Northern Ireland

Fermanagh council fracking referendum proposed

Politicians in Fermanagh have asked council officers there to find out if a local referendum could be held in the county on fracking.

Fracking is the controversial method of extracting gas from rock.

Local referendums are common at town halls in England and they have been held on fracking in the US.

Led by Sinn Féin, Fermanagh councillors have asked the council to examine the feasibility of holding a county-wide ballot to measure opinion on fracking.

The idea would be to hold it on the same day as the European and local government elections in May, according to the vice chairman of the council, Sinn Féin's Barry Doherty.

"Locally, one of the things I am hearing is that people's voices are not being heard and decisions are being taken miles away from where the actual mechanics of fracking are going to happen," he said.

"It is very easy for somebody maybe sitting miles away from here or in London to say 'let's frack Fermanagh'. (A referendum) would give space for their voices to be heard."

While not opposed to the idea of testing local opinion on fracking, veteran DUP councillor Bert Johnston said there were other ways of going about it.

"I think there should be a local survey, an interview with a couple of hundred people or whatever, which would be a lot, lot cheaper and more likely to happen, as I don't think the other one (a referendum) will happen," he said.

'Economic driver'

Speaking to Radio Ulster on Friday, Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said it was understandable that there were calls for a referendum in Fermanagh on fracking.

"I have met many people from Fermanagh who have concerns about fracking and are opposed to it," he said.

"It's understandable that there might be some people down there who want this referendum, who see this as their opportunity to stop fracking.

"I have to give them the assurance that fracking will not proceed here in the absence of clear evidence that it is safe. I haven't got that evidence.

"Tourism is the key economic driver in Fermanagh. What impact is the virtual rape of the Fermanagh countryside going to have on tourism there?"

'Fantastic feedback'

There is a precedent for a council holding a referendum in Northern Ireland. In the early 1990s, Castlereagh council organised one around the issue of Sunday opening.

Castlereagh Alliance councillor Geraldine Rice said: "We got really fantastic feedback from the referendum and a majority of people said 'yes we want it in all the facilities'. I think it's a useful exercise for public representatives to run a referendum."

Council officials will issue a report on the feasibility of the proposal to the full council next week and will not comment until then.

But a former chief executive of Fermanagh District Council, Gerry Burns, said he would be surprised if officials are enthusiastic about progressing the idea further.

"There would have to be a very considerable authenticity associated with it," he said.

"That is a big problem. And then at the end of the day what are you left with, you are left with a view, you are left with an opinion."

If all the hurdles were cleared, a county-wide referendum could cost in the region of £100,000.

Fermanagh councillors may ultimately have to decide if it is a price worth paying for one side in the fracking debate to score a moral victory over the other.

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