[ A shorter version of this article appeared in Village Magazine on Thursday, July 6th, 2006 ]
By William Hederman
A recent Sunday Times front page story about a ‘split’ in the Rossport Five is untrue – according to the Rossport Five themselves. The article appears to be part of what campaigners regard as an ongoing strategy to undermine opposition to the Corrib gas project.
The Rossport Five have dismissed as “rubbish” and “pure propaganda”, a front page story in the Sunday Times claiming that they have “split”, with Brendan Philbin supposedly breaking away from the other four.
The men say they are considering making a formal complaint about the article, which appeared in the June 25th edition of the paper. They were particularly angered by a line in the article stating: “None of the five could be contacted for comment last week,” which they say implies that they had “gone to ground”, thereby lending credibility to the story.
Each of the five men has told Village that they were unaware of any attempt by the newspaper to contact them and that they have been available for comment at all times. “The ‘no comment’ part of the story was an invention,” says Vincent McGrath. “I’ve had no contact whatever from the Sunday Times.”
The twin tenets of the newspaper’s “split” claim were that Brendan Philbin “is now pursuing his case against Shell through a separate legal strategy”, and that he had “not taken any part in the group’s discussions for about two months”.
In fact, Brendan Philbin has had a separate legal team from the other four men for several years, as he and another landowner were involved in litigation against Shell – over plans to lay the Corrib gas pipeline through his land – long before he was jailed at Shell’s request in June 2005.
On the second point, Philbin is not taking part in the mediation process with Shell facilitated by Peter Cassells, a fact which the other men say they have no problem with. Brendan Philbin confirmed to Village that he has attended the group’s weekly meetings since being released from prison last September. He said he regarded the Sunday Times story as “Shell propaganda”.
When contacted by Village, the author of the article, political correspondent Stephen O’Brien said: “I spoke to … I left messages at whatever … I couldn’t find a number for Brendan Philbin… I’d have to look over my notes… I got as many phone numbers as I could…” He did contact Shell to Sea spokesperson Mark Garavan, but did not ask him for phone numbers for any of the five men, according to Garavan.
Mark Garavan suggested to Village the article was “timed to distract from the first anniversary of the jailing of the men”, four days later. “The issues in the story – the mediation and the separate legal teams – are months old and years old respectively. It wasn’t in any sense a story.”
Spin and smears
The appearance in corporate-owned media of a carefully-timed, unsubstantiated report about anti-Shell protesters is not new. The jailing of the men on 29 June 2005 generated huge publicity and support for the campaign against the controversial section of pipeline through Rossport. Within three weeks a smear story had appeared in the Sunday Independent, claiming that “IRA-style death threats” had been made against Shell contractors in Mayo. Sources for the story were anonymous. The article also reported accusations of Sinn Fein “hijacking” of the campaign. (The Sunday Independent’s owner, Tony O’Reilly, is set to make €1.4 billion from his oil and gas prospects off the west coast of Ireland.)
This insinuation about republican paramilitary involvement was subsequently picked up by other media, and even by the minister overseeing the project. In May of this year, Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources Noel Dempsey responded to criticism of his decision to give the go-ahead to the pipeline by insisting: “I won’t be bullied by Sinn Fein or anonymous-type groups like Shell to Sea.” The “anonymous” tag was interpreted by campaigners as an attempt to paint the campaign as unaccountable and sinister. In reality, Shell to Sea is a very public operation, enjoying support from a range of political backgrounds.
Following a year of disastrous publicity for Shell E&P Ireland in 2005, the company has moved its PR operation into a higher gear, expanding its communications team. When Noel Dempsey published the government-commissioned Advantica report on 4 May and, on the same day, gave the go-ahead to the pipeline, Shell used the occasion to present a new, more reasonable face. As well as apologising for the “hurt” caused by the jailing of the men, MD Andy Pyle announced live on RTE’s 6.01 news on 4 May that the company was now considering “all options”, including building the refinery at sea.
The Shell to Sea campaign’s key demand, refining offshore, was on the table for the first time – a sensational development that was flagged in the top headline on the 6.01 News. However, on the following day, Andy Pyle was in Castlebar, where, in a briefing to local media, he ruled out the offshore option. In other words, the company had not, in fact, changed its stance.
Shell’s strategy, it has to be assumed, was to convey to a national audience that the Rossport issue was as good as resolved, due to a conciliatory gesture by the multinational. Thus, further resistance to the pipeline in Mayo could only be interpreted as unreasonable and intransigent.
In the coming months, opponents of the Rossport pipeline are likely to have to contend with more such tricks from the Shell corporation’s high-budget PR operation. Judging by experience to date, the corporate-owned media will be a key ally of the company in the battle for public support on the Rossport issue.