Northern Ireland: Strong anti-fracking electoral challenge

Impressive Enniskillen vote a warning to main parties and drilling multinationals

County Fermanagh, in the west of Northern Ireland, is threatened with the introduction of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on a massive scale in the near future. The construction of 2,800 wells in west of the county and north Leitrim would destroy some of the most pristine countryside in Ireland, as well as potentially poisoning the lakes and threatening biodiversity, fishing, farming, tourism and human health. Anti-fracking activists chose to use the local council election on 22 May to put this issue centre stage in the political debate and pose a challenge to the drilling multinationals and the main parties.

Standing under the banner of Fermanagh Against Fracking, Socialist Party member Donal O’Cofaigh won 555 first-preference votes (8.2%) in the Enniskillen area. This was more than the Green Party and Alliance Party candidates, a well-known independent and three Unionists. In one of the most deprived areas of the town, Donal topped the poll with almost 20% of the vote, demonstrating that the campaign tapped into a mood of discontent with the established parties. Importantly, support came from across the religious divide, despite sectarian attempts by some opponents to slander Donal. The campaign won important trade union backing from Unite, FBU and individual union branches. If the area had retained seven rather than six seats, Donal would almost certainly have been elected but, in the end, narrowly missed out, being eliminated after the sixth count with 669 votes. As well as demonstrating the depth of opposition to fracking, this gives a glimpse of the possibilities for building a mass, anti-sectarian party of the working class in the next period.

This was universally recognised as an impressive vote in both the local and Northern Ireland press. It reflects the important groundwork which local activists like Donal have done in raising awareness and building opposition since fracking first came on the agenda in Fermanagh three years ago, including playing an important role in organising the demonstration against the visit of the G8 last June, a capitalist institution which promotes fracking. Donal’s campaign was, by far, the most active and visible of any candidate, with hundreds of posters, thousands of leaflets, stalls and banner drops. The campaign attracted a new people to anti-fracking activism and undoubtedly raised people’s understanding of the threat posed by fracking.

Exposing failure of main parties

The vote was particularly impressive given that drilling has not yet begun and that four of the five Assembly Executive parties now posture as being against fracking. Our literature concretely exposed the failure of each of these parties – Sinn Féin, the middle class, nationalist SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the middle class and the unionist, ‘non-sectarian’ Alliance Party – to live up to their words. In the midst of the campaign, they made our point for us, although it received little media coverage. A parliamentary petition was launched by Steven Agnew MLA (member of the legislative assembly) which, if it had received the necessary 30 signatures, would have given the Assembly Executive the opportunity to effectively scrap fracking multinational Tamboran’s licence for drilling in Fermanagh. None of the main parties and not a single MLA from the area signed it.

Donal’s vote is a warning to the main parties that they can expect to be punished if they allow fracking to take place in Fermanagh. The fact that all but one of the main parties boycotted a public debate on fracking reflects their nervousness on the issue.

However, we cannot rest on our laurels. In what was clearly a calculated move, it was announced almost immediately after the election that exploratory drilling will begin at the Belcoo area of Fermanagh in June. It is clearer than ever that the politicians cannot be relied upon. It is now an urgent task facing environmental activists, trade unionists and the students’ movement to build a ‘people power’ campaign which can block this toxic industry through civil disobedience, industrial action and major demonstrations.

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June 2014