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Comment: Brenda Power: Price of protest is always worth paying

THE SUNDAY TIMES: Comment: Brenda Power: Price of protest is always worth paying

“To crush local opposition to the pipeline, Shell sought and obtained the committal to jail of the five protesters, who were promptly shipped off to Cloverhill prison. The protests were hardly unreasonable.”

Sunday 3 July 2005

The latest marketing innovation from America sounds as though it has been drawn from the plot of a far-fetched Schwarzenegger movie. Huge corporations are investigating thought associations and cerebral responses by scanning the brains of volunteers as they watch advertisements for the latest off-roader, movie or holiday.

The idea is that they will identify the triggers that engage our emotions and memories so as to manipulate those responses to commercial ends. So, for instance, a viewer of a billboard campaign for a huge gas-guzzling SUV would have negative associations blocked out. They would not think about damage to the environment that might be caused by their super-sized car, or the hazards posed by them to other road users.

And you can bet that where big business leads, politics will follow. Within a few years, we could well be putty in the hands of powerful political masters — a few carefully chosen words and images tickling the right synapses and we might obediently swallow anything. Which will be music to the ears of ministers Martin Cullen and Noel Dempsey and to Mary Harney, the tanaiste, who are among those who had to deal with protests against potentially dangerous and unsightly gas pipelines, carcinogenic emissions from phone masts, and motorways cutting through historical countryside. The current tactic — of shouting them down, jailing them or mobilising public antipathy towards them — will be redundant in such a political utopia of designer docility.

Last week the M50 motorway finally reached its destination, some 34 years after the project was first approved. Opening the last and most controversial section of the route, the portion passing over the ruins of Carrickmines castle, Cullen delivered himself of the view that protesters who make legal challenges to state infrastructural projects are “robbing money out of the taxpayers’ pockets”.

The High Court took a similarly uncompromising view on the activities of the five men who have a bit of difficulty with Shell, the oil giant, running a high-pressure gas pipeline across their property. The men’s lands are the subject of compulsory acquisition orders, so the multinational claims it has a legal entitlement to sideline their fears for their homes, families and quality of life to better serve the Irish economy and the national demand for competitively priced natural gas.

To crush local opposition to the pipeline, Shell sought and obtained the committal to jail of the five protesters, who were promptly shipped off to Cloverhill prison. The protests were hardly unreasonable. They want the project suspended until its safety and environmental implications have been reviewed. Surprisingly, although the preparatory work for the pipe-laying is going ahead and was the cause of the clashes that led to the men’s imprisonment, Shell still hasn’t obtained full approval for the pipeline. Given the expenditure and the adverse publicity it is prepared to absorb in the process, though, the company must be confident a green light is inevitable.

Cullen clearly has no doubt as to how best to deal with irritating gnats who occasionally nip at corporate and political muscle. It’s the same tactic that was used so effectively against army deafness claimants a few years back — vilify them as reckless burdens on the hard-pressed taxpayer, and hope nobody notices that they are, in fact, within their rights to seek redress. The “deaf” soldiers wouldn’t have had a legal leg to stand on if the state had acted on advice to issue them with earplugs decades ago. The Carrickmines castle protesters were acting legally when they went to court to block a development they considered to be a destruction of the heritage of generations to come.

Just don’t expect everyone to like it. Motorists tailed back on the approach roads to Dublin each morning, with signs warning of 40-minute delays merely to negotiate an exit from the motorway, would have cheerfully lynched the Carrickmines protesters or the champions of those rare snails whose protected habitats held up proceedings. The mobile phone mast protesters are equally dismissed as flat-earthers blocking progress. Who, after all, could reasonably be expected to live without a mobile phone these days? And, given an instinct towards spin rather than counterproductive pressure, Shell might have succeeded in branding that handful of revolting landowners as crackpots standing in the way of cheap fuel at a time of diminishing oil reserves.

Exasperating though they might be, when their particular hobby horse clashes with your own imperatives, it’s a rather cynical political tactic to demonise them and characterise their genuine worries in criminal terms. People who care enough about the environment, or their families’ health, or the country’s heritage to get up and climb trees and lie in front of bulldozers and heckle deputies on Kildare Street may be misguided, ill-informed or eccentric, but they’ re not robbers. And, whether we realise it or not, we rely on them to fill a valuable role in the workings of a democracy. No doubt they irritate government ministers and international corporations with their protests. Of course the construction of new roads and airports and incinerators would work out far more cheaply if we were inclined to swallow without demur every political assurance and pronouncement. The exchequer could have saved €3m last year alone, for instance, if we were a more credulous lot, because that’s the sum the government spent on spin doctors and special advisers in 2004.

Dissent is essential to a healthy society, and if at times it is proven to be vexatious and groundless, that is a price worth paying. The Carrickmines protesters didn’t stop the M50 in the end, but they did succeed in generating debate on the quality and relevance of national monuments that are worth preserving for posterity. The mobile phone mast protesters achieve sporadic successes, but at least awareness has been raised of the potential hazards of masts and phones, to the point that an Oireachtas committee report last week recommended that mobile phones should carry graded radiation warnings. And you would be safe in betting that Shell will eventually get that pipeline through, but the protesters’ efforts have at least made sure that it won’t be without safety assurances and modifications that might otherwise have been withheld.

One very good reason for applauding the efforts of puny protesters against powerful vested interests is that you never know when that puny protester might have to be you. Joining the baying mob to denounce them as “robbers” from the public purse would very probably make it easier to clear them out of the way of progress. And a couple of buckets of salt would have done the same for those pesky snails, but nobody seemed to think that was a good idea at the time.

royaldutchshellplc.com and its sister websites royaldutchshellgroup.com, shellenergy.website, shellnazihistory.com, royaldutchshell.website, johndonovan.website, shellnews.net and shell2004.com are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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