Won’t Act, Neale analyses neoliberalism, corporate power and the myth of unlimited growth.  Part Four, Climate Politics, gives a potted history of the climate change campaign and explains why personal and market solutions won’t bring about the changes that are necessary.

Finally, in Part Five, he analyses ‘Capitalist Disasters’, notably Darfur and New Orleans and ends with an inspiring chapter entitled ‘Another World is Possible’.  It is, and this book shows us how.