Gold mining firm accused of ‘espionage’ against UK activist
Exclusive: A mining firm tracked a Northern Irish 72-year-old’s social media and gathered information about his appearance
A mining firm operating in Northern Ireland has been accused of “espionage” by an environmental activist, after documents revealed it monitored his online activity for at least four years.
The Canadian-owned company, Dalradian Gold, has long faced opposition to its plans to extract up to £3bn of precious metals in the Sperrin Mountains in County Tyrone.
The firm’s 2017 planning application received almost 37,000 objections, leading Northern Ireland’s then-infrastructure minister, Nichola Mallon, to announce a public inquiry on the proposals.
But despite widespread local resistance, records seen by openDemocracy have revealed that the firm has been monitoring campaigners’ social media activity.
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This includes compiling a 92-page dossier of information about a retired councillor, Cormac McAleer, who chairs the Save Our Sperrins group fighting Dalradian Gold’s plans.
More than 50 pages of the dossier showed examples of the company tracking social media posts, six of which came from monitoring the 72-year-old’s personal Facebook account.
According to the documents – which were obtained by McAleer using a Subject Access Request – Dalradian even gathered information about McAleer’s physical appearance when he attended a human rights event in Dublin in 2019.
McAleer’s activities beyond the west Tyrone area were also noted in the documents, including his campaigning in the Republic of Ireland, where he spoke about his experiences in the Sperrins.
A number of documents suggest the company may have tailored its Google ‘daily update’ settings to return searches of new information and media relating to McAleer, with a number of results appearing under the heading of ‘Cormac McAleer’ across various dates in 2019.
“It's been shocking, the way that they operate,” the campaigner told openDemocracy, accusing Dalradian Gold of “various kinds of espionage”.
McAleer continued: “It's amazing the extent of personal records that this company maintains on local residents and people in the surrounding area.
“We know that their tactics are similar to those used by other mining companies throughout the world. When you're dealing with these people, it can be very high-risk.”
Previous reports have shown the lengths that corporations are prepared to go to monitor environmental campaigners.
In 2021, openDemocracy revealed that oil giant BP had spent years snooping on peaceful climate campaigners and had even hired a private intelligence firm set up by a former MI6 agent. Recently we also revealed that private security agents linked to the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, had “spied” on environmental activists and blocked them from participating in a public debate.
Allegations of intimidation
For the past 14 years, Dalradian Gold has been carrying out exploratory work in the Sperrin Mountains, which is considered a test case for a number of other prospective mining sites in the surrounding area.
The company spent more than £130m exploring the site – a designated ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ – before it submitted a planning application in 2017 to mine for valuable metals, estimated to be worth £3bn.
A public inquiry into Dalradian’s proposals – one of a series of applications by multiple companies to dig up gold within the Dalradian Supergroup, a 450-mile belt of rock through Ireland and Scotland – is expected to be scheduled later this year.
The stakes were recently raised, as the price of gold has increased by nearly 20% since the invasion of Ukraine last year and is expected to hit record highs this year.
But there have already been years of bitter local divisions over the mining plans, which campaigners fear will cause water and air pollution. They also object to a spoil heap of crushed rock that Dalradian plans to contour into the landscape. Earlier proposals for the use of cyanide at the site, another point of contention, have been withdrawn by the firm.
Opposition campaigners and a more recently established group in support of the proposals have both made a series of claims and counter-claims concerning alleged surveillance, violence, harassment and intimidation.
McAleer alleges that he and two other campaigners have received death threats from an individual claiming to be a Dalradian Gold employee. He also claims that he and another campaigner have been assaulted by individuals claiming to work for the company.
Dalradian Gold described these claims as “outlandish accusations without any substantiation”. Police say they “fully investigated” the allegations and submitted a file to the Public Prosecution Service, although it's understood that no charges were ever brought.
The gold mine company also claimed its own employees are regularly photographed by campaigners and are subject to verbal abuse.
McAleer has had various run-ins with the police – including being arrested at a demonstration in 2019, which saw him attach himself to a drilling rig at a nearby site operated by the mining company. He was also charged in relation to a 2020 rooftop protest that he and other campaigners had staged at Dalradian offices near the site of the proposed mine. A criminal damage charge has since been dropped after he accepted a police caution.
In November, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, raised concerns about allegations of violence and threats against campaigners who are part of McAleer’s organisation.
In a tweet, she said she was “concerned by the risks reported by Human Rights Defenders in the @SaveOurSperrins campaign against a gold mine in Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland. The HRDs report physical assault, intimidation and death threats”.
Responding to questions from openDemocracy, a spokesperson for Dalradian Gold accused a “small but vocal number of individuals” of intimidating its staff at work and at home.
“There have been many instances of posts on social media which are offensive and threatening and we are, of course, interested in what is being said in the public domain.”
The spokesperson added: “For the past ten years there have been instances of trespass and damage to company property and outlandish accusations without any substantiation. Staff are regularly photographed, followed and verbally insulted.
“Leading protesters have entered guilty pleas in court for charges including criminal damage to company equipment and smashing an employee’s car window.”
*This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu.
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