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Five savour freedom after 94 days in jail

Irish Times: Five savour freedom after 94 days in jail

“Speaking to The Irish Times less than 24 hours after Shell E&P Ireland collapsed the temporary injunction which led to their release from prison, the jokes were flying among the five men and their families.”: “They had observed efforts by Shell E&P Ireland to “spin” this line. “The language – references to anarchy – mirrored that used in Nigeria 10 years ago by Shell before Ken Sara Wiwa and his colleagues were hanged,”

Monday 2 October 2005

Lorna Siggins

Oct 03, 2005

Larger than life Willie Corduff grips his armchair, remembering how he felt almost 14 weeks ago when he and four of his north Mayo neighbours were committed to an indefinite period in prison.

He had never been in a courtroom before, never dreamt he would see the inside of a jail. It would be his habit to stop and greet fellow Rossport farmers and neighbours like Philip and Vincent McGrath, Brendan Philbin, or retired schoolteacher Micheal O Seighin, if he met them back home on the road. “Now I think we will all be driving in the opposite direction!”

Speaking to The Irish Times less than 24 hours after Shell E&P Ireland collapsed the temporary injunction which led to their release from prison, the jokes were flying among the five men and their families. Their first night of freedom after 94 days was courtesy of RTE at the Radisson hotel. They would still have to return to Cloverhill, however – to pack their belongings.

They would need a “truck”, one of them quips, as they had hundreds of letters and postcards sent from the four corners of Ireland and the world. “Japan, Canada, France, Spain, the lot,” Brendan Philbin says. “One French woman who used to come to Ireland regularly, told us this was not the Ireland she thought she was visiting, and said she wouldn’t be back,” says Micheal O Seighin.

A niece of his had written to the Minister for the Marine, and had received a response to the effect that the five were the antithesis of the 1916 rising leaders who fought for Ireland’s right to its own legislation.

“She found that very offensive – and another friend of mine who wrote to him from Wales received almost exactly the same reply.”

It was this support, along with messages relayed by families and friends, which lifted them from low moments.”

“Ireland has been seen as a great role model in the eyes of the world, and what we did was show them the real side of Ireland,” Brendan Philbin adds. Micheal O Seighin and Willie Corduff concur.

“There are people who don’t think they are living in a corrupt society, but we know otherwise from our own experience. Towards the end, there could be 150 letters and cards with each mail delivery.”

“Once people had begun to react like this, we knew we were no longer free agents – but the fear of what we would face if we had to return and live beside that pipeline also kept us going,” Corduff remarks.

Mayo TD Dr Jerry Cowley (Ind), who has been criticised by Dail colleagues, was “like a father” to them, they say, while Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny let them down – and was told so by them on a recent heated visit. Kenny, they believe, was the only one of many TDs who visited them who had no feeling for their own personal situation.

Due to the fact that Cloverhill is a remand prison, facilities are limited and security is tight.

“If you had any sort of problem at all, it is not the place to be for any length of time,” says Willie Corduff, whose father died only last February – he found Shell executives wanting to gain access to land on the day his father was due to be buried. (“Shell wrote to my dead father last week – the company still hasn’t learned anything at all.”)

The hardest part for him in prison was watching young men returning, held by the grip of drug addiction, and hearing the banging and agonised roaring of those who clearly needed help.

The five received no special treatment, and were among the longest inmates there, due to their indefinite sentence.

Vincent and Micheal shared one cell, Brendan, Philip and Willie were in another. Several of them worked in the kitchen, and were buoyed by support from prisoners and staff. They believe a culmination of circumstances, fuelled by moral outrage by the public, led to their release.

Turning points included the visit to Norway by family members, supporters and Dr Cowley. “Undoubtedly, Statoil, as a Corrib partner, was not happy at all.”

That same week, on September 22nd, a heavy Garda escort accompanied consultants and representatives of the Minister’s technical advisory group on Corrib to north Mayo, creating the impression that Erris was a “war zone”.

“Shell had been telling the department that this was what they were dealing with, that they couldn’t dismantle the illegally welded section of pipeline, and the department, which has no permanent presence on the project, had been taking its word,” Dr Mark Garavan, their spokesman, says. “It may be that when those people saw the reality for themselves, that the pickets were peaceful, that in fact it was a carnival atmosphere at times with football and children playing and gardaI drinking tea from the trailer, someone began to wake up.”

They had observed efforts by Shell E&P Ireland to “spin” this line. “The language – references to anarchy – mirrored that used in Nigeria 10 years ago by Shell before Ken Sara Wiwa and his colleagues were hanged,” says O Seighin. “We are fortunate to be living in a democracy,” Vincent McGrath adds.

They are concerned that they have been portrayed incorrectly as “anti-multinational”, due to their call for a debate over exploitation of natural resources. They believe the safety review commissioned by the Minister is a “waste of time”, due to its narrow terms of reference, and they will not be participating in the public consultation on October 12th/13th. “The first review is as good as the last because they are asking the wrong questions,” says O Seighin.

“They cannot put this pipeline further away from our houses, or up the bay, which is a Special Area of Protection,” Willie Corduff adds. Government attempts to “band-aid” the Corrib project will “not make it safer”; a review has to be far more comprehensive than that, they believe.

They have agreed to enter into mediation without pre-conditions, and so will not be drawn on whether they still want Shell to build its gas refinery offshore. Micheal O Seighin says: “We are not telling a commercial company its business, but we know it can be done offshore, safely, without any difficulty.”

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