Attempts to establish a major gold mine in the Sperrin Mountains were derailed by security concerns over the huge quantities of explosives required, declassified files reveal.
In the 1980s Stormont departments had been encouraging firms to explore Northern Ireland for mining as well as petroleum and mineral exploration.
Gold had been discovered in the Sperrins and test drilling was attempting to establish the extent of the reserves.
Irish mining company Ennex had discovered gold in the Sperrins in the early 1980s and by the mid-1980s was looking to move into mining the resource it had discovered.
But files declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast reveal how a massive difficulty emerged when it became clear that despite the government having advertised mining to international firms, it had not thought through the implications of using vast quantities of explosives at a time of terrorist violence.
Unlike quarrying, which requires occasional blasting and where police travelled with the explosives to protect them, the mine would have required daily blasting, requiring a security camp on-site.
The file does not make clear what happened, but it appears that the huge cost of protecting the explosives quashed the project. The government was concerned that the news would emerge publicly and undermine its attempts to boost the economy.
In recent years, the project has been re-activated by another company, Dalradian.
In January 1986, Ivor C Greer in the then Department for Economic Development’s minerals branch met the RUC to discuss the protection required if the mine was to use explosives. He told colleagues that the department had realised that there would be a need for close RUC supervision and that “would involve cost” but was surprised at the RUC estimate of £10 million.
“Inspector Rankin said that the company intended to use explosives on each face (of which there could be 12/15 in full production) during each shift (two per day).
“Ennex estimated that they would have 50 shotfirers and assistants who would have access to explosives. With this amount of usage there would be a need for daily deliveries and/or the establishment of a local base.
“The high risk nature of the area and access to it would mean the use of helicopters to bring in men and materials.”
The RUC estimated that it would require 70 officers for underground and surface duties, a base at Carrickmore and the regular use of a helicopter.
In a confidential memo the following month, another official, WN Drummond set out the problem: “You are aware that the department has been using every effort to promote interest in mineral exploration in the Province.
“The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland has been our right arm in accumulating a wealth of geological information which we have published widely in order to excite interest.
“There are now some eight mineral exploration licences issued for the Province and work in being carried forward in a number of areas - that is in addition to the licensing work which has been and is being done on petroleum and lignite.
“The Province has been attracting the attention of mining interests because, amongst other reasons, its minerals legislation enables work ot proceed more readily than is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom.”
He said that the discovery of gold-bearing quartz in the Sperrins had been “of particular value to us in obtaining publicity for the mineral exploration activity”.
He said that the government’s geologists had referred to the Ennex work as being “a text book operation” but that the RUC’s security quote of £10 million had “staggered everyone” and threatened the viability of the project.
Mr Drummond added: “My major worry is that this episode raises the question of whether any mining operation using explosives in Northern Ireland could be viable in light of the security requirements, and if it becomes clear that viability is highly unlikely, it is difficult to see how word will not get abroad through the mining industry.”
In May 1986, A McVeigh in the NIO’s police division said in a memo that the mine was situated in “a remote and desolate part of County Tyrone, in an area which during the past 15 years has come to be regarded as one of the most dangerous for security force operations”.
Such a security force base, along with an explosive magazine and perhaps two or three helicopter flights a day would present “a very attractive target for terrorists”, the civil servant said, adding that it would be vulnerable to mortar attack.
Even if the cost of the security force presence was not passed on to the company, its very existence would potentially “prove to be a severe disincentive to Ennex’s ability to recruit a reliable labour force: everyone within the complex would be a potential target”.
Therefore the establishment of a gold mining operation in the Sperrin Mountains “would appear to carry resource and security implications which are disproportionate to the potential commercial and employment gains”.
At the time, the company proposed to use the low-cost ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil as its primary explosive.
However, the following month, civil servants told the company that because of the wider risk to the development of a mining industry in Northern Ireland the Department for Economic Development would be prepared to provide it with grants to continue its investigations into mining methods which did not require explosives or at least much less explosives.
However, although that research was carried out and paid for by taxpayers it does not appear to have led to a solution to the problem.
Dalradian, the company now seeking to open a major gold mine at Curraghinalt in the Sperrins near Greencastle, said that it planned to use explosives on a daily basis.
The company told the News Letter: “Once the mine is fully operational we plan to use explosives on a daily basis.
“The explosives used for the operating mine will be stored underground, in purpose-built magazines, as is the standard practice for modern, underground mines.
“All relevant, statutory authorities will be involved in this licencing process.”
The company highlighted that the security situation has “improved significantly since the 1980s” and that quarries use explosives on a regular basis across Northern Ireland.
It added: “There are a number of successful materials supplying companies also located within Northern Ireland and, at least one mine that has been operating successfully and safely using explosives for many years.”
The company has faced opposition on environmental grounds over what had been its plan to use cyanide in the gold extraction process. However, earlier this month it announced that it would be abandoning that plan and shipping material out of Northern Ireland for that process if it gets planning approval for the mine.