25th May 2016

0525
Stanley Johnson, James Orr (FoE) and me

In Belfast today with Friends of the Earth NI and Environmentalists for Europe, speaking along with Stanley Johnson (Boris’s dad) on the reasons why environmentalists might want to vote to Remain.  Here’s my opening statement:

Tree-huggers, polar-bear pesterers, dolphin-worshippers. That’s us, isn’t it?

But the environment isn’t just the place where other species live; it’s where we ourselves live too. As environmentalists, we’re fundamentally concerned with making this place; this land, this air, this water safe for our fellow humans as well as for other living beings.

So, what does European membership mean for that task, and, first of all, where would we be without it?

The English common law, as operational across most of these islands, is individualistic, property-based and economically libertarian. “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” especially if it happens to be a castle. He (or she, and increasingly often it, with the growth of corporate power) is free to do anything that isn’t specifically prohibited.

Which sounds great. Only to do many of those things that people want to, the things that make money, you need physical power – your own or someone else’s – officially-sanctioned property rights and economic resources. And undoing those things is quite a different matter. You can pollute a river with no difficulty at all, but you can’t unpollute it.

When one landowner’s freedom to do exactly as he pleases interferes with another landowner’s freedom to do as exactly as he pleases, the common law will adjudicate, but it generally won’t help the poor peasant who suffers as a result of either. Or both.

The development of the law of negligence, which has filled in so many gaps in the old common law, isn’t much help in environmental cases either. It requires demonstrable fault, and foreseeability of the harm that’s caused. Any activist will know the stultifying power of those two deadly words ‘best practice’.

So, if the common law doesn’t stand up for us, for the health and well-being of ordinary people, what about statutes? The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a paternalistic concern for public health which led to laws such as the Alkali Acts of the 1860s, to inspectorates and regulatory bodies. They were a lot better than nothing but they can’t help us today. Apart from the fact that, of course, most are now entirely anachronistic, they don’t change anything about the basic power relationships of predatory capitalism. All they do is hedge it around with a little decorative border. They say ‘You can continue to exploit people and resources, to inflict permanent damage on our health and our environment, just not in these specific ways’. And that very specific nature means that they’re instantly outdated, as corporations find different ways to achieve the same ends, they don’t set precedents, and they can’t be used to establish any wider rights. And they’re optional. It’s entirely up to the individual government of the day whether it chooses to grant Parliamentary time for new legislation. Do we really think, looking at the Westminster or Stormont benches….?

No. Which leaves us with what – the planning system? Once that had aims that were to do with positive social outcomes, with the common good. But its main purpose, in the twenty-first century, is increasingly the facilitation of the market. And remember, a Brexit planning system would be one without environmental impact assessments.

International law? We’re scraping the barrel now. ‘Aspirational’ is the polite word for most of it. World leaders gather to tell one another bedtime stories about Never-Never Land, while most of them would fight tooth and nail against its ever coming into existence. In so far as international law works at all, it works to protect the commercial interests of the rich against the environmental rights of the poor.

That, sadly, is the dark truth behind the jolly slogans of the Brexiteers. ‘Freedom’ means licence for corporations to enrich themselves, regardless of the externalities of pollution, climate change, sickness and death. And it means the removal from our hands of the few tools we have to build a better future.

What are those tools that European membership shares with us? There’s the substantive law, of course, half a century’s worth. Nine years ago it was calculated that 80% of member states’ environmental legislation stemmed from EU policy. That includes countries whose protections go beyond the European minimum (I know, unthinkable isn’t it?) so for the UK it’s probably higher. Without those laws and regulations, so cynically dismissed as red, or sometimes green, tape by those whose friends are inconvenienced by them, our health and wellbeing would dramatically plummet. If it’s tape, it’s the kind you keep in your first aid kit to stop yourself bleeding to death.

But even more important than the specific legislation are, I think, the ideas that inform and shape it. Rather than simply that hedging around of the licence to destroy, we’re seeing the emergence of environmental human rights, the rights, we might say, of the commons as well as the castle.

We see that in the nature of European directives and action programmes, which don’t, like the old UK statutes, limit their operation to particular sectors and industries but integrate them, looking at the total and cumulative effect.

We see it in the principles that the European Union has laid down: that the polluter pays, that development must be sustainable, that the precautionary principle should guide our response to incomplete or ambiguous evidence.

We see it in the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights has no specific mention of environmental rights, but we’ve seen a willingness to interpret Article 8 about respect for private and family life to include the right not to be subject to severe air and noise pollution. We’ve seen that Article 2, the right to life and Article 10, freedom of expression, can include environmental rights, and critically that Article 6, the right to a fair hearing and Article 13, the right to an effective remedy, are relevant to the conduct of regulators and planning authorities as well as that of the courts.

And we see it most clearly in the European implementation of the Aarhus Convention. Without the EU, Aarhus, for us, would be just another well-meaning story, a nice woolly UN convention following the feel-good Rio Declaration. Its assertion of the environment as a basic human right, linked to the right to life, would be a pious fiction and its three pillars: environmental justice, environmental information and the right to participation would be about as much use as a cotton-wool screwdriver.

Now I, along with many others here, would be the first to say that the implementation of Aarhus, especially here, is very far from being as it should be. And I have no illusions that our enactment and enforcement of European law generally is something to be proud of. If the UK as a whole is something of a malinger when it comes to the environment, then Northern Ireland hasn’t got out of its pajamas yet.

But we have the tools, and we have the rights. And we have real and effective ways of using them. The European doctrine of direct effect says that if our government doesn’t transpose European directives properly, we as individuals can still rely on them. And European fines for non-compliance hit the powers-that-be, especially at Stormont, where it hurts – in the wallet.

I’d like to see us treat this referendum as a wake-up call, not just a dreary rehearsal of the economic pros and cons of Brexit, but a reminder to ourselves and others of the more important, long-lasting and critical aspects of being in Europe. And perhaps that reminder will inspire in us a determination to use the rights and those remedies which are under threat, to use them for ourselves, for our neighbours, our children and the generations to come.

 

16th February 2016

0216I’m in blustery and rainy Enniskillen this afternoon, having just got the Green Party in Northern Ireland’s membership database up to date, but my thoughts are across the other side of the province, in Woodburn Forest near Carrickfergus in County Antrim.

I’ve written about Woodburn a few times before in this blog, notably here and here and carried the news to Paris with me in December.  Very sadly, despite the valiant efforts of Stop the Drill, some wise and farsighted local residents, Friends of the Earth and Green Party representatives Ross Brown on Belfast City Council and Steven Agnew in the Northern Assembly, the situation has gone from bad to worse.  The people of Antrim and Belfast, who rely upon Woodburn Reservoir for their daily drinking water, have been let down by NI Water, which leased this vulnerable catchment area for commercial oil and gas extraction by the ever-shifting group of interests fronted by InfraStrata, by the Environment Minister and his department, which granted permitted development rights for exploratory drilling without planning permission, by the Minister for Enterprise and DETI, which unilaterally varied the terms of the licence in the company’s favour, and by the majority of councillors and MLAs, who are content to see this destruction and potential danger go ahead.

InfraStrata is now ready to begin drilling, and only the presence of brave and committed individuals (including our son Aidan, pictured above) is keeping them from doing so.  You’ll understand why I’m wishing I was there.  Until I can be, here is a short video made by Friends of the Earth, explaining the situation.

 

 

Please share this as widely as you can, support the Don’t Drill Antr campaign, and, if you possibly can, take yourself to Woodburn Forest to help protect it, its wildlife and the safety of thousands of people’s water.

12th December 2015

1212anThere aren’t many days when I manage to take part in three climate justice actions – but not many days are like this one.  I’ll let the pictures (mostly) tell the story.

1212aa
Lancastrian trio Ian, John and Gail

It began, after an early breakfast, when a hundred or so of us made our way to the Place d’Italie in south-east Paris. We had very little idea what we were doing there, but some very competent people from Friends of the Earth did, so we were happy enough.  We formed ourselves into trios (that bit was simple enough) and connected to the climatejusticpeace.org website on our phones (a bit more complex, but generally we managed that too).  My co-conspirators were Barbara from Roseacre in Lancashire, and Lee-Ann from Friends of the Earth in Hull.

 

1212ab
Our cross-Pennine-Irish Sea alliance.

 

Now came the tricky bit.  We were divided into smaller groups, within which each trio was allocated a nearby location.  Trios like ours, with two functioning smartphones, were given two locations, so I took the dentist’s surgery on one side of the boulevard while Barbara and Lee-Ann would be outside the hotel across the road.  We had half an hour until eleven o’clock when we had to do our stuff, so took the opportunity for a fortifying drink (no, just coffee and tea at this point) at the bar on the corner.

 

1212ad1212ae

As eleven o’clock approached, we took up our positions and prepared to send our message to the world. The idea was that we would go to the website, register our location (‘geolocate’ was, I think, the technical term), take a photograph of ourselves, upload it and tweet about the whole experience. It was an idea that had never been tried before, and there was, I think it’s fair to say, a certain degree of scepticism among the older generation.  It didn’t help that I’d never taken a selfie before, and I can’t say that I entirely mastered the art.  I had, however, tweeted a photo straight from my phone before – a superb portrait of my feet, some two hours earlier back at the hostel.  Cutting edge, that’s me. As it turned out, I never managed to connect to the site properly, but I did try, with increasingly chilly fingers, for a good forty minutes.

The dentist's surgery outside which I kept vigil.
The dentist’s surgery outside which I kept vigil.
1212af
Our section co-ordinator, cycling around with advice and encouragement.
1212ah
The ground beneath (well, near) my feet…
... and the tiny garden of which it was a part
… and the tiny garden of which it was a part

 

In between refreshing the page, I thought I would try tweeting a picture. Other people seem to manage selfies in all sorts of circumstances, but whether it was my £15 phone, the shortness of my arms, or general technological incompetence, it never seemed quite to turn out as I’d hoped.

My first attempt - face in focus but no context
My first attempt – face in focus but no context

 

Or context but only half a face.
Or context but only half a face.

 

Sigh.  Anyway, selfies are so 2015 (they tell me).  Across the road, Lee-Ann and Barbara were doing better on the portraiture front, but couldn’t connect to Twitter, so asked if I could upload their photo for them, using Bluetooth.  ‘Oh, I haven’t got that,’ I declared with confidence. ‘I think you probably do,’ said Lee-Ann gently, and proceeded, by some sort of extraordinary magic, involving the gentle caressing of one phone back with the other, to move their picture onto my phone.  What an educational day it was turning into.

1212b3

Eventually I had to give up on my geolocation, but it turned out that it didn’t matter terribly.  The server had coped admirably with the thousands of locations and photographs thrown at it, and a few small hiccups around the edges didn’t prevent the wonder that was three thousand people on the streets of Paris, spelling out the words:

1212b5

It was an absolutely amazing thing to be a part of (we were a bit of the C in Peace) and a wonderful testament to the vision and organisation of Friends of the Earth Europe.

It wasn’t, though, the end of the day.  The evening before, we’d had an informal briefing on the Red Lines protest which was to take place near the Arc de Triomphe from midday.  The idea was that campaigners would hold up red ribbons and lay red tulips on the ground to indicate the red lines of absolute climate necessity which could not, for the sake of all the earth’s inhabitants, be allowed to be crossed.  It would be a wonderful event: peaceful, positive and full of wise and resonant symbolism.  The problem was that it was going to be illegal.  Following the terrorist attacks, the French government had banned any unauthorised gatherings in the city of Paris, and there was a real possibility of arrest and imprisonment.  The official advice was not to go, and if we did, any consequences would be upon our own heads.

Being a timid sort of bear, not fond of unpleasantness of any nature, and particularly not the sort of unpleasantness that a Parisian police cell offered, I would normally have been inclined to nod sagely, and spend the afternoon mooching, in a law-abiding manner, along the Seine.  Perhaps I might have ventured as far as a cup of hot chocolate.  But with Aidan in the second day of Fossil-Free QUB’s occupation, deprived, for all I knew, of the basic necessities of life, at the mercy of the establishment’s every whim, I leapt at the idea of a little martyrdom of my own. And the others, even without my maternal spur, felt the same.

As it turned out, our ultimate sacrifice was not to be required.  As I crossed the final pedestrian crossing back into the Place d’Italie, a cheerful voice called across the road, ‘It’s legal now!’ I don’t think I was alone in feeling a little bit disappointed.

Authorised or not, it was a wonderful manifestation, and the police looked quite grumpy enough, and made us double down quite enough side-streets, for us to feel at least a bit persecuted.  Lee-Ann and I somehow managed to lose the rest of the group (or did they lose us?) but we’d already anticipated something like that happening, so no one assumed the worst.

1212ai 1212aj 1212ak 1212al 1212an 1212ao 1212aq 1212p 1212q

 

The final action of the day took place around the Eiffel Tower, with human chains of solidarity and speeches at the Parc du Champ de Mars.  We met Natalie Bennett, leader of the England and Wales Green Party, just under the Tower, and I was able to say thank you for her tweeted message of support for #OccupyQUB.

 

 

1212r 1212s 1212t 1212u1212w 1212x 1212y

 

 

 

Finally we met up with Kate and Ali from Friends of the Earth, and travelled back to the hostel with them.  There was a showing of the film This Changes Everything, based on Naomi Klein’s book (Lee-Ann had heard her speaking a couple of days before) in the hostel basement, but by the time I’d dumped my stuff and checked in online (my data minutes having run out hours before), the place was crammed and the staff didn’t dare let anyone else in.

 

 

 

 

I did manage, though, to squeeze my way (by clinging to Tina’s coattails) into the final panel debate on the COP21 outcome and the future.  Tina was on the panel, together with representatives 1212zfrom Friends of the Earth across the world, Labour MP Clive Lewis, and Natalie Bennett.  It was a serious and encouraging discussion, and Natalie spoke especially well about the positive aspects of the agreement and the necessity for continued and committed work over the next months and years in holding our governments to their words.  It was the perfect end to an incredible day, and the beginning of a new chapter for us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

11th December 2015

Those of us who weren’t working for Friends of the Earth had a free morning, so I visited Sacre Coeur (for the first time that I remember) and sent up a brief prayer for the COP21 talks.

1211c

It was a grey day, but the views down the hill and across Paris were still pretty stunning.

1211a

After a short mooch around Montmartre I met up with the others back at the Generator hostel and we made our way to the next event – Friends of the Earth’s brilliant People Power Action gathering.

1211h

As I said to Tony Bosworth amidst it all, it was basically Glastonbury’s Left Field without the mud.  (But with the noise, exhilaration, ideas, optimism and beer.)  Small workshops sprang up around the edges of the hall, while at the centre stage lots more was happening.  I joined groups talking about fracking and about the way that complex systems theory can inform and guide climate change movements.

1211lAt one point during the afternoon I noticed that I had a text message on my phone.  It turned out to be from Aidan, letting me know that he was taking part in a bit of  climate justice campaigning himself, back in Belfast.  That was the first I heard of the #OccupyQUB action, and I couldn’t have been anywhere better.

After a break for food, the action in Paris was focussed on the big stage, where a group of climate activists from across the world were explaining their work and vision.  We were delighted to cheer Barbara from the Roseacre Awareness Group, in her Frack Free Lancashire T-shirt, as she spoke with passion of the hope which the conference  inspired in her.

It was another wonderful and exhausting day – but there was yet more to come.

 

10th December 2015

1210

Today was the first ever global anti-fracking summit, and the principal reason why I came to Paris.  Organised by Friends of the Earth Europe, it included representatives from across the world.  I personally listened to or talked with people from the UK, France, the Netherlands, Ireland (it was great to meet up with Jamie from Galway and John from Clare), Germany, Bulgaria, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Argentina and the United States. As far as I can tell, I was the only representative from Northern Ireland, and so I sought and found opportunities to explain what is happening in our unique situation. Speakers shared stories from the fracking frontlines, of heartbreak and success, what works and what doesn’t, and what new challenges are facing us.  We had opportunities to talk in pairs and small and larger groups, to make new contacts and alliances and to begin planning new actions.

1210d

A few themes and highlights stood out for me from an exhausting and exhilarating day:

We are winning the argument.  People across the world, even in countries with governments stubbornly committed to fossil fuels, are realising that fracking simply doesn’t make sense.  Movements like Lock the Gate in Australia are mobilising deeply conservative communities to stand up and reject extreme unconventional extraction techniques. Lock the Gate declarations may not have legal force, but their moral authority is powerful and successful – only two landowners have been taken to court to have access forced upon them.  Don’t be afraid of a broken system.  As an Argentinian representative reminded us, “every ban is a victory for the whole movement”.

Our movement is positive.  We campaign because we love – our brothers and sisters, our world, our children. Like Sandra Steingraber, each of us can ‘bring the full experience of my life to this fight.’  We are not essentially protestors but protectors, a civil rights movement for our time. In Sydney, one of the leading campaigners came to the movement via the fight for refugees’ and indigenous rights.  Talking with elders in New South Wales, he saw fifty thousand years of cultural history destroyed in just four. And the shared struggle can be a source of reconciliation, as we have learned in Northern Ireland.  As one Australian woman put it, “There’s nothing good about fracking except the inspirational people you meet while you’re fighting it.” In Argentina fractivists have active links with other campaigns, e.g. on soybean production, and work with others to ‘create conditions of possibility’, using varied approaches to transform and diversify vulnerable regions.

Josh Fox, director of the Gasland films, was due to be at the summit, but in the event couldn’t come in person as he had to get his new film, appropriately titled How to Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change), ready for the Sundance Festival for which it has been selected.  Instead he sent us a personal video in which he spoke movingly about his experiences of 9/11 and how he wishes he had then spoken out about the futility of violence and revenge. As now in France, it is when our society feels most threatened that peace and human rights are most essential, especially as climate change exacerbates every conflict in the Middle East.

We have the tools and experience that we need.  Groups like EarthWorks, which has been fighting for twenty-six years (‘before fracking had a ‘k’ in it’) and Food and Water Watch have wonderful resources of information, wisdom and experience which they are ready to put to use helping smaller and newer groups across the world.  We don’t have to start from scratch every time. The group Concerned Health Professionals has produced a review of over five hundred scientific articles. This is being constantly upgraded and is available to us all.

1210c

We cannot afford to be complacent.  New weapons are constantly being deployed against us by the virtually indistinguishable corporate and government powers.  In France it took little time for the terrorist atrocities to be used as an excuse to squelch (Winona from Food and Water Watch’s wonderful word) our voices of peaceful protest, targeting environmentalists in particular. In the United States new ordinances are facilitating fracking, with communities excluded from dialogue and public meetings packed with industry shills.  And even good news isn’t always what it seems.  Fracktivists in other countries have envied Australia its two kilometre buffer zone between housing and gasfields.  What we didn’t realise that though new gasfields can’t be developed within 2km of houses, new houses can be, and are being, built within 2km of existing gasfields. The revolving door between government and industry is spinning faster than ever, notably in Argentina, where the new energy and mining minister is a former CEO of Shell in the country.  International ‘trade agreements’ like TTIP are massive weapons in the hands of fossil fuel corporations, and global experience teaches us that they will not hesitate in using them.  In Britain the government has changed the ancient law of trespass and overturned local democratic decisions in order to push its pro-fracking agenda while in Indonesia privatisation and the use of ‘crisis’ as a sales tool are easing the development of a range of extreme fossil fuel extractions including shale, underground coal gasification and coal bed methane.

Fracking for shale gas is not the only problem. In the US the primary focus is now on fracking for oil, while in Australia coal seam gasification (where underground coal seams are set on fire to obtain gas) is the greatest threat, leading the Lock the Gate group to refer to ‘gasfields’ rather than specifically to fracking.  In Scotland a moratorium exists on fracking, but there too coal gasification is a real and active threat. In Wyoming, coal bed methane production is leaving grasses and trees destroyed and six thousand abandoned and toxic wells, while uranium mining in the state will leave centuries of contamination.  Even regions with no direct fossil fuel extraction can be severely damaged by related industries such as the extreme frack sand mining which fills the air with silicosis-causing particulates, reaching levels of 10% at a nearby school.

The worst has not gone away.  We heard acute painful testimonies of serious sickness and death caused directly by extreme extraction, forests fragmented and polluted, water contaminated by radiation, hundreds of billions of gallons of toxic wastewater, explosions in homes and wellpad fires.  After one fire in Pennsylvania that burned for five days and killed an employee, local residents were offered compensation – in the form of a voucher for free pizza. In the indigenous communities of North Dakota, fracking for oil and coal gasification are regulated neither by the state nor the tribal authorities and have left the area ‘like a warzone’ with flaring gas (there is no pipeline to remove it), ‘spill after spill after spill’, and babies reliant on respirators.  The ‘economic benefits’ have included the entry into the area of thousands of workers, leaving a male:female ratio of 10:1, rape figures up by 168%, including the rape of at least one four-year-old child, and widespread drug misuse and organised crime.

There is an alternative. Renewable energy is no longer a minor part of the jigsaw, a picturesque but inevitably small-scale cottage industry.  We now have the technology and knowhow to meet all our energy needs from sustainable, non-fossil, non-nuclear sources.  And we need to start shouting about it.  In North Dakota, for example, scene of the greatest horrors we heard, there is enough wind power to meet one-third of the entire US power requirements. Josh Fox spoke about the need to advocate renewable energy as strongly as we oppose fracking.

1210b

Campaigns work best from the grassroots upwards.  In New York State, three hundred individual towns banned fracking before the state government did so. In Algeria, the government hoped that by beginning to frack in small communities it would avoid resistance.  But it reckoned without the moral authority of a non-violent movement which unified generations, with students going from house to house, talking to families, the active involvement of women and the support of elders. In the UK, tiny communities like Roseacre in Lancashire have formed community groups which work together in coalition to share ideas, information and resources. Of course, people don’t need to live close to actual or potential fracking sites in order to take action; divestment and other corporation-targeting campaigns need the involvement of individuals and groups everywhere. Sandra Steingraber gave an address which was both inspiring and wholly practical, based on the New York experience.  She advocated asking people to do big things, not just signing a petition, but writing letters in their own words, involving faith groups, especially with regard to the deeply significant issue of water, organising small businesses, inviting people to pledge resistance, the willingness to carry out civil disobedience if necessary, bringing stories of frontline tragedy to elected representatives, and providing hope.  Here she used the analogy of a paramedic speaking to a badly injured person, ‘You have some serious injuries but I’m not giving up on you.’

Fracking and effective action on climate change are entirely incompatible.  As Sandra Steingraber pointed out, fracking often masquerades as a solution to climate change, whereas in fact it is simply part of the problem.  Professors Robert Howarth and Kevin Anderson gave striking presentations of the methane and carbon dioxide emissions involved in fracking, illustrating the absolute nonsense of the suggestion that shale gas could be any sort of useful ‘bridge fuel’.  Even during the drilling phase, pockets of gas are breached, leading to significant emissions and it is estimated that 10% of the toal gas production ends up in the atmosphere.  Meanwhile, to limit global temperature rises even to two degrees, which is not a threshold of safety for the Majority World, requires deep and immediate reductions in energy demand.  Continuing on the current path would lead to a four degree rise by 2100, which equates to heatwaves of up to twelve per cent.  As Kevin Anderson said, this would be ‘not the same planet’.  To avoid this, wealthy countries need to reduce their carbon emissions by 10% per year, starting now, and to reach zero carbon by 2035. Obviously, there is no place for fracking or its extreme energy cousins in any of this.  Poorer nations could theoretically afford short-term shale gas, from a carbon budget point of view, but it would have to be phased out again by 2050 and so clearly would be a waste of time and resources, even apart from all the other reasons against it.  Josh Fox pointed out in his video that, whatever targets are agreed by COP21, it will be up to campaigners like us to enforce them.

And the big message:

Keep it in the ground! This is the commonsense answer to the climate crisis. Kevin Anderson and others spoke powerfully in support of the divestment movement and against the acceptance by academia of fossil fuel corporation funding.  (His own university, Manchester, is a particular culprit.)  We don’t need fossil fuels, and we know that, by great degrees and small, they are killing us. No more.

1210a

And if that wasn’t enough, the evening saw the European premiere of the film Groundswell Rising – in the basement of our hostel! – followed by a discussion with experts and my opportunity to talk in detail about the issue of health impact assessments. Some discussion about UK and US politics followed, and I think I got to bed at about half-past two.  Many thanks to Friends of the Earth for a wonderful experience.  Like the final summit speaker, John Fenton, I feel ‘enriched and emboldened’, ready for the next steps.

9th December 2015

1209

1pm, somewhere under the English Channel

I didn’t feel nervous until I wrote that.
1209aAll is well, though. Last night I joined Gawain, Sue and another six chessplayers, including the great and inspiring Jon Speelman, for a much-appreciated Indian meal (thanks again) and slept deeply and blissfully on their sofabed. Then this morning we took one of the rare overland trains from Acton Main Line and enjoyed a stylish brunch at King’s Cross. That’s not a phrase I’d have used when we lived in London thirty years ago.
At St Pancras I finally met up with the group from Friends of the Earth, which felt like a small miracle after the long slow trek to get this far. It was great to meet everyone, and to see Tina Rothery again for the first time since her brave and spirited election campaign as the Green candidate in George Osborne’s Tatton constituency. And there was one especially welcome surprise. One of the many things I didn’t have time to do last week before I went was to meet up with Julia Walsh from Frack Action,  the New York frack-free campaign, who was spending a couple of days in Leitrim. I was really sorry to miss her, as she and her colleagues have been such a great help and inspiration to us. So who am I sitting next to on this Eurostar train? Karma, divine providence, or whatever you like to call it. I know it’s hardly earthshattering unusual to meet a fellow fractivist on the way to a fracking summit, but I’m still well chuffed.

1209b

1.30pm, in France!
Which means, I suppose, that it’s actually 2.30. Just coming out of the tunnel into natural light is so invigorating that we’re all getting a bit excited, even though the dark clouds are gathering overhead. We’re exchanging experiences and ideas from all the various campaigns we’ve been involved with, especially the situation in Ryedale where Julia was at a meeting last night. That one is particularly close to my heart, as we lived in that part of North Yorkshire when our boys were little.

6.15pm, Paris1209c

Our group is slowly assembling in the hostel cafe, with lots of lively conversation.  Many of the delegates are from Lancashire (where I was born) so I’m feeling very at home. I’ve renewed acquaintance with Bob, who came over to Belfast to support us (see photo here) and exchanged my bottom bunk for a glass of white wine (an excellent bargain – thanks Barbara).

 

24th November 2015

1124Just back from Stormont, where Geoff and I attended the Departments of Climate Change event, organised by Friends of the Earth and sponsored by Steven Agnew, MLA and leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland.  It was a great night, an opportunity to share ideas about how all departments of the Northern Ireland Assembly could work together to combat climate change.  Thanks to Colette, Niall and everyone involved, and especially to the very helpful Stormont security team.

18th November 2015

1108aI was delighted today to take part in a public meeting about TTIP, held at the Clinton Centre in Enniskillen and featuring James Orr of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, Rev. Chris Hudson of the People’s NHS Northern Ireland (and All Souls Church) and Martina Anderson MEP.  The event was organised by Phil Flanagan, but in the event he had to rush off to Stormont for the emergency pass-the-buck-on-welfare session (more on this later). Michelle Gildernew stepped into the breach, though, and it was good to see her again for the first time since the Westminster elections. It was a great opportunity, too, to meet up with friends and fellow campaigners from the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network, concerned about the dire effect that TTIP would have on the frack-free movement.

I’ve written about TTIP on this blog before, of course, most extensively here, and the European Green Party have a very useful position paper and an introductory video (below).

For those who hadn’t spent quite as much time reading and talking about it as I have, Martina Anderson gave a useful overview, highlighting the threats which TTIP poses to democracy, to workers, to agriculture and food safety, to the environment, to public services and to small and medium-sized businesses.

Chris Hudson spoke next, eloquently and passionately, about the devastating effect that TTIP would have on the National Health Service, forcing many out of their free entitlement into expensive private health insurance (or no provision whatsoever) and making it impossible, once services have been outsourced to private profitmaking business, to return them to the public sector.  People’s NHS NI, which has sister campaigns in Wales, Scotland and England, is demanding that health services be removed from the TTIP remit.  It is a popular, cross-community and grassroots campaign, supported by MLAs from several parties (including Steven Agnew) and by activists and representatives such as the Green Party’s Councillor Ross Brown (pictured below with families in East Belfast).

1118

James from Friends of the Earth spoke both about the specific attacks on environmental protection which TTIP would mean, especially via the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) procedure, but also of the TTIP mindset which is already prevalent in Northern Ireland.  According to this, as he has said, the most “reasonable call for the rule of law is presented as a Maoist plot” and it appears almost as if “TTIP has already happened here”.   Destructive activities such as the Giant’s Causeway development, the industrial suction dredging of Lough Neagh, the mining at Gortin and landfill site at the River Faughan are characterised by a systematic failure, an official disregard for the directives and planning guidelines which are supposed to protect our health, our wellbeing, our countryside and the biodiversity with which we share it.  In resisting fracking, James suggested, we in Fermanagh are also resisting something much bigger, the TTIP mentality which threatens to infect our imaginations and destroy our future.

I had the chance to say a few words at the end, referring to the long campaign of the European Green Party against TTIP and pointing out that it is not simply an America versus Europe battle.  Although in most areas we have better protection than citizens in the US, there are matters, such as the regulation of financial advice, where their current regulations are more effective than ours.  In these cases, it would be the European lowest common denominat7or which would prevail.  I suggested that we should be seeking common ground with anti-TTIP campaigners everywhere, building a broad and cross-community consensus.  TTIP is not a nationalist/unionist issue: all share the interests which it threatens. Whether we call our home Ireland or the UK, we all work, eat, breathe and hope for a better world for our children.  It is not even a traditional left/right division: TTIP threatens individual liberty and national sovereignty as much as it does social justice and environmental sustainability.  It is a bigger and more urgent campaign than any other (except perhaps climate change, which cannot possibly be tackled effectively in a post-TTIP world) and, as James said, we need to weave its thread into all that we are doing.

14th December

1214Here I am yesterday (that doesn’t sound right, but you know what I mean) being a fracker.  No, I haven’t been persuaded of the virtues or benefits of shale gas extraction.  Quite the opposite; we were rehearsing outside the Friends of the Earth Belfast office for our performance of Frackocracy later that afternoon, and I was playing one of the drill site workers.  What looks like a fixed grin, as I clutch my very own gas rig, is in fact the early stages of my face icing up – it was extremely cold, but very worthwhile.  We performed the play in Hill Street, outside the offices of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, as part of Human Rights Week, to highlight some of the rights-based issues raised by the whole fracking experiment.  Here’s a picture, from No Fracking Northern Ireland, of the closing tableau (I’ve been converted by now, and changed my hat) showing some of the human rights challenged by the fracking process and the undemocratic way in which it is being imposed.1214b

 

1414cI got back from Belfast at around ten-thirty last night, after a chilly change (of bus, not clothes) in Dungannon. Twelve hours later it was warmer but wetter, as I walked to St Michael’s church for this month’s Parish Welcoming Group tea-and-coffee morning.  For a while now we’ve been serving hot drinks after two of the morning masses once a month, and it’s turning into a positive and rewarding part of our community life.  This morning we added a collection box for the SVP’s work with homeless people in Dublin and had copies of articles from this week’s Impartial Reporter on display, showing the extent of the problem here in Fermanagh.  I’ll be writing more about this soon.

1214c

 

 

11th December

11pm.  On the bus from Dublin to Enniskillen after a moving and memorable day in with my family in Staffordshire.  The bus was late, and we’ve been promised blizzards from Cavan onwards, so I’m not expecting an early night.  Then I’ll have a few hours to sleep and work before setting off for Belfast tomorrow afternoon.  It’s the end of Human Rights Week, and I’m going to a lecture by the science writer Simon Singh on the need for libel law reform, taking part in a Friends of the Earth piece of street theatre, Frackocracy (I’m a baddie this time) and ending with a Green meetup on Saturday evening.  Then there’s the Parish Welcoming Group on Sunday and a school governors’ meeting on Monday – after that we can think about Christmas.