Idyllic village of Belcoo now the front line in bitter fracking battle
Published 29/07/2014 | 11:30
Nestled between spectacular mountains and sprawling lakelands, Belcoo is every inch the archetypal picture postcard tourist attraction.
But in the past week it has become the unlikeliest of settings for an ugly and increasingly bitter row between residents and a multi-national energy company over the highly-controversial process of fracking.
A protest camp – manned 24 hours each day, seven days a week – has been set up, and unwelcome visitors to the fracking site are prevented from entering by high metal gates and razor wire.
Should they breach the main entrance, dozens of security guards are based at various secondary gates leading into the former quarry at the heart of the dispute.
Several police officers were present yesterday to ensure tensions didn't spill over into disorder.
That didn't seem likely.
The mood was relaxed and all involved in the stand-off went about their business against a spectacular backdrop, one of many which draws thousands of visitors to Fermanagh each year.
Indeed, it was those surroundings which secured the hosting of last year's G8 Summit, bringing the most influential leaders in the world to the area.
Now residents there are calling for help from those in authority to block what they say is a huge risk to their way of life. Many in the area are bitterly opposed to any drilling plans, claiming fracking can lead to water pollution and increase the risk of earth tremors.
A huge banner outside one property read: 'Tourism yes, farming yes, fracking no'.
The fight by environmental campaigners to prevent any fracking in Fermanagh ratcheted up last week when an Australian firm, Tamboran Resources, moved equipment onto a quarry owned by concrete firm Acheson and Glover.
Tamboran intends to drill a borehole to collect rock samples to glean how much natural gas there may be locally.
It hopes to drill over the end of August and into September. The firm says it does not intend to use chemicals.
But the move has infuriated anti-fracking campaigners, who have set up a protest camp at the gates of the quarry.
Named the Belcoo Community Protection Camp, it was busy with people of all ages.
The atmosphere was friendly, with protesters playing musical instruments and singing.
Caravans and mobile toilet facilities have been put in place, with nightly protests also under way.
Alcohol is banned from the site and organisers have drawn up a code of conduct for anybody taking part in the action.
One of those behind the camp, Donal Ó Cófaigh, said people in Belcoo were furious that equipment had been brought onto the quarry site.
The Belcoo Frack Free spokesman said: "The local community has never been consulted about the development of this poisonous industry.
"Local people have a range of real and scientifically grounded concerns.
"This has deepened local opposition and determination to stop shale gas development. We ask those parties who say that they are against fracking to follow through with action in the NI Executive to halt all shale gas exploration."
Letters and leaflets were distributed to homes in the area by Tamboran last week and it also informed the Department of the Environment of its intentions. The company has a licence to carry out the exploratory work.
However, protesters claimed they have not been properly consulted and vowed to keep up the protest until they feel their concerns have been addressed. JP Fay has protested against fracking across the world.
He said he was prepared to go to jail for his views.
The retired miner from Co Meath said he had serious concerns about fracking.
Posters and banners line main roads throughout the area in and around Enniskillen and Belcoo.
Among them, some on homes read: 'Not for shale'.
Meg McCauley travelled from the Republic to take part. "This industry will not stop at one well," she said.
"There are potentially 4,500 wells in Fermanagh and Leitrim, and nature knows no borders.
"So if Fermanagh is polluted, so is Leitrim.
"It won't stop there. I'm doing this for my children and our future generations."
Ms McCauley said she preferred to be described as a "protector" rather than a "protester".
Tom White added: "This is the first time we've had shale gas exploration on this island.
"Since the site has been up and going we have managed to get a rota up and running, we have marshals for busy times, and nightly protests.
"Last night we had about 450 people taking part."
At the weekend, Tamboran obtained a High Court injunction to prevent protesters getting close to the quarry. The company said: "In order to protect the safety of local people, site security and protesters we have sought and secured an order for an injunction to deter anyone from seeking unlawful access.
"Tamboran respects people's right to protest and we welcome calls from local people to ensure that the protests are peaceful.
"It is important to stress that the company is undertaking work it is required to do under the terms of the licence from Government and intends to meet its obligations in full.
"The company also believes the people of Fermanagh and Northern Ireland have a right to know if gas is present."
The firm said it expected protests and said in the past it had received threats due to its drilling work.
Those present at Belcoo yesterday said only people engaged in peaceful demonstrations were welcome.