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Gold-diggers are undermined by the people of Tyrone

By Eamonn McCann

Published 10/02/2016

A couple of weeks before Christmas I travelled down to Greencastle, in the townland of Sheskinshule in Co Tyrone, for a meeting about gold mining organised by Save Our Sperrins (SOS)
A couple of weeks before Christmas I travelled down to Greencastle, in the townland of Sheskinshule in Co Tyrone, for a meeting about gold mining organised by Save Our Sperrins (SOS)

A couple of weeks before Christmas I travelled down to Greencastle, in the townland of Sheskinshule in Co Tyrone, for a meeting about gold mining organised by Save Our Sperrins (SOS).

Greencastle sits at a crossroads in the rolling foothills of the velvet Sperrins, between the Owenkillew and Owenreagh rivers. It is adjacent to Gortin Glen, probably the most beautiful place in Ireland.

Cormac McAleer of SOS, James Orr from Friends of the Earth and myself spoke to the audience. The nature of the proposed mining development in the area was discussed in great detail.

Reports were given of the experiences of communities in Canada and elsewhere living close to mines where the same techniques were used. There was much comment on an alleged "charm offensive" by the company.

The SOS group was nervous that it was losing the PR battle to the mining company, Dalradian. A door-to-door survey commissioned by Dalradian of 608 houses in Gortin/Greencastle had suggested that 93% were either in favour of, or neutral about, the development.

None of the mainstream parties were represented at the Greencastle meeting. The audience didn't exceed 25.

Another meeting on the same topic was held at nearby Curraghinalt last Friday night. This time between 450 and 500 showed up. An equally telling indication of a decisive shift in opinion was that political representatives crowded in and vied with one another in the vehemence of their expressions of support for the organisers.

St Patrick's GAA club decided last week not to apply for a grant from the company's 'Tyrone Fund', established to provide money to local organisations.

Club secretary Sean Clarke told a newspaper that: "It is evident people in the area don't think they should be involved."

The "charm offensive" could divide a small, closely-knit community, he suggested.

"I think the people have listened, seen and are making up their minds."

Primary school children and members of the Greencastle Mothers' and Toddlers' Group have also been to the fore in opposing the mine.

Some of the hundreds who marked their first involvement in the campaign by attending the Curraghinalt meeting may have been partly motivated by nimbyism. But then, if your backyard is as gorgeous and unspoilt as the area concerned, you may be entitled to take that attitude.

Local opinion appears to have swung against the mine.

Things were different back in 2014 when then Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster enthusiastically welcomed the company to the area. Local MP Pat Doherty of Sinn Fein had been somewhat more measured, but also took a positive view.

The Department of the Environment, under the SDLP's Mark H Durkan, was so relaxed about the development it ruled that "the proposal did not require to be accompanied by an environmental statement. (The department) had found no likely significant environmental impact".

The prospect of new jobs had overridden many objections (about 50 people are currently employed on the site, around half of them locals. The local workforce could eventually reach 150). It is this which lends the matter a potentially wider significance.

In May last year Cormac McAleer had declared in a local newspaper: "We have witnessed how the mining company effectively lobbied officials and politicians. The promise of inward investment has won over the powers that be. Anyone who dares question the proposal... does so at their own risk... who will protect the environment?"

The most alarming aspect of the proposal is the use of cyanide. The extraction technique involves pulverising rock before using cyanide to separate gold from ore. An accidental spillage, say environmentalists, anglers and others, could prove disastrous.

The fact that a few dedicated campaigners, along with young people with bright ideals and many who simply shrink away from the idea of cyanide being used in the vicinity, can win - which is not to say they have already won - against a major international company supported by the main political parties, might serve as an example to others tempted to believe that it's futile for ordinary folk to stand against powerful interests.

The frackers have been seen off in Fermanagh (so far). Now, the interests out to gouge gold from the Tyrone countryside are facing more formidable opposition than they can have expected.

From a tiny group just months ago to the makings of a mass campaign today, Cormac McAleer and SOS have made a huge difference in a short time.

There's a lesson for us all in that, too.

Belfast Telegraph

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