THE Stormont department led by Arlene Foster has been criticised by the Minister’s own DUP colleague, Sammy Wilson, for not holding discussions on bringing forward a cross-department policy on fracking with other government ministers.

“Given the energy problems that we face in Northern Ireland, I am disappointed that the issue has not been addressed cross-departmentally,” Mr Wilson told the Assembly this week.

He also claimed that 42 per cent of consumers who are experiencing fuel poverty, along with businesses that are struggling with fuel bills, find it “bewildering” that two Executive Ministers have “vociferously opposed the exploitation of shale gas in Northern Ireland.” Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has said that she will attempt to block any plans to use “fracking” on land owned by her department while Environment Minister Mark H. Durkan has previously stated that fracking here would be “reckless.” Junior Minister Jonathan Bell informed the Assembly that first and deputy first ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have had no discussions with Mrs Foster, also a Fermanagh-south Tyrone MLA, on bringing forward a cross-departmental policy.

“DETI officials continue to liaise with Department of the Environment officials as part of the work of the shale gas regulators’ forum,” he said.

Mr Bell added: “It is important that we always follow the evidence and best practice. We all have a responsibility to be good stewards of the environment and the earth. As the Member rightly points out, we also have a responsibility to look at international best practice and at the successes in energy security, in jobs created and in businesses driving their energy costs down so that they can appear more competitive on the international market.” Asked for his assessment of climate change by Sinn Fein MLA for Fermanagh-south Tyrone, Phil Flanagan, Mr Bell said: “There are obviously concerns around climate change, and we all have a responsibility to ensure that we pass on the environment in a responsible manner.  We also have to take a balanced approach to looking at international best practice, international science, the difficulties that exist and, equally, the opportunities.” When UUP MLA for Fermanagh-south Tyrone, Tom Elliott asked Mr Bell if there there had been discussions on specific benefits of fracking for communities, such as rate reductions, he told him to direct his question to the Finance Department.

Addressing Mr Bell, Steven Agnew, the leader of the Green Party, said he agreed with DUP MLA Sammy Wilson that the issue of fracking should be “a cross-departmental issue”.

“Does the junior Minister then agree that it is a bit anomalous that we have this situation whereby the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister can issue a licence without any consultation?” “I cannot agree with the Member,” replied Mr Bell, “Anybody looking at this situation dispassionately and objectively could not concur in a reasonable way that all the evidence is against, because it quite clearly is not. I am not sure that that sort of zero-sum game that he proposes is in the best interests of the environment, energy security, fuel poverty or job creation.”