by Michael Wagstaff
Our Story by the Rossport 5
Mark Garavan, Willie and Mary Corduff, Micheál and Caitlín Ó Seighin,
Philip and Maureen McGrath, Brendan Philbin, Vincent and Maureen McGrath
At one one level this is the story of a successful campaign against plans by the Shell oil company to exploit an offshore gas discovery on the cheap by despoiling the countryside of County Mayo in the west of Ireland and needlessly putting the local population in danger. On another it points up in microcosm some of the broader changes that have occurred in Ireland with the emergence of the Celtic Tiger economy, until its recent demise.
In particular it highlights the baleful effects of global economic power and the almost laughably obsequious attitude towards it of officials in publicly accountable institutions, the Roman Catholic church hierarchy and democratically elected politicians at almost every level. (Neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael, the main two political parties, come out of this episode with any credit.)
It is not for nothing that at one point Maureen McGrath, the wife of Vincent – one of the Rossport Five, refers to Ireland as a 'banana republic'. Vincent refers derisively to An Bord Pleanála, the planning authority, as Bord Stampala, and Mayo Council Council is simply referred to as Shell County Council. In addition we have the sight of the church scoring yet another own goal with its uncritical support for the project, culminating in the spectacle of the Bishop of Mayo being flown out to the gas platform in the Atlantic in a Shell helicopter so that he can dish out his blessing. (For British readers indeed there might be a tendency to say smugly, 'it couldn't happen here', in which case they ought to be reminded of Tony Blair's decision to drop the fraud investigation into the multibillion Al Yamamah arms contracts following threats to pull the plug on it by the government of Saudi Arabia.)
This is a deeply political book but nobody should run away with the idea that it is a tub-thumping political tract. Far from it. Four of the five chapters are based on recorded conversations and the actors explain compellingly in their own words how they felt obliged to act because their sense of who they are and what their community meant was in danger. Three of the five are farmers, some of whose land had been pencilled in for use for the pipeline. They were all clearly worried about health and safety: in particular of an explosion in one of the high pressure pipes and the devastation it would cause. The sense of violation they felt is almost palpable, as Willie Corduff says: "I was born and reared on this farm. Our footsteps are around the place since we were able to walk. There are memories of our fathers and mothers and how hard they worked to bring us up.”
His evocation of his childhood in the 1950s, bartering because they had no money, the fire that almost wiped them out, his brief foray away from home working on building sites while his mother wrote him plaintive letters, tells you all you want to know about what kept him and his wife going. He tellingly compares the bishop's spin in the Shell helicopter with his own occasional ride on the family bicycle when he was a child. Occasional, because the bike was a precious means of transport that could not be used lightly. Anyone who has seen The Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica's 1948 realist film set in post-war Italy, will know what he is talking about.
The Rossport Five were sent to jail in June 2005 for contempt of court after they they were declared in breach of a High Court injunction obtained by Shell allowing their employees access to private land so they could prepare to install the gas pipelines for the terminal/refinery at Ballinaboy. The men refused to ‘purge their contempt’ and remained in Cloverhill prison in Dublin jail for 94 days when Shell withdrew the injunction. In retrospect Shell must now realise they made a huge mistake in doing this and it is clear from the accounts here that its lawyers were shocked when they were marched off. The Shell project was doomed as popular support for the jailed men mushroomed both in Mayo and throughout Ireland and the surge of support is well captured. The men received bags of post, more than the rest of the prison put together, motorists started a spontaneous boycott of Shell and Statoil petrol stations, taxi drivers sported Free the Rossport Five stickers, the other inmates in Cloverhill cheered them on after the issues had been explained, the prison warders didn't think much of it, even the police took a benign attitude. When they were finally released the journey home was a triumphal cavalcade with celebratory bonfires in town and villages along the way. The television stations were all over them.
But along the way it had often been a bumpy ride and clearly several people dropped out because of stress. Philip McGrath, who objected to the scheme because the high pressure pipe was so close to his home, gives a graphic insight into how the community was split. "You could be criticised as well any time you went to the pub. You wouldn't be able to sit in the pub and listen to some of what was being said without arguing back. It was constant abuse. I took a lot of it."
Willie Corduff refers to the way that oil executives in vehicles would wave or salute him in his car as they passed because they knew this was a common courtesy among his neighbours. "Now we were seeing complete strangers from other countries salute us as though they lived here all their lives. Of course they tried to become native! This is the same company who asked the courts to jail the men.”
This is Vincent McGrath on how Shell operated: "They would go about in Land Rovers and Jeeps and insist on keeping to the middle of the road. I always made them pull in for me. They wore dark glasses and earmuffs and helmets and and yellow jackets as part of the psychological campaign. They took photographs and were always wired. After they got their injunction they upped the tempo psychologically and would travel along the road, over and back past our house, at about five or ten miles an hour with their hazard lights flashing. They were saying 'We got what we wanted and now we can do what we like'."
The reason for this was in large part because the Establishment, locally and nationally, had swallowed Shell's mixture of half-truths and omissions hook, line and sinker. Micheál Ó Seighin, another who objected on safety grounds, sums up the attitude: "I know that when Enterprise Oil had their first formal meeting with the county councillors they expected to be stiffly questioned on the dangers of the project and on its risks and gains. Instead, what they got, and they were absolutely shocked and delighted about this, was 'Jaysus, this is great, we have our own gas, God it will be great'. One councillor issued a statement saying that broadband was coming with the pipeline." For Shell and the other companies it was too good to be true. Nigeria without Ken Saro-Wiwa.
The campaigners had to do all their own research to rebut the claims being made by Shell, sometimes facing obstruction from local authority officials as they attempted to copy plans that were in the public domain. But the Establishment made it crystal clear that nothing would be allowed to stand in the way of the project. Kevin Moore, a senior inspector for An Bord Pleanála, had the temerity to reject the application with these ringing words, quoted in the chapter by Brendan Philbin: "From a strategic planning perspective this is the wrong site. From the perspective of government policy, which seeks to foster regional development, this is the wrong site; from the perspective of minimising environmental impact, this is the wrong site, and consequently from the perspective of sustainable development this is the wrong site."
No es un problema, within days a damage limitation operation was in operation, senior oil executives were holding talks with Bertie Ahern, the Prime Minister, and Fianna Fáil politicians were telling the companies to reapply. I would love to have known what Mr Moore made of it all. (Of course, as Brendan Philbin makes clear in his section, the government's behaviour was entirely in keeping with past form. In 1987 Ray Burke, then the Minister for Energy, ensured that oil companies would have no problems. Until then offshore exploration terms had included a tax of 50% on profit, an automatic 50% stake accruing to the state for commercial finds and royalties of 6%. Burke abolished the 50% stake clause, abolished the clause on royalties and introduced a clause permitting companies to write off any expenses against tax. This law came into effect in 1992. Burke was jailed after he was convicted of receiving corrupt payments.)
Finally, of course, after all else had failed, Shell decided to take them to court and jail them. Judge Finnegan, the president of the High Court, had taken four days to grant the original injunction, and expressed misgivings about it all, but when they went back to court he was in a totally unforgiving mood, threatening to put them in jail indefinitely and threatening to confiscate all the assets of all those that had breached the injunction. They faced jail and ruin. But they won and Ireland did too.