While media attention here focuses across the Irish Sea and beyond on arrests and searches in relation to the London bombs, five men from Mayo in the west of Ireland have spent most of the last month in a Dublin jail.
Their crime is that they tried to block Shell from building a natural-gas pipeline across their land and kept trying even after Shell got a court injunction against them. That put them in contempt of court, and in prison until they “purge their contempt”.
While the President of Ireland’s High Court heaps some of his own verbal contempt on them, and respectable opinion tsk-tsks about their tactics, the men have caught the imaginations of much of the public, and an increasingly spirited campaign has grown in support of them with hundreds of people picketing Shell stations and a “solidarity camp” set up in Mayo on the pipeline route. As the IRA fine-tunes its imminent “war is over” statement, its political wing, Sinn Fein, has come to the aid of the men and their campaign. More “respectable” politicians have been forced to follow.
The negative publicity has begun to get to Shell, which has started to back down in the latest court appearances, and the Irish Government has been keen to find a compromise. But the men and their supporters are in no mood for compromise, because the story of Shell in Mayo is a disgraceful history of suspected corruption and indifference to local safety concerns. The campaign has the potential to highlight corporate greed and rapacity in a country where neoliberal precepts have taken on Biblical status after a decade of “Celtic Tiger” prosperity. Needless to say, Tom Friedman didn’t appear to notice it when he was here this month to write idiotic paeans of praise in the New York Times for Ireland’s economic performance.
The story has obvious international dimensions. The rape of Ogoni lands in Nigeria by the self-same petro-giant has already been highlighted by campaigners (it’s just 10 years since the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others in Nigeria), and eyebrows have at last begun to be raised about the sweetheart deal that brought the company to the Mayo coast.
“I lecture to my students about the way Exxon Mobil rips off Equatorial Guinea, with the country getting only 12 per cent of the revenue from its own oil,” a development-studies academic in Dublin told Counterpunch. “But here’s Shell in Ireland getting a deal to extract Irish gas and the Irish State and people get absolutely nothing.” Campaigners wonder if some relevant funds might be sitting in a politician’s offshore account.
The gas in question comes from under the sea, the Corrib field, off the Mayo coast. Instead of processing it offshore, Shell has gone for the cheaper option of pumping it at high pressure across part of the Erris peninsula to a terminal at Bellanaboy, in this boggy beautiful corner of Ireland. It’s that cost-saving decision, never fully subjected to local scrutiny and safety assessment, that brought Shell into conflict with some residents.
From a PR perspective they certainly messed with the wrong people. The Rossport Five can’t possibly be portrayed as hippie blow-ins or tree-huggers; they’re not outside agitators. Most are landowners of long standing, and most attention has focused on 65-year-old Micheál Ó Seighin, a retired teacher and local historian. As journalist Lorna Siggins notes, his “most serious offence to date has been a £2 fine for not having a parking light on his car outside Healy’s Hall in Glenamoy in 1965”.
He recently had a heart-bypass operation, but was upbeat when he got a brief chance to speak to the media at his last court appearance: “As a cousin of my wife’s said who’s a doctor ‘at least he had his bypass before he came in so he isn’t going to get a heart attack’.”
According to the Irish Times: “Asked if he had met any ‘notorious’ prisoners, Mr Ó Seighin replied: ‘Only ourselves.'” Despite placatory talk from their opponents, the men (Brendan Philbin, Vincent and Philip McGrath and Willie Corduff are the others) appear ready to stay in jail until a full hearing of the injunction in October, and with contempt at stake the High Court is unlikely to give them an easy way out. Meanwhile, continuing protests back in Mayo have insured that Shell isn’t getting any work done on its terminal or its pipeline.
While the terminal has passed through the planning process, the pipeline itself is in a regulatory black hole where, it seems, all that is required is consent directly from the Minister for Marine and Natural Resources. It has already got “rolling consents” for preparatory work, and the rest would have sailed through except for the protests indeed Shell had already gone beyond what was authorised. But now the Government is under pressure to carry out a credible safety assessment.
Even the Minister admits this sort of pipeline is unprecedented, and it passes close to people’s homes. At its maximum design pressure it would have a “burn radius” of more than half a mile. There’s a school and a pub near the terminal.
The five men said in a statement this week: “Pipelines rupture. No pipeline engineer intends this to happen but it does with sickening frequency. The outlandish pipeline here proposed to be forced in close proximity past our houses is the stuff of nightmares. What they do to us, they will do to you.”
The campaign has exposed the hazards of “business as usual” in the relations between companies and governments. As the Irish Times reports: “The first review commissioned by the Minister was carried out by BPA, a company half-owned by Shell, and a second review, published on the Minister’s website last week, was written by AEA Technology, a company which does business with Shell.” With more gas and oil exploration in Irish waters still to come, the outcome of this dispute will set an important precedent.
The message is getting across to the public, as the Rossport Five draw on a long Irish tradition of jailed resisters to imperial power. Ó Seighin tapped straight into that tradition and threw in some class consciousness when he cited the support they’re getting from their “ordinary” fellow prisoners in Cloverhill Jail: “They have a tremendous, very accurate sense of right and wrong that is slightly missing in more exalted society.”
Excellent ongoing coverage and background is available at www.indymedia.ie.
HARRY BROWNE lectures in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org