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Tell Shell to go to hell

THE SUNDAY TIMES (UK): Focus: ‘Tell Shell to go to hell’

Who will win the battle of wills: five jailed protesters or the multinational?

Sunday 10 July 2005

Douglas Dalby investigates

It should have been the proudest week of Gerry Coyle’s life. The Co Mayo councillor was supposed to have been in South Africa watching his son Henry win a gold medal in the final of the international military boxing tournament. Instead, he was stuck at home trying to find a way through the impasse that has pitted the multinational energy giant Shell against a group of local protesters, five of whom have been jailed as a result.

“In hindsight, not a single sod should have been turned before Shell had the necessary consent, and the company clearly didn’t have the most important consent of all — that of the people,” said Coyle. “I have always been for Corrib, but in my enthusiasm to embrace jobs, I didn’t listen enough to the concerns of these ordinary, decent people; no development is worth this kind of division in the community.”

Ten days ago the men now known as the Rossport Five refused to obey a court order that would allow Shell to run part of a gas pipeline from the Corrib field 70km offshore through their land to a processing plant 9km inland. Citing safety concerns, these most unlikely of prisoners were put under lock and key in Cloverhill prison in Dublin, where they will remain until they promise not to block the work.

Since the inception of the Corrib project, a small, anti-gas group had been a persistent thorn in Shell’s side, but the imprisonment of the five men has transformed the protesters in the eyes of the community from eccentric cranks into local heroes.

The company says the men are misguided and their concerns over the safety of the pipeline misplaced. Regardless, work has been brought to a halt, hundreds of workers have been laid off indefinitely and Shell finds itself mired in a costly public relations disaster.

“WE DON’T want people in prison — in fact, it’s the last thing we want,” said Andy Pyle, the chairman of Shell Ireland. “We recognise that there are some landowners with concerns, but these have been built up by misinformation and emotive language. It is absolute rubbish to suggest safety is not our primary priority, but, in hindsight, we should have done more to counter their concerns.”

Those concerns rest on the safeguards in place on the onshore pipeline that travels close to the homes of four of the men. The fifth, Micheal O Seighin, 65, a former schoolteacher with a heart condition, has been at the forefront of the protest movement for several years.

A report commissioned by Shell into the safety of the pipeline, published last month, concluded that the risks to the public “would be tolerable when compared with international criteria”. However, it also said the initial report was based on incomplete information. Meanwhile, protesters have queried the independence of the assessment, given that AEA Technology, the company that conducted it, worked for Shell previously.

The protesters believe Shell has chosen to process the gas onshore in order to save money. It is estimated that a land refinery would save the company €300m and shave 40% a year off operating costs for the expected 20-year lifespan of the field. Pyle, however, dismisses the contention that Shell would put shareholders’ profit above the safety of the people of Rossport.

“That is totally untrue: I don’t know how strongly I can refute that,” he said. “I would have no problem with a totally independent review if I thought it could break the logjam, but what constitutes independence and would it be accepted?” Pyle claims that the pipeline is “grossly overdesigned” for the pressure of gas that will run through it, but says the company has chosen to err on the side of caution. Conceding it would be far more expensive to site the processing plant at sea, he says the company’s priority was safety. According to Pyle, more accidents would likely occur if the plant were placed offshore.

Pyle insists that Shell had tried everything in its power to set up meetings with the landowners individually or as a group in a bid to allay their fears, but the prospects of dialogue faded last month.

“We wouldn’t meet them in a large, open forum because we didn’t want it hijacked. There are people who have objected all the way and who object to just about every development in Ireland,” he said. “You can’t have a proper conversation with such people, never mind an agreement, and there is no point getting into a slanging match.”

The problem for Shell is that its appeal for dialogue may have come a dime short and an hour late. The locals are in no mood to listen as long as their neighbours remain in prison, and attitudes are hardening with every day. Although Joseph Finnegan, the High Court judge, said last week that “their fate lies in their own hands”, there is little doubt the community holds Shell and the government responsible for their continued incarceration.

“We are at a very dangerous impasse,” said Ian McAndrew, a local representative of Udaras na Gaeltachta and the former chairman of the Erris Pro-Gas Alliance. “I have been a supporter of the gas project, but it is not right that local people who have very real fears about the pipeline should find themselves locked up like common criminals.

“Shell must learn that bringing Irish citizens to the High Court will not resolve anything. By doing so it has galvanised the Erris community into collective action like never before.”

McAndrew, Coyle and other supporters of the project are calling for government intervention in the dispute, the release of the men and suspension of all work pending the outcome of an independent study of the project. They fear the continuing standoff could encourage Shell to cap the wells it has already drilled and abandon the €21 billion project entirely — something Pyle has not ruled out despite the €500m the company has already invested in it.

So far, the government has shown little appetite for involvement and Noel Dempsey, the minister for communications, marine and natural resources, explicitly ruled out any intervention on the basis that it was a judicial matter.

Shell’s status as the apparent Goliath in this struggle with a small group of protesters has put the energy giant on the back foot in the battle for hearts and minds, locally and nationally. Marathon and Statoil are also developing Corrib field, but Shell has been drawing almost all the flak. The protest was broadened last week with pickets placed on Shell filling stations and a demonstration outside the Irish embassy in Edinburgh in the run-up to the G8 summit.

The Erris peninsula in northwest Mayo is an area the size of Co Louth, but a legacy of emigration means that it is one of the most sparsely populated places in the country. Work has been scarce and the prospect of 300 jobs during the construction phase of the project and a further 50 full-time positions at the refinery received a broad welcome.

This is a close-knit community, but now brothers and neighbours face each other across picket lines.

Shops and houses all over the area are festooned with banners in support of the Rossport Five, the local radio station blares out a song urging people “to tell Shell to go to hell” and hundreds of locals turn up every day to block access to the site of the proposed gas processing plant.

Last Sunday, Erris was all but empty. After priests at every pulpit said prayers for the five men, several hundred people travelled to the town of Castlebar for a protest march organised by local TDs.

When the five appeared in court two weeks ago they represented themselves. Last week when the case came up for mention in the High Court, it emerged that John Rogers, the former attorney-general, would be fighting their corner. It is unclear if he will do so without charge, but the men are unlikely to have the resources to fund such high-profile representation.

The men — O Seighin, Willie Corduff, Brendan Philbin and brothers Philip and Vincent McGrath — say they are determined to carry on indefinitely. At Cloverhill they wear regular prison uniforms and share two cells. They are receiving a steady stream of visitors, including relatives, friends, and political representatives.

THIS is a local dispute, but it has national consequences. The Kinsale field off the Co Cork coast is depleting rapidly and Ireland faces the costly prospect of importing huge amounts of gas.

According to the most recent data from the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER), if Corrib does not come on stream, Ireland would be forced to import almost all of its gas requirements. Even further delay will mean more imports as the CER was projecting supply from Corrib by 2008.

The outcome could also send out a discouraging message to other would-be developers, according to Pyle: “When you have a situation whereby a few people can derail a major infrastructure project, then you have anarchy. It was always going to be ‘big Shell against the little landowner,’ but any reasonable person would have to conclude this pipeline is safe.”

Last week Justice Finnegan said he would have no hesitation in jailing every farmer who blocks the road into Rossport, but the threats from a Dublin judge are unlikely to cut ice with the members of this remote community who believe they now have little option but to make a stand.

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