Last week I travelled to Lancashire to visit the site at Preston New Road near Blackpool which is currently the frontline for fracking in the UK. The details and history of the site are set out here on the superb Drill or Drop website. Briefly (and notoriously) this is the site where Lancashire County Council refused planning permission to Cuadrilla to carry out fracking operations and where, last October, the Communities Secretary overturned that decision. It was and is a shocking undercutting of local, democratic and accountable decision-making, carried out by a government deeply embedded in the dangerous industry it ought to regulate.
I first met campaigners from Frack Free Lancashire back in the summer of 2013, when they came to Northern Ireland during the run-up to the G8 in Fermanagh, supporting us when it looked as though we might be the first to be fracked. We met again in several campaigns, including in Paris for the COP21 climate change talks and the first ever global frack-free summit.
So when I was asked by the Democracy Center to help give a workshop as part of the July Reclaim the Power Rolling Resistance at the site, I was delighted at the opportunity. I travelled with Jamie Gorman from Love Leitrim, and during our long journey by ferry, train and bus we planned how best to explain what our campaigns had achieved in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, and what lessons we had learned.
We arrived late on the Thursday evening, and our workshop was to take place on Saturday, so we were able to spend time both at the site and in the nearby camp where we stayed under canvas. During the month of July, direct actions had taken place on every weekday, significantly slowing down the progress of the fracking operations and raising awareness and confidence within the local community. Every Friday there was a large-scale, family-friendly mass demonstration, good humoured, positive and celebratory. Last Friday the theme was Carnival, with dancing, singing, circus skills …
… and a huge cycling rabbit adding to the festivities.
Saturday morning, with a few of us sitting opposite the site gates and monitoring its activity, was a time for more serious conversations, informing the discussions at the afternoon workshop, at which we were joined by activists from Scotland sharing their experiences. The level of interest in the Northern Ireland campaign, concern for our uncertain future and joy at the ban in the Republic of Ireland were hugely inspiring, and I was sorry not to be able to stay for longer.
As always, I came away feeling that I’d learned more than I’d shared, and with a renewed determination to do whatever I can to support our fellow frack-free activists wherever they are. Preston New Road is the place in the UK where, at present, fracking is most imminent, the danger to activists most real and the role of the police in facilitating corporate destruction most blatant and shameless. And it is also the place where the strengths and values of the frack-free campaign, and the wider climate movement of which it is a part, are most clearly to be seen.
Central to these, I believe, are three kinds of connection, without which frack-free activism would lose its heart, its voice and its unquenchable spirit.
We must connect with our neighbours, because we are local. Despite the attempts of Cuadrilla’s management to suggest otherwise, I saw that residents and businesses are overwhelmingly on the side of the campaign and against fracking in their area. Whether it was local people walking along to the site with children and dogs to share a few minutes’ conversation, families taking part in the mass actions or drivers honking their car horns in support, there is no doubt of the mutual respect and affection between activists and the community.
We must connect with our friends, because we are global. ‘Not in anyone’s backyard’ is a fundamental principle of the frack-free movement and we share everything: research, insights, encouragement, good news and bad. Whenever political representatives or others claim to oppose fracking in their own regions and yet will not actively support the campaign elsewhere, they reveal the limits of their commitment.
We must connect with our enemies, because we are non-violent. The rows of police and security guards, the vans with slogans like that of the Merseyside Police ‘A force to be reckoned with’, the deception, the acts of actual violence and the potential for them to be repeated: all these are frightening. Retreating, retaliating, refusing to engage would all be understandable reactions. But instead the movement constantly offers peace, humanity and love to those who do the corporations’ work. One of the most moving actions during the month was the slow walk of women in white up to the gates and the still, silent gaze of each woman upon the face of a police officer, looking beyond the uniform and the blank stare at the human person who stood before her.
We should honour, thank and celebrate everyone who is connecting at Preston New Road, who did great things during the month of July and who will go on doing great things. I’d like especially to thank Philippa from the Democracy Center, Coralie from Reclaim the Power, Jamie and Lucy from Ireland, and Barbara, Tina and Bob in Lancashire. And finally I’d like to pay tribute to the amazing truck surfers, who camped for days and nights, through torrential rainstorms, on the tiny surfaces of lorry cabs, only to be arrested as soon as they finally came down. I’ve never seen such courage, or such cheerfulness.