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Local heroes take on Shell in County Mayo – “The Pipe” – a review

Risteard Ó Domhnaill’s documentary film about the Corrib Natural Gas project in County Mayo Ireland, The Pipe, has been quite a long time in the making – but the wait has been worthwhile. This is a moving, unsentimental and compelling story well told and, particularly, well edited (by Nigel O’Regan) of how ordinary people in a remote community fought with a multinational company, Shell, to protect their community and their livelihoods. The public release of The Pipe is timely in the light of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico because, as with BP, the evidence is clear that Shell’s initial handling of Corrib showed a comprehensive failure to match the rhetoric of their public statements with the reality of their actions. BP’s “green” positioning was shown to be a chimera as the world greatest environmental disaster unfolded in all of its horror – and Shell’s stated commitment to Sustainable Development has been shown in The Pipe to be no less of a veneer.

Shell’s self-proclaimed adoption of the principles of Sustainable Development goes back quite a long way – I recall, as a then Shell employee in the Middle East, a visit from Managing Director Jeroen van der Veer sometime in the late 1990s during which he pitched this commitment to us. Sustainable Development was, he said, about “integrating the economic, environmental and societal aspects of Shell’s business to achieve sustained financial success, safeguard the environment and develop our reputation as partner and provider of first choice for all our stakeholders.” The metaphor he used was that of a three-legged stool with a leg each for economic, environmental and societal concerns. Take one away and the stool falls over.

Shell acquired Corrib when the company completed the takeover of Enterprise Oil in 2002 – at which point of time the development of the project was still in its early planning stage. It is quite clear that from the start it was economic considerations that drove the project and that whilst environmental protection was, nominally at least, important the societal aspects were at best handled in a patronising way and at worst ignored. There was certainly no equivalence between the three legs of Corrib’s stool. In The Pipe Willie Corduff describes the first people that Shell sent to Rossport as being “Rude people who didn’t care” and who stumbled arrogantly about his land (he is a farmer) in suits and “told us what they were going to do”. This was Shell’s fatal error. The community in and around the tiny fishing village of Rossport have chosen a way of life which intentionally keeps them remote from not just the rest of Ireland but even the rest of County Mayo. The idea that their lifestyle would be under threat from a large scale project which included the construction of a huge Processing plant (refinery) near the tiny townland of Bellanaboy was anathema to them. Even more threatening was the proposed burial of a pipeline around nine kilometres in length from the shoreline to the processing plant. This pipeline would transfer raw unprocessed gas at high pressure to Bellanaboy where it would be turned into gas suitable to be injected into the Irish domestic gas system.

The Pipe, as the name suggests, is substantially about the planned raw gas onshore pipeline – but not exclusively so. One of the stars of the film is Pat O’Donnell, a local fisherman, who decided to challenge the right of Shell to commence offshore pipe laying which, he alleged, was damaging his property – an area in the bay where he lays crab pots. O’Donnell, in his tiny fishing vessel, sails close to the enormous pipelaying ship the Solitaire – this sequence, brilliantly captured in the film, is in many ways an allegory for the whole story. One man in a tiny ship which is his livelihood confronts a giant ship which is, in his mind anyway, is potentially threatening that livelihood. An unequal struggle – Goliath versus David. O’Donnell, Willie and Mary Corduff, Monika Muller, John Monaghan, Maura Harrington and the others who appear in the film ooze sincerity and frustration and at times raw anger – the gas is far from the only raw commodity around! The anger boils over from time to time as the protesters seem to divide into two camps – those who oppose the idea of an onshore facility completely and those who think that such a plant and connecting pipeline might be acceptable – but well away from Rossport. It is to the credit of the campaigners that they have been sanguine about revealing for all to see their occasional internal differences.

Not sanguine to reveal anything at all was Shell Ireland who declined to cooperate with Risteard O’Domhnaill’s project. This means that the film is not balanced in that neither Shell’s views nor those of successive Machiavellian Irish governments are aired. This has led to criticism in some quarters but that is not a charge that I think stands up. From what I know of Corrib, having visited the area and written about it, The Pipe is an accurate representation of the views and the fears of most of those in the local community. How the mess happened in the first place and what the prospects are for the future are not covered – nor is the perhaps self-evident fact that exploitation of the Corrib gas field is desirable – subject, of course, to stakeholder consent. The strong arm tactics of the Gardaí and of private sector security personnel are shown in sharp and shocking relief. And the gap between the developers and their acquiescent friends in high places in Dublin and the local community seems to be widening not narrowing. There are some pretty entrenched positions on both sides and few signs that there are processes underway that could narrow the gap – although the sequence where a visit was made to the European Parliament suggests one possible route for resolution.

The Pipe is at times a very visually attractive film and the aerial sequences at the beginning set the scene well – this really is a very beautiful part of the world and you cannot be surprised about how those living there want to keep it just as it is. Human nature is very resilient and it is no exaggeration to say that those who have protested, have been to prison, have gone on hunger strike and who have explored every legal and other angle to achieve their objectives have undoubtedly raised the stakes for any corporation planning a similar major project in the future. For that they all deserve our thanks.

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