Sinn Féin and DUP district council chairs mute anti-gold mining, socialist councillors

Flintridge Resources goldmine, Cavanacaw (Photo: Kenneth Allen/CC)

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

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

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

At this point, the Chair of the meeting, Council Vice-Chair Chris McCaffrey of Sinn Féin, said: “Councillor McAleer needs to be removed.” McAleer was then ejected from the virtual meeting.

McCaffrey had earlier ignored attempts by Militant Left member Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh to speak. McAleer pointed out to the Chair that O’Cofaigh was caught up at the scene of a traffic accident and could not move. McCaffrey responded: “I have explained they did have the option to come into the Council chamber.”

McAleer “He did explain to you he was at the site of a traffic accident.” McCaffrey did not respond to this information. He refused to allow O’Cofaigh to vote using his mobile phone.

In the course of the chaotic meeting, Sinn Féin managed to point in both directions on the gold mining issue. There is a major campaign against a proposed goldmine at Greencastle in Co Tyrone’s Sperrin mountains. On the night before the meeting, BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘Spotlight’ had run a programme raising serious questions about the proposed mine’s environmental impact.

McAleer proposed that the Council invite hydrology expert Steven H Emerman to give evidence on their behalf at a forthcoming public inquiry into the mine. This was passed by 14 votes to six. Sinn Féin supported the proposal.

Then a vote was taken on a second proposal from Ulster Unionist Robert Irvine. He proposed the Council invite a second, pro-mining, expert to act on their behalf. This was passed by 18 votes to four, with Sinn Féin voting in favour of that proposal also – though it effectively negated the previous one.

The meeting spiralled into chaos. O’Cofaigh and two other independent councillors attempted to raise McAleer’s exclusion. McCaffrey refused to allow them to speak and announced he was closing the meeting. However, he then allowed fellow-Sinn Féin member Stephen McCann to speak. McCann congratulated McCaffrey on his actions: “Chair, well done, and hopefully this will not be a theme in the future.”

New speaking system

For the next Council meeting, five days after, a new speaking system was introduced. Councillors were no longer able to unmute themselves to speak. Rather they were to indicate their intention and were to be sent an unmute prompt when called to speak. O’Cofaigh and four other independent councillors experienced continual difficulties with this. Councillors from the four mainstream parties did not appear to suffer these.

The meeting was almost as chaotic. This meeting had Council Chair Errol Thompson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the chair. Thompson opened the meeting announced that a proposal from McAleer, which appeared on the agenda, had been ruled out of order.“After further advice, it has been ruled not competent and therefore it has been ruled out of order and removed from the agenda,” Thompson said. “There will be no discussion on this matter.”

When McAleer protested, Thompson said: “Mute that councillor. That’s the end of it. No bad manners, no speaking over the chair or any other speaker.” McAleer was again excluded. Unlike the previous meeting, he was later allowed to rejoin.

McAleer’s proposal was to ‘call in’ a decision of the Council not to call on police to reverse a decision not to charge mining companies for escorting explosives for blasting operations. This could cost the Northern Ireland exchequer up to £318million (€371.5million).

O’Cofaigh protested at the Chair’s behaviour. Thompson said: “It is the Chair’s ruling.” O’Cofaigh pointed out Thompson was acting contrary to the Council’s own rules: “A member shall be entitled to raise a point of order and shall be heard immediately. Standing orders are standing orders and we have a right to be heard immediately. It says in our own rules in black and white as a Council, Chair.” Council Chief Executive Alison McCullagh interjected to support Thompson, saying Councillors could indicate if they wished to speak.

When O’Cofaigh continued requesting the Chair obey the Council’s standing orders, Thompson said: “Mute Councillor O’Cofaigh.”

While chaotic, the meeting failed to reach the depths of its predecessor. Unlike McCaffrey, Thompson actually allowed non-members of his party to speak.

All of this serves to reinforce the truth that so-called representative institutions under capitalism often operate to exclude socialist and other anti-systemic voices. Misuse of standing orders is a long-standing tactic to ensure establishment parties like Sinn Fein and the DUP can control council business for the benefit of powerful interests like the mining companies who want to exploit natural resources. That Sinn Fein is happy to facilitate this surely calls into question their credentials as a self-styled ‘progressive’ force, particularly in the South.

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November 2021