A local referendum on fracking is “a ridiculous idea”, according to DUP Councillor Bert Johnston, who reveals that the estimated cost to Fermanagh District Council could be £200,000.
Despite Mr. Johnston agreeing with Barry Doherty's proposal for a referendum (it received cross-party support at January's full Council meeting), he is now opposed to the move.
It is understood that the referendum debate was divided down party lines at Wednesday night's Policy and Resources Committee at the Townhall (i.e Sinn Féin and SDLP for; DUP and UUP against).
“It is not a devolved item therefore I can't see the Government giving Fermanagh District Council the power to hold a referendum,” Mr. Johnston tells Impartial Reporter.com.
"I am waiting for expert advice on fracking; not American advice, but advice from our own people.” He will wait until he has heard from the planning authorities and the Department of the Environment before deciding “whether this is the right road to go or not.” Asked why he opposes a local referendum on fracking, he replies: “I'm not opposed to people having their say because that's democracy. But they are talking about running this along with the local government and European elections on 22nd May. If someone is going into a polling station, especially an elderly person, I think it will be very confusing for them to have to vote on three things.” He also wants to ensure that any potential for jobs in Fermanagh are not lost, saying: “We don't want to say no to fracking here and then see it taking place in England, forcing more of our young people to go over there for work.
“Phil Flanagan accuses Arlene Foster of not bringing jobs to Fermanagh, but this could bring jobs to the county.” Mr. Johnston continues: “It's not sensible because it's not a devolved matter; it's a ridiculous idea.” He claims that “it's not about sectarian lines; that has nothing to do with it.” “If someone can convince me that fracking will damage the environment of Fermanagh, I will oppose it. But if someone shows me that it can be done safely, I will support it,” Mr. Johnston says.
Meanwhile, the BBC's The View programme last night concluded that the Northern Ireland Office is not responsible for local referendums and that such a referendum would not be legally binding. As the DoE is responsible for local government, a Council wishing to hold a local referendum may have to seek the Environment Minister's approval to spend the money.