Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Community and political opposition growing to local gold prospecting

Ryan Morgan

Objection and outrage continues to grow in response to the allocation of prospecting licences to a gold mining company for use in the locality. The denunciation follows a public meeting on the issue last month in Silverbridge GAA club, which was attended by numerous politicians and citizens concerned about the environmental repercussions of the project.

The licences were attained by Dublin-based company Conroy Gold & Natural Resources and will enable them to search for gold deposits with a view to mining any significant finds in the future. The area encompassed in the licences expands across sizeable parts of both north and south Armagh, including townlands in Camlough, Crossmaglen, Mullaghbawn and Whitecross.

This public meeting is the latest stage in this debacle which began in 2017 when a number of local residents became aware that Conroy Gold was applying for a prospecting licence in close proximity to their homes. During the public consultation period of the application, many residents felt that both the Department of the Economy and Conroy Gold was participating in minimal engagement with both the community and their political representatives. They also felt they had received a lack of information about the ramifications of a such a licence in general.

At the time, local Sinn Fein MLA Megan Fearon sent a letter detailing these communal worries, in which she expressed “serious reservations about the nature of the prospecting licence, and how the public consultation has been carried out to date”. She also stated that her party had not been formally notified at all about either the licensing proposal or its public consultation. 

Subsequently, the Department briefly extended the applications consultation period to the 15th of September. After its closure, it was later revealed that they had received nearly a hundred responses, from both statutory and civic interests, in relation to prospecting in County Armagh. Three quarters of these were specifically concerned with the licences pertaining to villages in south Armagh. 

Despite any resistance that may have been forwarded in these responses, the prospecting licence was awarded to Conroy Gold earlier this year in May under the terms of the Mineral Development Act (NI) 1969. A separate licence was also sought and obtained by the company from the Crown Estate, an assortment of lands and holdings which are owned by the British monarch, who maintains the right of lease to prospect on all gold and silver deposits within the U.K.

Resultantly, Conroy Gold can now commence prospecting with the express permission of local landowners, providing they comply with the regulations and controls of governmental bodies, such as Regional Departments and Local District Councils. 

The news will likely be welcomed by Conroy Gold as south Armagh constitutes part of its flagship project across a geological area known as the Longford-Down Massif, which extends from County of Armagh right through to the Counties of Cavan and Monaghan in the Republic. It will also help extinguish the managerial turbulence the company has faced as of late. Indeed, earlier this year Conroy Gold recorded another successive six month drop in its net assets, continuing a pattern of losses that has seen it lose hundreds of thousands of Euros in recent years. Further to this, a controversial extraordinary general meeting (EGM) of the company in 2017 resulted in a vote that removed six of the company’s nine directors, spurred on by investor’s apprehensions with the firm’s management.  

Despite these drawbacks, the company has now signaled its intention to speed up the advancement of its Irish gold property going forward, specifically with regard to the “commercialisation of key business interests and proactive ground exploration of significant gold targets”. 

This controversy arises at a time when public consciousness, of and opposition to, environmentally sensitive projects is gathering momentum. Ireland in particular is within the grasp of a mining boom, with a flurry of mining activity and corresponding community resistance. In the Greencastle region of County Tyrone, Canadian firm Dalradian is pursuing planning permission to construct a mine after the discovery of gold there. Similarly, on the slopes of Slieve Gallion mountain in County Derry, Australian and Turkish organisations are jointly seeking a licence to prospect for cobalt-silver. 

Spearheading the push-back against mining locally is environmental activist and Crossmaglen woman Patricia Smith, who addressed last month’s Silverbridge meeting alongside representatives from the ‘Save Our Sperrins’ anti-mining campaign and ‘Friends of the Earth’. Speaking to the Examiner, Patricia discussed her concerns about Conroy Gold’s intentions following the licensing and what it could mean for Gullion’s landscape and ecosystem. 

She questioned the viability of the project considering the number of statutory protective measures afforded to large parts of the licenced areas. These include official designation’s as an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ and as a ‘Special Area of Conservation’. The latter was bestowed by the EU’s ‘Natura 2000’ network, which is motivated to ensure the survival of threatened wildlife and vegetation. 

Furthermore, she aired concern about the potentiality for gold cyanidation to be utilised locally in order to extract any gold ore findings, a practice which was proposed but later scrapped in the Greencastle case. Such a process, she asserts, could toxify local soil profiles and water basins catastrophically if not handled properly.

Going forward, she and other environmentally conscious activists in the ‘Save Our South Armagh’ group hope to increase their protestations against the licences. This will likely include a public awareness campaign, targeted at informing and organizing swathes of local residents about the threat this prospecting pose to their local area, both through social media and the production of posters for display. She also hopes to motivate more residents to communicate their dismay in writing to the Department of the Economy.

Progress in this regard has begun on the political front, as local Councillors have already contributed their condemnation to the plans. Sinn Fein Councillor Terry Hearty submitted a motion at last Monday’s Council session to oppose the prospecting and also pleading that such a commitment be made in the Council’s Local Development Plan, a framework which will guide future land use decisions within the Newry, Mourne and Down district.  Citing the natural beauty of the area concerned and protests lead by young people all over the world in defense of the environment, Terry remarked that “whatever gold may or may not be down there is not more valuable than our landscape, our environment or our young people’s trust.”

Sharing many of these sentiments, the SDLP’s Council leader Pete Byrne extended his support for the motion. He voiced his concerns regarding the lack of consultation and transparency conducted during the licence application process, “it is outrageous that the concerns of environmentalists, people living in proximity to the proposed sites and the broader community were not consulted”. He also asserted that despite the billions earned globally by companies from mineral extraction processes, the countries in which they occur remain substantially impoverished, “there is little evidence to suggest that gold mining will bring any substantive economic benefit to the people of south Armagh”, he added. Worries were also affirmed by his party colleague and local MLA Justin McNulty, who stressed the important role local people must play in protecting “their air, water and land from those who wish to exploit and destroy it”.