Beyond the niche: women in frack-free politics

It might just be the alliteration, of course, but it’s rare these days that I meet anyone east of the Bann who doesn’t say, when I mention where I live, “Fermanagh?  Where they have the fracking?”

Well we don’t ‘have the fracking’, not now, though it’s been a close shave, and, to mix my metaphors, we’re not out of the woods yet.  It has, though, been an extraordinary campaign, not least in the almost complete reversal of public opinion.  Three and a half years ago, when the news of Tamboran’s licence first surfaced, the near-universal response was one of excited delight.  This was a state-of-the-art American, big money industry that was going to bring us skilled jobs, cheap gas and cash pouring down like the Enniskillen rain.  And it was all going to happen underground, where we wouldn’t even have to look at it.

Tanya (far right) With other Green Party members, including Ciaran McClean, candidate for West Tyrone, at Tamboran’s site last August.
Tanya (far right) With other Green Party members, including Ciaran McClean, candidate for West Tyrone, at Tamboran’s site last August.

It took a lot of work to demonstrate that things wouldn’t be quite like that.  At the beginning we were viewed as cave-dwelling Luddites, dogs in the manger who didn’t want nice gas cookers ourselves so set out to stop everyone else from having them.  It was uncomfortable and dispiriting and exhausting, and for a long time it all seemed fairly hopeless.

One of the things that made it so difficult at the beginning was the sheer breadth of the arguments against fracking.  If there had been one single reason why it was a bad idea, we could have repeated that over and over again and eventually it would have sunk in.  But as it was, every frack-free activist seemed to have a different objection.  Mine was climate change; others were the hazards to child health, the dairy industry, wildlife habitats, tourism, fish stocks for anglers, the darkness of the night sky or the silence of the forests.

There were things that always went wrong, like catastrophic levels of traffic on rural roads, things that usually went wrong somewhere, like the integrity of concrete well casings, and things that occasionally went wrong, like full-scale explosions.  There were reasons why fracking was always a bad thing, like the fact that we can’t afford to burn more fossil fuels; reasons why it was especially bad in some situations, like drilling near houses and farms; and reasons why it was a uniquely stupid idea in Fermanagh, like the depth of the shale layer and our complex and uncharted hydrology.

The range of issues was the initial difficulty, but in the end it was our strength, not only in winning the arguments but in building the movement.  We came from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and professions, and were impelled by almost as many different motivations.  Some of us were environmentalists, some social and economic justice campaigners, some Christians ( of either variety) some farmers or tourism operators, some (quite a large proportion) medical professionals and some random people who’d seen fracking in North America or Australia, and didn’t want it here.  Politically, some were Green and some Socialist, with most having no particular affiliation, or none that they talked about.  Those within the Executive parties who were sympathetic tended to keep at a certain distance from the cross-community campaigns.

For a long time I didn’t notice the most unusual thing about the composition of the groups.  I think it was because much of my community involvement had been with the Fermanagh Churches Forum and other broadly faith-based groups.  These groups tended to be predominantly female, so I wasn’t surprised, joining the frack-free movement, to find so many women there.

(When I say ‘so many’, I probably mean around half, but in political terms that’s of course huge.)  What’s more, they were taking on leadership and technical roles, not only doing the support and creative bits.

It was, I believe, the range of issues raised by fracking and of motivations within the campaign which made this possible.  The fact that there was no single party line, no long-established structure and no constant body of magisterial truth meant that a range of strategies and skills were essential.  No one could master the entire corpus of geological, engineering, ecological, medical, legal and administrative knowledge that related to fracking, and so there was no point in anyone trying to do so. Instead, we all found our own niches, areas of expertise in which we felt, if not comfortable, then at least useful.  We were always overstretched, so no one with any sense bothered with demarcation or guarding their territory.

What is being built up, as this experience is replicated across the British Isles, is an informal network of fairly informal groups; a slightly eccentric patchwork quilt.  It’s often makeshift and a bit threadbare in places, but it’s flexible and it’s effective.  And it’s giving women the confidence to enter a more formalised politics.

I’ve been a member of the Green Party for a long time, but this is my first foray into standing for election.  I wouldn’t be doing it if I hadn’t learned, through the frack-free movement, that I was capable of what politics requires.  And I’m not the only one.  Tina Rothery, a leading frack-free activist, is standing for the Green Party in George Osborne’s Tatton constituency, while Jessica Mayo, involved in the Barton Moss campaign, is doing the same in Manchester.

But no discussion of fracking and women would be complete without a final mention of the Knitting Nannas, the Australian (and now British) activists who ‘knit gracefully’ outside fracking sites, during court proceedings and in the offices of local politicians.  It apparently ‘drives elected representatives crazy’.  I do hope they reach Northern Ireland.  Maybe Carrickfergus?

Tanya Jones is a founder member of the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network. She is also the Green Party candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the upcoming elections. She blogs at greenlassie.com

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.

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