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Bog stand-off: Five men from County Mayo defy the might of Shell

Daily Telegraph Magazine: Bog stand-off: Five men from County Mayo defy the might of Shell

“In local eyes, the villain is the oil giant Shell (the lead company in a consortium developing the gas), closely followed by the Irish government which granted compulsory acquisition orders for the pipe to cross the jailed men’s land.”

Saturday 1 October 2005

In Rossport, western Ireland, five men have been imprisoned for defying the will of the multinational oil giant Shell and refusing to allow a gas pipeline to be built across their land. Their plight has galvanised a community and turned this remote, rural outpost into an unlikely location for eco-activism. Robert Chesshyre reports

Watched by police officers in unmarked cars, eco-warriors in ragged T-shirts and unlaced boots man a picket line; in farmhouse kitchens women gather anxiously around peat stoves to chew over the latest news; beyond the scattered village on the heather-tinged bog someone has carved in huge whitewashed letters, JUSTICE AND FREEDOM FOR THE ROSSPORT FIVE; Irish tricolours flutter from telephone poles. The countryside is alive with dissent.

This is the Barony of Erris in north-west Mayo – four hours from Dublin and as wild and beautiful as any stretch of the Irish Atlantic coast. A sparkling sea breaks on silver sands; fluffy clouds race across a pale-blue sky, casting shadows over the green mountains; sheep wander along the narrow roads; and, beneath hedges of scarlet fuchsia, the wildflowers are a riot of oranges and blues.

It is also poor country – no longer dirt poor with tumbledown cottages, but hard-pressed, hard-working poor. Eking a living from a few acres claimed from the peat or fishing for depleted stocks is tough and relentless work. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ miracle that transformed much of modern Ireland never reached its furthest corners.

Rural life here might have pottered peaceably on had not, nine years ago, the Corrib gas field been discovered 50 miles offshore. At first the find was rapturously welcomed. Erris would become a second Saudi Arabia, or at least a Norway. The bog would flow with milk and honey, and every last smallholder would drive a Merc. Anyone against the gas was denounced as a nay-sayer and castigated as ‘anti-progress’.

When I visited, work on the project was suspended and the community up in arms. Five men – three landowners and two supporters, both retired schoolteachers – languished in a Dublin jail, committed indefinitely for effectively blocking the pipe that is to carry the gas. Middle-aged family folk, with roots deep in this ancient countryside, they are dubbed the ‘Rossport Five’ and accorded the status of martyrs. Their plight grips all Ireland.

In local eyes, the villain is the oil giant Shell (the lead company in a consortium developing the gas), closely followed by the Irish government which granted compulsory acquisition orders for the pipe to cross the jailed men’s land. This, the men and their supporters claim, is not just any gas pipe such as might be laid beneath the high street but one carrying ‘raw’ untreated gas straight from the ocean bed. It is also to be laid across unstable bog.

The plan is that the gas will come ashore near Rossport, be piped through the village, up a hill and across a forest – trees have already been cut, creating a scar – to an inland processing plant. The waste would be pumped back into the Atlantic. The protesters say that the gas should

be processed at sea – either at the wellhead or on a shallow-water platform. Their battle cry (and campaign title) is ‘Shell to Sea’.

The pipe would pass 70 metres from houses, and – say the men, their families and the protest groups – if it were to rupture, the blast would kill the villagers and destroy their property. If it does go ahead, they will either leave – a wrench scarcely comprehensible to mobile, suburban people – or never again enjoy untroubled sleep. At stake, they fear, are their safety, heritage and peace of mind

When I arrive in Ireland, one of the first cars I see (50 miles away at the Mayo county town of Castlebar) is a Jaguar of Inspector Morse vintage – bearing a sticker demanding FREE THE ROSSPORT FIVE. Nearer the coast, almost every vehicle carries a similar plea, and homemade signs hanging from every post suggest – not always politely – what the oil men should do with their pipeline.

Though local concerns date back to 2000, Mark Garavan, the spokesman for Shell to Sea, says that even three months ago it was hard to raise a quorum to stage a protest or discuss the issue. But the instant the men were carted off to jail, the community – and all manner of people from across Ireland – took to the barricades. Thousands thronged rallies both locally and in Dublin. The men’s ‘sin’ was to defy injunctions forbidding them to impede the oil companies’ operations. They flatly refused to allow surveyors and engineers on to their land. At the High Court in Dublin, a judge told them they should not have usurped the law and would remain in jail until they backed down.

Imprisoning the men was a spectacular own goal. History leaks down the generations in Ireland, and anyone with a vague knowledge of the past ought to have realised that jailing people without trial was the surest way to awaken antique memories of injustice. A move that might have intimidated locals served only to galvanise them.

The Rossport compound and the gas processing plant site (five miles away at Bellanaboy) were instantly picketed, halting the project. (Shell suspended work – a gesture of goodwill, says the company; bowing to the inevitable, say the protesters.) Nearly 400 men are laid off, and equipment stands idle, visible behind locked gates. At one stage the interruption was costing the oil companies €100,000 a day.

The cultural gap looming between Shell and its opponents is as wide as the Irish Sea. Speaking to people from both sides, I felt that they were conversing in different languages. The west of Ireland is the land of playwrights and poets, of WB Yeats and JM Synge. Nothing is very exact or concrete. Even the wettest day is merely ‘soft’. Shell is an organisation of balance sheets and timekeeping, of investment and returns.

When the wives of the jailed men overnight found themselves in the public eye, they were bewildered by the barrage of questions thrown at them by the Dublin press. Even ‘how old is your husband?’ jarred their sensibilities. ‘These are reticent people; their standards of privacy are high,’ Garavan says. There are echoes here of an Ealing-style comedy – Passport to Pimlico maybe, or The Mouse that Roared. The residents of a tiny, remote hamlet have brought one of the world’s great corporations to a standstill. But Garavan plays down the equivalence. ‘This is not a romantic adventure: men are in prison and a real price is being paid; no one involved is enjoying any bit of it.’

My guide is Maura Harrington, the head teacher at a tiny primary school a few miles from Rossport. With her long hair and ankle-length appliqued skirt, she is a Celtic bohemian. Self-confessed ‘left of centre’, she has embraced the men’s cause. We stop at her school, where Father Nallen, the local priest, tells me that the villagers’ fears should have been considered. ‘These people are being evicted from their homes and from the happiness of their lives; they should not be sacrificed to make profits. I wouldn’t want to be living in such close proximity to gas pipes.’ Nallen has visited the men in prison, and mentions them in prayers for the faithful.

We pause at the point where the gas will come ashore. A security man appears. Might he have a word? Will Shell to Sea lift their picket so that a septic tank at one of the embattled sites can be drained? Harrington refuses, arguing that Shell would take advantage of such indulgence. The man pleads that he is a contractor, not a Shell employee, and that he never breaks his word. In this dialogue of the deaf it is a vain request.

Five men make up the picket line (redundant, for the moment) outside the gas-processing site. They include a farmer, a fisherman and a carpenter. One is brother-in-law to one of the jailed men; another went to school with two of them and was taught by a third. ‘When neighbours are locked in prison, it is personal,’ the fisherman, Pat O’Donnell, says. Ensconced in a horsebox, the men offer tea and sandwiches – locals and shopkeepers top up their supplies. The horsebox is plastered with leaflets – a protest like this becomes a catch-all happening – and the talk soon turns to issues far beyond safety. One complaint is that the Irish government sold the gas rights for a mess of pottage. All profits, they say, go to the Shell-led consortium (the minority companies are the Norwegian Statoil and the American Marathon), with next to nothing for the Irish people.

Another charge is that the plant will wreck the environment. They claim that the discharged water will poison the bay, killing fish and wiping out oyster beds; a salmon river will lose its stock; emissions will float across the countryside, polluting a lake that supplies fresh water. The men argue that the few jobs there will be when the construction is completed will be highly technical and go to skilled outsiders.

The pickets are (mainly) local, but the protest has drawn in ‘supporters’ from Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein to the eco-warriors at a ‘solidarity camp’. Garavan, a sociology lecturer, is eager to put such backing in what locals claim is its true perspective ‘Sinn Fein might like to give the impression that they control events. They do not. Control is in the hands of the five families and their local supporters.’

The pickets are defiant. If and when construction starts again, they will resume mass action. What happens, I ask, if the police drag them away. ‘Then,’ one says, ‘we’ll test the capacity of Irish jails to their limit.’

We move to Mary Corduff’s farm. Her husband, Willie, is one of the jailed men, and we are joined by the wives of two more of the Rossport Five – Maureen, the wife of Philip McGrath, and Caitlin, the wife of Micheal O Seighin. (The two other imprisoned men are Philip’s brother Vincent and Brendan Philbin.) A sheepdog leaps all over me, and three white cats laze by the kitchen door. Inside a kettle warms on the stove, and Mary serves tea and makes sandwiches.

The women tell of their prison visits: the arduous journeys; how they are separated from their men by glass partitions and must talk through low grills; how the nearest they get to human contact is to place their hands up against their husbands’ through the glass. They find such indignities bewildering. ‘God help us,’ Caitlin says. ‘I was never in a prison before.’

Willie’s father bought the land in 1946, and three generations have laboured to create a small cattle farm. Before jail, Willie had been away for only two weeks in his life. He grew up on the farm, and his footprints are all over it. The wives say they never feel the need for holidays. With the sun streaming down on the narrow bay at the foot of the Corduffs’ fields, it is easy to understand why. The women believe that the oil companies took them – in Mary’s words – for ‘fools and innocents’ who could be rolled over. ‘They didn’t ask “Can we?”, they said “We are.”‘ I am regaled by tales of what locals claimed were surreptitious visits to spy out their land – one such made at the height of a storm when people had been warned to stay home and schools were closed.

Fools the women certainly aren’t. No corner of Ireland is now so remote that people do not know what goes on in the world. Many Irish have worked abroad, and most have relations across the globe. Papers nicknamed the protesters the ‘Bogoni’ after the Ogoni people who fought against Shell development in Nigeria. ‘Nigeria: three miles’, reads a sign. An oil giant escapes its own shadow with great difficulty.

‘All we ask,’ the women say, ‘is a guarantee of safety equal to anyone in the land. Shell say they want to be “neighbourly”. Most people don’t jail their neighbours.’ The talk turns to the day their husbands were locked up, and tears of sad and bitter remembrance spring to their eyes. Mary says of her husband, ‘He is a family man who stands his ground for what he knows is right, whatever the consequences.’ Garavan had told me that the five regard their imprisonment not just as a protest but as protection for their families. ‘While they are in jail, Shell can’t put in the pipeline. If that is what it takes, that is what they will do.’

Much of the land is ‘commonage’, owned by several people. Thirty-two people were offered compensation (€48.26 per metre – a sum agreed nationally with the Irish Farmers’ Association -with the land being reinstated once the pipes are in), and all but six eventually accepted. I am assured that most now regret it, saying they failed to appreciate the possible risks involved.

The last refusenik is Brid McGarry, a soft-spoken woman with blue eyes and a bird’s nest of curly hair who lives across the bay from the gas-processing site and the gash through the forest. Since she is the only one at liberty, she believes that her gender kept her from jail. In fact, she says – despite having an elderly mother – it is ‘very unfortunate’ that she is not locked up. ‘No one wants prison, but if Shell do not do the right thing, we will have to be locked up. Myself and the other women are willing to go. Shell need to take that on board.’

If Rossport residents are reticent, the eco-warriors are positively Trappist. I am referred to a notice inside the ‘sentry box’ they man outside Shell’s compound in Rossport. The press is banned from the ‘solidarity camp’, and no one may speak with journalists. The stated aim is to prevent the eco-warriors becoming the story at the expense of the issue at hand.

Next to the press statement is a guide to conduct: ‘This is serious political action that involves hard work and discipline… we are committed to Non-Violent Direct Action… decisions will be made on the basis of “non-hierarchical consensus”.’ A young, well-spoken Englishman says he is a veteran campaigner. A few yards away policeman in an unmarked car incongruously bearing L-plates stolidly work their way through the morning papers.

So far, I have heard only one side of the debate. I talk to two businessmen, both of whom began work for Shell before the project was suspended and have invested in equipment. Neither wants any scheme that might endanger anyone in Rossport. But both believe – if and when safety can be guaranteed – that the gas should come ashore.

Frank Brogan owns supermarkets and hardware stores and a plant-hire business. He employs 61 people and has taken on staff for the project. He knows and respects the jailed men – ‘it is an awful state of affairs that they have to be locked up’ – but he is bemused that, nine years after the gas find, no one to his satisfaction can say whether the scheme is or is not safe. ‘Can you trust anyone?’ he asks.

TJ Carey, who runs a pub, a sheep market and a plant-hire business, is less equivocal. His office has received nasty, intimidating phone calls. Having worked on the Bellanaboy site, he vouches for Shell’s safety standards: ‘The rigours we went through were unbelievable.’ He then broaches the issue of poverty. ‘Look around,’ he says. ‘How do people live? The only good thing that we were going to get was the gas.’ He thinks the jailed men should purge their contempt – ‘they will have to say they are sorry and come home to their wives and children and talk with Shell. They’ve made their point, and there is no further reason for them to stay. Don’t get me wrong that I am standing up for Shell. I just want this straightened out.’

The local Shell HQ, opposite Carey’s pub, is a down-at-heel purple building, light years from a Dallas-style office. The project manager is Mark Carrigy, himself from the west of Ireland, who – after working for Shell around the world – came home to raise his family and (he thought) bring prosperity to the region. ‘It is a golden opportunity and a wonderful project,’ he says. In T-shirt and sweater, Carrigy is as dressed-down as the building. He refutes the idea that the only decent employment will go to outsiders. Three million euros is earmarked to train local people who already have the basic skills. In addition, contractors will be needed to maintain the site and support the workers. A recently closed peat-fired power station would be reopened to run on gas. The spin-off for the depressed local economy would be significant.

The protesters constantly refer to the pressure of the ‘raw’ gas. The Corrib field, Carrigy says, will produce ‘dry’ gas. The only extraneous materials to be processed out of the gas are some water (which will be cleaned to drinking-water standards and pumped eight miles out to sea) and ‘condensates’, a light oil such as powers domestic heating boilers, which will be used on site.

The sea-to-shore pipe – he holds up a piece of shiny steel – is designed to handle 345 bar (units of pressure), while the gas itself will be pumped at 120 bar, decreasing as the well pressure decreases. After three years, it will be at a similar pressure to that of mains gas distributed throughout the country. He adds that piping untreated gas ashore is now standard practice, and tells of similar projects in Norway, Australia and Egypt. (These comparisons “lie” challenged by Shell to Sea, who say that no comparable pipeline has ever passed through an inhabited area. They ask whether people would tolerate a pipe carrying ‘raw’ gas beneath the streets of London or Dublin.)

As an example of the potential dangers, Shell to Sea cites a gas-pipe explosion in New Mexico, USA, in 2000 that killed a dozen picnickers. They say that this gas was at only 45 bar. Shell’s answer to that is that the pipe was 50 years old, thin and corroded. To compare it with the pipeline proposed for Rossport is ‘reckless’, Carrigy says, and like comparing the safety technology of a car built in 1950 with one designed in the 21st century.

Carrigy adds that the licence terms are advantageous to Shell because gas exploration in Irish waters has proved extremely dicey. One hundred and forty explorations have produced only two viable fields. Incentives were needed. Shell will -after deductions for exploration costs – pay 25 per cent tax, and Carrigy says that may change if and when the gas is flowing.

He expresses ‘frustration’, arguing that the jailed men are victims of ‘misinformation’ – some of it innocent and some emanating from people who don’t want the pipe under any circumstances. ‘I stand over this as an Irishman who is proud of the enterprise and proud we can bring this opportunity. We’ve been through seven years of due process and are spending €900 million. If Corrib doesn’t go ahead, it will be the death knell for the oil and gas industry in Ireland and a very bleak message to anyone thinking of investing here.’

He was recently approached by a woman whose husband was laid off when work was suspended. In past winters this man had to seek work in Britain. His wife is desperate for the project to resume and for her husband to stay home. ‘When,’ she asked, ‘are you going to get my husband back to work?’

The dilemma is absolute. Listen to Carrigy, and you would say, ‘Yes, this sounds safe…’ But before you add the words ‘…as houses’, you might think, ‘Near my house? Under my town?’ After all, accidents happen.

While the Rossport Five remain in jail, an independent safety review ordered by the Irish government is due to report shortly. Shell says that despite the delays (and somewhat in the face of current realities), it is confident the gas will be delivered by October 2007. Shell to Sea are adamant that it just won’t happen. One supporter says, ‘It would take martial law to get this pipe laid.’

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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