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Irish Times: ‘Erris will never be the same again’: the Corrib gas terminal project…

Published: Nov 27, 2006

The Corrib gas terminal project at Bellanaboy has caused deeper community tensions and divisions than any other issue in Mayo in modern times. Lorna Siggins , Western Correspondent, reports.

“There is a failure in understanding the community and environment into which this large industrial development seeks to be sited . . . This emphasises how out of context the proposal is . . .”

Comments made over three years ago by Bord Pleanala inspector Kevin Moore on the proposed Corrib gas terminal “came back to haunt the Government, Shell and the people of Erris” earlier this month, according to the Mayo regional newspaper, the Western People .

“In truth, the violence that raised its head . . . had been a long time in the making and was as inevitable as it was heartbreaking,” the editorial of November 14th last stated, commenting on the Shell to Sea “day of action” of November 10th.

“The Garda baton charges that occurred on Friday morning in Bellanaboy were not the product of Sinn Fein or Provisional IRA machinations; they were the product of abject Government incompetence,” it said.

Wondering what might have been achieved if the Government had listened to the Bord Pleanala inspector in April 2003, when two of his main recommendations were overruled by his own board, the newspaper described the controversy as “the single greatest tragedy that has occurred in this county in modern times”, the effects of which would be felt for generations. It was “not an exaggeration to state that Erris will never be the same again”, it said.

Fr Sean Noone, parish priest of Carrowteigue and Cornboy, would concur with that judgment about the impact on a Gaeltacht community bounded by windswept blanket bog, mountains and sea. “We are all 100 per cent in favour of developing our natural resources, but it is the way that this is being done that is the issue,” Fr Noone, a native of Erris, told The Irish Times .

“People in Dublin don’t understand us. They think we don’t have voting power and so they think they can dump anything on us here.”

Fr Noone doesn’t attend protests at Bellanaboy, having been directed by his superiors to approach the issue in a spiritual manner, but is aware of the pressures on his fellow priests in the sprawling Kilcommon parish. He is sympathetic to the concerns about the project articulated by local residents and believes these concerns are shared by a “silent majority”.

Divisions have been exacerbated by Shell’s return to work at its terminal site on October 3rd (in advance of agreement on a new pipeline route), and consequent deployment of between 80 and 130 gardaI in an area with the lowest crime rate in the State.

Three weeks ago, before the trouble of November 10th, Fr Noone wrote to Minister for Marine Noel Dempsey, suggesting several alternative locations for the terminal, including Inishkeeragh, a 15-acre rock two miles west off the Mullet peninsula on a lateral line with the gas field, and the extensive Bord na Mona property near Muingmore, Geesala. “This was a plea,” he says. He received an acknowledgement from the Minister’s office.

Derek Reilly, president of Belmullet Chamber of Commerce, wouldn’t share all of Fr Noone’s views, but would concur on the toll taken on a community. Four years ago, the chamber, representing business interests from Blacksod to Bellacorick, issued a statement supporting the Corrib gas project, provided safety aspects were addressed. Although the issue is so tense, it hasn’t revised this statement.

“Chambers further away than us can be much more vocal,” he says. “My first cousins are among residents objecting, and then my parents, who have a business in Belmullet, were intimidated because of my stance.”

He defines “intimidation” as boycotting of businesses. “It has never been anything more serious than that, but that is serious enough.”

The North-West Mayo Action Group, formed by Bellacorick Bord na Mona and ESB staff, is also supportive of the project, and one of its founders, Chris Tallott, was central to the formation of the Pro-Erris Gas Group six years ago.

“I feel the jailing of the five men last year was terrible and the Garda actions have been terrible, but we have to move forward . . . 50 jobs in Bellanaboy to me is like 500 in Dublin city,” Mr Tallott told The Irish Times .

A new “Pro-Gas Group” has recently been established, headed by former Fianna Fail and Independent councillor Paddy Cosgrove, and involving Sean Hannick of Killala, chair of the Council for the West, among others, following the Commission for Energy Regulation’s recent approval for extending gas from the national network to Mayo.

Critics say that most of those expressing unqualified support stand to gain financially, directly or indirectly. Mr Cosgrove says he never received a penny from the company, but quips that it would be “very welcome”.

“Shell to Sea means Shell out,” according to Mr Cosgrove, now retired from politics and from teaching and farming in the area. He lives on the busy “materials haul route” linking Bellanaboy to the village of Bangor Erris. “There’s hundreds of trucks passing this road and to me, every truck represents a pay packet.”

His views are not shared by several sitting Fianna Fail councillors who are at odds with their party’s approach in Government. Cllr Tim Quinn supports processing gas offshore, while Cllr Frank Chambers, a former senator, believes alternative locations must be examined.

Apart from business interests, farmers are represented by the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association, which participated in rallies last year in support of the Rossport Five, and by the Irish Farmers’ Association, which says it has “no objection to the project going ahead, provided that safety measures are in place and the landowners affected are treated properly”.

The Erris Inshore Fishermen’s Association is supportive of Shell to Sea. Its main concern since planning permission was first sought for the terminal six years ago has been the environmental impact of the outfall pipe running 11km out from shore but just 2km from Erris Head at its closest point.

Eddies and tides are such in Broadhaven Bay that the fishermen believe the outfall pipe bearing treated residues could destroy a valuable shellfish industry in an area with few employment alternatives.

Shell’s two open evenings in Belmullet last week were an attempt by the company to “seek input and feedback from the local community” on such issues, it says, and it welcomed the fact that an estimated 350 visitors included people from “all sides of the debate”.

Staff from a private security firm were provided by the hotel, and plainclothes gardaI were also present for both days. The following mornings, gardaI were bussed out from Belmullet for the daily dawn protest at the terminal.

Present at the Shell functions were members of the company’s communications team, headed by Castlebar native and former RTE and BBC journalist John Egan. His assistants include Susan Shannon, Dublin-born and seconded to Shell Ireland from Shell International, having worked previously on projects such as the controversial Sakhalin scheme in Russia. Both report to Terry Nolan, Shell’s new deputy director for Corrib.

Assisting the company in Mayo is Christy Loftus, former Western People journalist. Former Garda chief superintendent John Carey works part-time, and former Mayo county secretary Padraig Hughes advises on an occasional consultancy basis. The company says it has reduced its use of external public relations agencies, but does use Financial Dynamics in Dublin and Powerscourt in London to provide “strategic advice”.

Powerscourt, formed by Irish business journalist Rory Godson, also lists Independent News and Media, Eircom and Aer Lingus among its Irish client list.

Details of financial support by Shell for “sustainable” community initiatives were available at the open evenings. Informal soundings have already been made with groups ranging from the Belmullet Sub-Aqua Club to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – the latter having already set up a campaign committee for a new inshore craft and building. Some weeks ago, the Erris-based Valley Rovers football club made its position very clear when it pulled out of this year’s FAI Junior Cup because of its sponsorship by Statoil, one of the Corrib gas partners.

Former Air Corps pilot Ciaran O Murchu perceives such expenditure to be a “divide and conquer” strategy designed to undermine objectors. A former Air Corps pilot and owner of an adventure centre in Elly Bay on the Mullet peninsula, Mr O Murchu told a rally last month at Bellanaboy that Shell E&P Ireland tried to “buy his support” with an offer of 15,000 for a climbing wall last year.

He says that company officials assured him that no one would know that the money came from Shell if he accepted it. He rejected the offer, which he says was very tempting, but believes that other businesses have experienced similar approaches.

Shell E&P Ireland confirmed that its community liaison staff had met Mr O Murchu over his concerns over the outfall pipe from the terminal. At no point was a payment or grant for the building of a climbing wall offered, which would be “totally at variance with Shell’s business principles”, it said.

One north Mayo businessman who attended last week’s open evenings believed Shell “didn’t have a great record internationally”, but this time was a victim of a lack of trust in the Government.

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