Belfast Telegraph

Why our prospects are looking good

By Maurice Neill, Business Correspondent

IRELAND has been producing small quantities of gold, diamonds and valuable minerals since the Bronze Age.

IRELAND has been producing small quantities of gold, diamonds and valuable minerals since the Bronze Age.

The earliest gold finds were in the Moyola River in Tyrone and a large diamond, found in the Colebrook River in Fermanagh in 1816, is among the Brookborough family jewellery. Oil exploration is under way today near Larne.

Though it is among the smallest regions of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has a great variety and some of the oldest rock types in these islands.

Serious commercial interest in the island's mineral resources was rekindled in the 70s. As the world's natural resources became scarce, and the price of commodities began to rise, prospecting moved to under-explored areas.

The last decade has seen exploration in Northern Ireland reach 'historically high levels', according to the Geological Survey office, which advises the Government. The province is a 'prime target' say some geologists.

A total of 13 companies from North America, Britain and the Republic hold a total of 21 licences to explore for minerals oil and gas here.

Though the price of gold is depressed at $$290 an ounce, oil is more valuable than at anytime in the past 125 years at $$30 a barrel.

Exploration in Ireland has attracted investment from the international business community and some of country's wealthiest men, including Heinz chairman Tony O'Reilly and hotelier Billy Hastings.

The latest valuable finds include one of the world's largest lead and zinc deposits which is mined by Finnish company Outokunmpu near Navan in Co Meath. A gas field off the Co Mayo coast is expected to come on stream by 2005. Irish company Providence Resources believes the Helvick oil field off the coast of Wexford holds 28 million barrels.

Small mineral and gas finds have also been made in Northern Ireland but here the focus is on precious metals. In the past 20 years gold has been discovered in places as far apart as Ballycastle and Gilford.

A 'significant' gold find at Cavanacaw in the Sperrins, by international exploration company Rio Tinto Zinc, was the subject of a public inquiry in 1993 but mining by Omagh Minerals failed to go ahead because of security risks. A second find is known to exist at nearby Curraghinalt.

In 1995 a British Geological Survey report suggested 'significant quantities' of diamonds and gold might be found across the northwest.

Canadian-based Kenmare Resources and Limerick-based Invernia West have licences to prospect in Fermanagh and Tyrone. British-based Cambridge Minerals has found gemstones in Inishowen.

Dublin-based Conroy Diamonds and Gold is the latest company to take an interest in the Orlock Bridge Fault, which runs from Cavan through Armagh and Down into Scotland.

Fermanagh has been the location for oil exploration since the 60s and 'black gold' is thought to exist under the Antrim plateau. Exploration by a consortium, Antrim Resources, is currently under way at a secret location near Larne.

The US-based Priority Oil& Gas has licences to explore most of Fermanagh and parts of Derry, Tyrone and Armagh.

"There is a reasonable prospect of a commercial gas find in Fermanagh," according to Peter Taggart of the minerals and petroleum unit at DETI.

Though gold, diamonds, oil and gas companies are attractive and popular investments there are other more mundane but equally valuable mineral resources known to be under our feet. Others may yet be found.

The province has long been a rich source of basic commodities for the building trade. In 1996 some 259 quarries produced 25 million tonnes of rock valued at £63m and employing 1,460 people. The type of quality sand used in the production of glass is known to exist in the Lough Neagh area.

Sand, found on the family farm at Derrylin in Fermanagh, is the foundation of Sean Quinn's £100m fortune. Last year Sean Quinn Group was at the centre of a 'dirty tricks' case in Dublin High Court involving Belfast-based Lagan Holdings over the exploitation of a rare limestone found in Cavan.

The border areas are thought to be rich in the material which is used in the production of high grade cement. It may also have uses in animal feeds, plastics and toothpaste.

Australian-based Meekathara holds licences to mine lignite, a brown coal, near Ballymoney and Crumlin, and Belfast-based Antrim Perlite has a licence to exploit a perlite find near Toome. The material is used to make electrical insulation.

James Stevenson Quarries holds a licence to extract bauxite, aluminium ore, at Clinty Quarry near Ballymena and the Irish Salt Mining and Exploration company mines salt near Kilroot.

Even the plentiful Antrim basalt may have commercial applications and can be turned into products for the expanding environmental protection industry.

A peaceful climate and advances in technology make exploration easier and experts believe it is only a matter of time and money before a major discovery is made here.

Bernard Anderson, senior geology lecturer at Queen's University in Belfast, said: "Speculative drilling occurs from time to time and it will probably be sooner rather than later that we find a metal ore worth mining.

"However, investment in exploration companies is like backing a 100-1 outsider. It is not for the small investor but for the person who has £1m and wants to take a big gamble to make £2m."

Licences to prospect for gold and precious metals are issued by the Crown but other valuable minerals, oil and gas are the responsibility of the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment. Licences cost up to £1,000 and run for between two and five years.

Belfast Telegraph


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