Our existence is our resistance Mining and resistance on the island of Ireland

In this extract from 'Our existence is our resistance', a new Yes to, Life No to Mining dispatch, Lynda Sullivan explores the dynamics of the emerging extractive frontier on the Island of Ireland.

Two nations, one Island

The island of Ireland contains two jurisdictions, yet is one ecological area- with rivers, air, humans and pollutants flowing freely over the border. Similarly, the mining industry knows no borders and has been using similar tactics in and attempt to exploit the North and South of the island.

Ireland has a history of mining exploitation, with modern mining emerging in the 1960s in the Republic of Ireland (ROI) - after the introduction of various pieces of facilitative legislation- and in the 2000s in Northern Ireland (NI), when civil conflict abated. From that point onwards, the two governments have joined forces to sell Ireland to the mining industry as ‘Open for Business’.

They have been successful: 27% of the ROI is currently concessioned to mining companies for mineral exploration, alongside 25% of NI.

A map showing mining activities - from exploration to extraction - across ROI and NI. Sources cited on map image.

Due to extensive mapping through the Tellus Project, funded by NI’s Department for the Economy (DfE) and ROI’s Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications (DCCAE), these figures could rise higher still - perhaps even up to 70% in NI.

Potential trade deals could further strip back regulations and open the doors for multinationals, and a new language of justification has been found through the oxymoron of ‘Green Growth’. The industry and government are pushing mineral extraction as having a critical role in tackling the climate crisis, conveniently forgetting about the interlinked ecological, economic and social crises we are also facing, the common roots of which lie in the very DNA of the mining industry: extractive capitalism.

Facilitative states

Between 1931 to 2006, the ROI enacted numerous Mineral Development Acts and is now in the process of bringing forward a new ‘streamlined’ Act with the aim of attracting international investment.

Placards and banners signal the community of Greencastle's opposition to the presence of Canadian mining company Dalradian Resources near their community. Photo: Lynda Sullivan

Mineral exploitation is at the heart of government policy and planning through the National Planning Framework, backed up by the generous funding of the National Resources Programme. The ROI also either sponsors or forms part of a number of bodies that provide extensive support for the mining industry - such as Geological Survey Ireland (GSI), Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCRAG), the Institute of Geologists Ireland (IGI), Geoscience Ireland and lobbying body the Irish Mining and Quarrying Society.

Most of these bodies are ‘all island’. That is, they span both ROI and NI. GSI and GSNI are also very closely aligned, and the lobbying body north of the border is the Mineral Products Association Northern Ireland (MPANI).

NI has only ever enacted one piece of minerals legislation, dating back to 1969. Continuing to operate under this legislation, they are ignoring the various pieces of EU and international legislation that have come into play since and which they are obliged to respect, such as the Habitats Directive, the Aarhus Convention and the Espoo Convention.

Probing for projects

Mine prospecting in both NI and ROI is reaching new levels of intensity, though the minerals targeted for extraction differ between the two nations.

Swedish mining company Boliden's Tara Zinc Mine. Source: Independent.ie

South of the border in the ROI, zinc, lead, lithium and gold are the main targets of exploration. Multinationals from Canada, Sweden, UK and Switzerland hope to make the next big zinc find, after previous finds at Galmoy and Lisheen, and the still operating Tara Mines. Canada and China are invested in a lithium find in Co. Carlow and Wicklow, with two Irish companies leading the exploration for gold. Irish companies have been important in many of the finds that multinational companies are now sitting on. Their tactic has been to explore, find and sell on deposits to bigger companies.

In the North, Canadian Dalradian Gold (now owned by Orion Mining Finance) have bought concessions for 10% of NI, hoping to develop a mining district beyond their current proposal for a gold mine at Curraghinalt, Co. Tyrone. As well as companies from Canada, NI concessions are also held by companies from the UK, Turkey, Australia and Ireland searching for gold, copper, cobalt, zinc, lead and silver.

The only project on the island to have a live planning application submitted is Dalradian Gold’s proposal for Curraghinalt. A cyanide processing plant was originally part of this project proposal yet the company was forced to rescind this to get the project over the line. However, the local community haven’t bought into the plan to export the cyanide processing to another community elsewhere. They are also wary the company will revert to its original intentions once permission is secured. Extensive exploration has already been carried out, including over 700 boreholes and a 1700m tunnel through the hillside.

Current projects

There are two operating metal mines on the island: Tara Mines, Co. Meath (open since 1977) and Cavanacaw Gold Mine, Co. Tyrone (in operation since 2007).

Cavanacaw gold mine. Photos: CAMIO

Tara Mines, the largest zinc mine in Europe, plans to extend extraction by 20 years and 1.9 underground kilometres. The waste dump would consume an additional 58 hectares of land, reaching 22 stories high.

Galantas Gold’s Cavanacaw Gold Mine also wants to extend underground, a shift from their open pit method of extraction, and has defeated a legal challenge that aimed to halt this expansion. However, their operations have been nevertheless halted as the PSNI have refused to use even more public resources to supervise their increased blasting plans (a requirement in NI) that Galantas Gold refused to pay for.

There is also a gypsum mine in operation at Knacknacran, Co. Monaghan, which has been the cause of significant subsidence in recent years. Large crevices and sinkholes have left the local Gaelic Athletic Association pitch, clubhouse and community centre severely damaged and forced the evacuation of local families and businesses.

Abandoned mines

It is not only the gypsum mine whose historical extraction is causing continued harm.

A sinkhole that opened up over old shafts at the Galmoy mine. Photo: Pat Moore

In ROI, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified 27 abandoned mines that still pose a risk to the environment and human health.

Four of these have operated and closed under modern legislation; the Avoca mines in Co. Wicklow, the Silver mines and Lisheen mine in Co. Tipperary, and Galmoy mine in Co. Kilkenny.


Resistance against mining on the island is growing.

Mining protests, featuring direct action, community blockades, petitions and letter writing campaigns. Photos: Greencastle People's Office, Save Our Sperrins, Lynda Sullivan

One key factor in effective resistance is to organise early. It is very difficult to stop a mine once the cart has been set in motion. This is what the communities living beside the Tara Mines found out when they tried to stop its recent expansion.

Access to information is crucial for effective early organising to take place. Communities need access to information about the true consequences of mining and other communities’ experiences around the globe. It is only in the past couple of decades that this information has become widely and freely available, thanks to the internet and rapid means of communication.

In more recent years, local communities like those who have come together to organise against Dalradian Resources, have a better idea of what they are resisting and why. Local organising in the Sperrins has led to the formation of more than 10 community interest and environmental protection groups who are now being invited to share their experiences with others newly encountering the threat of mining in the North and South of Ireland. The local anti-Dalradian resistance camp - the Greencastle People’s Office, which serves as a hub for groups and supporters- recently celebrated 1000 days of occupation at the site designated for exploitation.

The Greencastle People's Office, located in the area where Dalradian Resources hopes to build gold processing facilities. Photo: Greencastle People's Office

Recently in ROI a number of mining companies have abandoned prospecting licences in areas where the community has organised. Communities are now stronger, more informed and better connected across the Island.

Alternatives and Proposals

The alternatives to extractive capitalism being discussed and promoted on the Island of Ireland can be grouped into two forms: reformative and transformative.

Sperrins declaration of community rights and rights of Nature. Photo: Lynda Sullivan

Reformative initiatives hope to amend the system to incorporate better human rights and environmental protections. This also includes investing in the improvement of the recycling of minerals and metals and moving to a more circular, zero waste economy.

Transformative proposals involve stepping away from the system which houses extractivism and creating a new one rooted in the Rights of Communities and the Rights of Nature. It also involves becoming more autonomous in terms of food and energy.

The celebration of culture is also an avenue for a life-sustaining economy promoted by communities threatened by mining of the Island, who say ecologically and culturally sound tourism initiatives can offer them more lasting opportunities than mining.

On an Island riven by recent conflict, these non-extractive alternatives would help seed a peace more profound and lasting than the superficial peace that veils the extractive agenda promoted by both governments on the Island.

This interactive story is taken from:

Our existence is our resistance: mining and resistance on the Island of Ireland

Author: Lynda Sullivan

This story and the longer dispatch of which it is part is dedicated to the communities resisting mining and working for a post-extractive future across the Island of Ireland.


Created with an image by weareaway - "cliff of moher ireland cliffs"