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The Sunday Times: Comment: Matt Cooper: Rossport Five bury their heads in the sand and the tide turns

The Sunday Times May 07, 2006

Comment: Matt Cooper: Rossport Five bury their heads in the sand and the tide turns

The organisers of the Shell to Sea protest must be pretty pleased with themselves. Formed with the aim of preventing the construction of a pipeline bringing gas from the Corrib field in the Atlantic onshore to Mayo, the group has had an unexpected degree of success. But the tide of public opinion is about to turn.

Locals in Rossport, a rural area of Mayo under whose land the pipe is supposed to run, have won much public sympathy for their opposition to the pipeline. This was helped by a largely understanding media and blundering tactics by Shell, the operator of the gas field.

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The protest group’s finest hour — or 94 days, to be precise — came when five local men went to jail rather than give the High Court an undertaking not to obstruct construction of the pipeline. Beatified by their supporters for standing up to a “rapacious” oil giant, the men were seen as selfless in sacrificing their personal liberty to secure the safety and freedoms of others.

After that, how could the movement fail? It seemed as if the trump cards they possessed, most of them dealt by Shell, gave them an unbeatable hand. It was surely only a matter of time before Shell, despite claiming it was not feasible, was forced to construct a more expensive off-shore gas refinery.

But like many gamblers, Shell to Sea overplayed its hand. The Rossport Five were at their strongest when in prison. They were released when Shell asked the judge to lift the interim injunction preventing obstruction to the construction of the pipeline. This allowed Shell to recover some lost ground, if not to reoccupy its moral high point.

The men may have been better off refusing to come out of jail until Shell had agreed to their demands. As soon as they regained their freedom, the ground started shifting beneath them.

Even though they still retain support locally, they are now required to negotiate with their enemy and to explain their position publicly. And this is where they are failing. As the emotional temperature drops, the public demands rational discussion and some compromise. Now they are only getting it from one side.

The protesters refuse to engage directly with Shell, preferring megaphone diplomacy. They have become self-confident to the point of arrogance. Bolstered by the adulation they received, they make exaggerated claims about the mendacity of Shell, the complicity of the government, the bona fides of the mediator, Peter Cassells, and the dangers posed by the pipeline itself.

Their arguments have become so hysterical they are counterproductive. The central issue in this dispute is safety. Many other red herrings — the ownership of natural resources, the levying of taxes on exploration profits and the manner in which land is acquired for such projects — have been introduced to the debate in a manner that suits the ideological and political purposes of Shell to Sea’s allies and fellow travellers.

The Rossport Five claim any pipeline will be unstable and therefore highly dangerous. They say it is unreasonable to run it “within yards” of their front doors. Questioned closely about the extent of the dangers (the pipeline would be 70 metres from the nearest house) and the likelihood of anything going wrong, they respond with a question of their own: would you live beside this pipeline? This tends to silence most people.

It should only do so, however, if you genuinely believe the pipeline is inherently unsafe — or more unsafe than any of the thousands of other pipes running around the country — and that the likelihood of something going wrong is more than minimal.

Much depends on your appreciation of risk. I live under a flight path, but I don’t worry about aircraft falling out of the sky and destroying my house. Buses pass along my road at what some might consider high speeds. In certain circumstances that could be dangerous, but I don’t demand they be rerouted. We are all forced to live with a level of risk.

The government moved to address the safety concerns in Mayo by appointing independent, expert consultants. Their findings were released last week by Noel Dempsey, the natural resources minister, a rock of common sense in his handling of this tricky subject. Depending on your point of view, Dempsey used the report to announce either big concessions or severe restrictions on the project.

The pressure at which Shell can transport the gas will be restricted to well below the pipeline’s capacity. This will be monitored by an independent regulator. This means that even though the government has accepted assurances that the possibility of accident and explosion, while always present, is extremely low, it has decided that additional safeguards be put in place anyway.

This, if the Shell to Sea campaigners realised it, is a victory, albeit not the capitulation they require. But displaying all the zeal of a true believer, Shell to Sea’s Mark Garavan dismissed the latest offer as “irrelevant”. He insists that unless those involved can prove the pipeline can never explode (an impossible undertaking), the gas terminal must be built offshore. There are no grounds for negotiation.

Not only does Shell to Sea want assurances that cannot be given, but at some stage in this process the Rossport Five have become convinced that a disaster will definitely take place if the gas is processed onshore.

On Thursday evening I hosted a radio interview with Willie Corduff, one of the five, and the Shell spokesman John Egan, a Mayoman who investigated Shell’s activities in Nigeria a decade ago when he worked for the BBC. It was the first time a member of the Rossport Five had spoken with anyone from Shell since their release from prison.

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While Corduff went on the offensive from the off, even making inaccurate claims about Shell’s behaviour in Nigeria, Egan spent much of his time in humble and contrite mode, apologising on numerous occasions for the company’s earlier behaviour in Rossport.

I asked Corduff about quotes attributed to him in one of the morning’s papers to the effect that he would rather die than allow the pipeline be built. He demurred at that point, but then made the extraordinary claim that it was “almost certain” the proposed pipeline would kill him anyway if it were to be constructed. His death would be caused by an explosion or a leak of noxious fumes. It was the kind of response that leaves interviewers speechless. If that is what Corduff truly believes, there is no possibility of the Rossport Five reaching an accommodation with Shell.

Regulations require that the pipes be laid a minimum of 1.9 metres underground, but Shell’s opponents have dug themselves in far deeper. They have become so entrenched it is hard to believe they will not go to any lengths to prevent the lawful construction of this pipeline.

Corduff is clearly a man of principle, decent, well-meaning and a hero to many. But his comments undermined his argument, a point not lost on those who heard his interview. In the flood of text messages to the show was one from a listener who likened the saga to John B Keane’s The Field, in which the central character, Bull McCabe, drives himself to distraction in his efforts to keep a piece of land away from “the Yank”.

Corduff and his four colleagues need wise counsel, but are unlikely to get it from those who surround this campaign, some of whom have become consumed by their hyperbole. Garavan specialises in the language of victimhood, claiming that Dempsey “has once again sided with Shell against the vulnerable communities of North Mayo”.

The bottom line is that Shell has a contract with this country. It has a right to exploit a gas reserve hundreds of miles off the Irish coast that private enterprise, not the state, discovered after a large investment.

Shell has changed tactics in recent months, especially since facilitating the release of the Rossport Five from jail. It is now publicly seeking negotiation in an effort to move things on. Many will never overcome their suspicions of companies like Shell, but in this argument it has both reason and facts on its side.

To paraphrase a famous American general who devised an excuse to withdraw from Vietnam with dignity, Shell to Sea should have used the publication of last week’s report as the signal to “declare victory” and “get out” of Mayo with its reputation intact.

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