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Irish Independent: Shell-shocked … but defiant to the end

Irish Independent: Shell-shocked … but defiant to the end

“Justine McCarthy meets the Mayo pipeline protesters and hears tales of prison, politics and poetry”: “She also has 20% of the land Shell wants to acquire for the pipeline. She is, in fact, the only non-cooperating landowner not behind bars in Cloverhill Prison. A Shell company memo copied to the protesters indicates that a decision, redolent of Constance Markievicz’s reprieve in 1916, was taken not to jail the woman so as to avoid a public relations backlash.”

Saturday 9 July 2005

Justine McCarthy meets the Mayo pipeline protesters and hears tales of prison, politics and poetry

Strangers looking for wild, elusive Rossport should follow the signs for Nigeria. The first one appears amid a cluster of hand-made signs at the junction for the causeway. “Nigeria 3m”, it directs, alluding to the deaths in custody a decade ago of anti-gas line protesters in Africa. “Shell You’re Going Out The Same Way You Came In”, warns another, strapped to an electricity pole.

Fly-drive tourists straying this far from home – 15 miles from Belmullet, in the heart of the Gaeltacht on Mayo’s drama-around-every-bend northern coastline – brake hard at the legends rearing out of the sea mist alongside a bumpy bog road populated with strolling sheep.

“Free The Rossport 5” cries a sheet of galvanised metal unfurled across a raised field. In this faraway corner, where the ocean has taken giant, ravenous bites out of the cliffs and rivers tinkle anonymously off to plunging valleys, it is easy to assume that life is simple. Some might even reach the conclusion that anyone who lives here is untouched by the world beyond.

If that is what the corporate deal-makers in Shell anticipated when they embarked on a €900 million plan to lay an eight-kilometre pipeline under the Sruth Fada Conn bog blanket, they have had reason to think again. Fears of pollution and explosions, which have happened elsewhere on the planet, are exacerbated by the knowledge that this proposed over-land pipe conducting unrefined gas is unprecedented, anywhere.

Brid McGarry lives with her mother on a road newly tarmacked to provide the trucks access to the forest, where the beginnings of a gleaming pipe lie waiting in a shorn path between the trees. She has steel-blue eyes and a degree from UCD in food science and chemistry. She also has 20% of the land Shell wants to acquire for the pipeline. She is, in fact, the only non-cooperating landowner not behind bars in Cloverhill Prison.

A Shell company memo copied to the protesters indicates that a decision, redolent of Constance Markievicz’s reprieve in 1916, was taken not to jail the woman so as to avoid a public relations backlash. McGarry, like so many of her neighbours, talks of manifolds and pressure bars with the fluency, if not quite the fidelity, of an oil company executive. Should it come to it, she vows, she too will go to jail.

“I don’t feel I have any other choice because, as things stand, we’re not getting justice from any of the State authorities,” she says.

The trouble started in October 1996 – though no one knew it then – when a gas find was struck in the Corrib field, 70 kilometres from Mayo. Glad tidings for a county where many coastal dwellers eke a living from fishing, small-farming and scant tourism. Emigrants started to come home, lured by the promise of a job and a mortgage.

Among them was Sean Harrington, a brother of the Shell To Sea campaign’s spokeswoman, Maura Harrington. The father of three who returned from Northampton with high hopes is, these days, to be found among the protesters barbequing sausages for themselves at one of the gates of the proposed refinery. “Stop Shell Hell in Mayo” demands a banner flapping wetly above their heads.

In August 2001, Mayo County Council granted planning permission for an onshore terminal where the crude gas would be received and refined. Residents objected, despite chastisement from then Marine & Natural Resources Minister Frank Fahey who accused them of holding up progress. Three months later, Fahey issued a petroleum lease for the Corrib field but, in April 2003 (after two oral hearings), An Bord Pleanala overturned the planning permission for the terminal. A new application was made that December and, in October 2004, the planning board finally gave Shell permission for the gas terminal at Bellanaboy.

Equipped with a foreshore licence granted by Frank Fahey before the last general election and with permission to use compulsory acquisition orders, Shell began clearing the terminal site last January. In April, the company initiated legal proceedings to stop residents obstructing work on the pipeline in Rossport, culminating last month in the jailing of five local men for contempt of court.

That proved a defining moment, awakening nationwide interest after five years of apathy beyond the immediate reaches of north Mayo. As well as various TDs, such influential figures as the novelist Jennifer Johnston, artist Lelia Doolan and former civil servant and “Irishman of the 20th century”, TK Whitaker, who has a house in nearby Bangor, have added their voices to the protest.

Trinity College Dublin’s German-born professor of physics, Werner Blau, is another who has raised informed concerns. Blau spent six years looking for the house of his dreams on the Mayo coast, finding it eventually on the edge of the sea. He bought it from Philip McGrath, one of the five jailed landowners, and now finds that his private access road is to be traversed by the pipeline.

“You must be very, very strong in your beliefs to even think about going to jail. It’s inside, locked away. For country people, that in itself doesn’t bear thinking about. Country people find it hard to even be in the city for a day,” says Mary Corduff, wife of one of the jailed men, Willie, and mother of six.

The pipeline will lie 70 metres from her door. Every time they leave the house, the Corduffs will have to cross it. Should a catastrophe occur, Mary and Willie believe that not only they but their entire community of about 100 households will be cut off from the rest of the country. The road stops at their house.

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