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Fracked-off farmers unite with activists

Northern Ireland
2013-06-24 fracking protest edit.jpg

Anti-fracking campaigners march in Belfast during the G8 © Tyler McNally

As the G8 Summit began in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, a group of farmers drove 60 tractors in a ‘go-slow’, bringing a 24-kilometre stretch of road to a halt. The 16 June action opposed hydraulic fracturing – fracking – which could take place on both sides of the Irish border. It was followed by statements against fracking from the major farmers’ unions in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

This is a significant development in the fight against fracking in Ireland and Northern Ireland, where at least four energy companies are seeking to rend the landscape apart drilling for gas in the very area that the G8 took place. Although there is a temporary freeze on drilling in the Republic, Canadian company Tamboran Resources already have a license to start exploring for shale gas in Northern Ireland due to commence this year.

For over two years, the battle against fracking in Ireland has mostly been the preserve of the seasoned activist. But impressive organizing efforts in Fermanagh over the past few years have mobilized communities as campaign groups harangue elected representatives.

Assembly members speaking against fracking are treated like cranks by ministers. Despite the scientifically proven environmental devastation, the rubbished claims of hundreds of ‘fracking jobs’, and the fact that fracking will make the climate crisis worse, the slippery slope towards fracking in Ireland has continued.

But now, the endorsement of the official organizations of the farmers lobby could turn this opposition into a mass movement. Given their ambivalence on the issue not so long ago, this is refreshing news. After the ‘go-slow’ action, Pat Gilhooley from the Irish Farmers Association said fracking will be an election issue in the Republic’s local authority elections in 2014. John Sheridan from the Ulster Farmers’ Union stated that the risk to the farming industry from fracking was too great. ‘We Deserve Better,’ runs the monicker of a new, cross-border campaign, launched this month.

With the addition of the farming lobby, it’s hard to imagine how the conservative Unionist parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, both heavily dependent on rural votes, can maintain their support or ambivalence for fracking forever. The North’s Minister for Enterprise, Arlene Foster, is aggressively pro-fracking. Two years ago, allegations of impropriety emerged when it turned out Foster’s husband owns 62 hectares of land within the gas exploration zone. With Foster holding a rural seat, the addition of the organized farm lobby that could break the back of the corporations and politicians that want fracking to take place in Ireland.

There are definitely lessons to be learnt here for other activists battling fracking across the world. Fracking isn’t just an environmental issue – it’s a livestock issue. It’s a food issue. It’s a livelihood issue for those who toil to provide us with food. The Left needs to make common cause with rural communities on fracking; the myth that they are more conservative than urban areas needs to be shattered.

To win on fracking, links have to be made beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of activist groups. Internationally, there are great examples: In Australia, a group called Lock The Gate are succeeding in uniting environmentalists, activists and farmers. In Germany, the unlikely allies have been found in the beer industry, which fears for the future of their products. In France, where fracking is currently banned, farmers stand with activists gathering on their fields and hang protest banners from hay bales to campaign to keep the ban in place.

Across the world, building the broadest coalition possible to defeat fracking means getting out of the activist comfort zone and working with people we wouldn’t usually work with – and people we might not agree with on many issues. Farmers, environmentalists, activists, conservationists must unite and fight.

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