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Irish Times: Mayo contempt case

Irish Times: Mayo contempt case

“Street protests about the imprisonment of the men and the plans by the multinational company to refine gas from the Corrib field onshore have ignited concerns that the legitimate interests of local people may be subordinated to Shell.”

Tuesday 5 2005

Public opinion has become highly charged following the jailing of five men last week for contempt of court after they obstructed work on a gas pipeline near their homes in north Mayo being built by Shell E&P Ireland Ltd.

Street protests about the imprisonment of the men and the plans by the multinational company to refine gas from the Corrib field onshore have ignited concerns that the legitimate interests of local people may be subordinated to Shell.

There have been efforts to present this confrontation in a David and Goliath light. That would be too simplistic. Up to the time of their jailing, these men were not representative of local opinion. After years of debate, adjudication by An Bord Pleanala and forced changes in construction plans by Shell, most local people accepted onshore facilities would be built. They recognised the gas deposits could supply Ireland’s requirements for 15 years.

The Government has not done well. Ministers supported the project but made no attempt to build local industry on the strength of the gas find.

An ESB turf-burning station some miles away was closed while plans were made to pipe gas to Dublin and onwards for export. There was no sense of local ownership. The planning process was seen as unfair and weighted in Shell’s favour. If these issues are to be resolved through negotiation, the first step should involve the release of the men from jail.

They refused to give an undertaking to the High Court to stop interfering with work on the pipeline. But Shell may have overstepped its authority by ordering specific work that was not sanctioned by the Minister for Natural Resources, Noel Dempsey. It will be open to the men to apply for discharge of a High Court order tomorrow, thereby purging their contempt.

Shell officials misjudged the situation if they thought to intimidate others by making an example of these men. They are offering to negotiate.

But the terms being demanded by some objectors – that the gas be refined offshore and pumped under normal pressure – were not upheld by An Bord Pleanala and will almost certainly be rejected by Shell. The Health and Safety Authority accepted that the pipeline met international standards.

It is a difficult and emotional situation for those involved. Any settlement will require compromise. Individuals are entitled to object during the planning and licensing process. But once binding decisions are taken by the Government and the planning authorities, the law must be obeyed.

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