Myth-making obscures realities of Corrib

[ Opinion piece written in November 2006; offered to several newspapers; not published ]

By William Hederman

Minister Noel Dempsey’s latest contribution to the debate over the Corrib Gas project is a claim that a fellow TD overheard a mobile phone conversation on Grafton Street in Dublin, in which the words “riot” and “Rossport” were allegedly heard. Previous outbursts by the Minister for Energy and Natural Resources have been dismissed by the Shell to Sea campaign as “unhelpful”. But this intervention is helpful. It highlights the lack of any meaningful attempt by the Government to resolve the conflict.

Protester thrown on to barbed wire by Gardai close to Shell's inland refinery site at Bellanaboy, Co Mayo in November 2006. Copyright: William Hederman

A few days earlier, following television images of protesters being beaten off the road by Gardaí close to the proposed Shell gas terminal site at Bellanaboy, our Taoiseach, Tanaiste and leader of the Opposition all attributed the violence to “outside agitators” who had come to “stir up trouble”. (Some locals wondered were the party leaders referring to Gardaí, most of whom have been bussed in from other counties.) The party leaders’ dramatic but unsubstantiated analysis was replicated in several weekend newspapers’ accounts of what had happened.

Michael McDowell went so far as to tell us explicitly that the protests had been “hijacked” by Sinn Fein and that “Provo” tactics were being used. True to form, the Tanaiste offered no evidence in support of these extraordinary claims, which serve to perpetuate — and lend government credibility to — a running scare story that has appeared in a couple of Sunday newspapers as far back as July 2005, always without substantiation.

Tactics for the Bellanaboy protest are decided at weekly Shell to Sea meetings at nearby Glenamoy, attended by up to 100 local people. At the meeting following the last day of action, there was unanimous praise for the supporters who had travelled for the day of action two days earlier, and agreement that they had behaved in accordance with local protesters’ wishes. The campaign has always welcomed support from outside the area and from political parties. The pre-dawn pickets have been attended by TDs from Labour, the Greens, the Socialist Party and Independents. When Green Party leader Trevor Sargent took part in the protest on October 24th, nobody suggested his party had hijacked the campaign.

Of course, support from non-locals and from political parties is no less legitimate than the support Shell receives from non-local ministers, non-local Gardaí and non-local media commentators, not to mention its global shareholders. But the insinuation that outsiders are stirring up trouble is part of an underlying narrative designed to discredit the campaign and to scare people away from protesting.

Gardaí in riot gear block the road near Bellanaboy at dawn in November 2007. Copyright: William Hederman

A side-effect is to distract attention from the substantive issue of health and safety. The excessive focus on alleged infiltration and intimidation, and the consequent focus by the local campaign on refuting these accusations and on highlighting Garda heavy-handedness, is that few column inches or broadcast minutes remain available for useful discussion of what the protests relate to, namely the appropriateness of this inland terminal and associated high-pressure pipeline.

Crucially, when background information about the Corrib Gas project does make an appearance, it invariably takes the form of false assumptions or cleverly constructed myths.

The most clear-cut example is the oft-repeated assertion that “the whole thing has been through the planning process”. In fact, the controversial section of pipeline due to be laid through Rossport, which constitutes the project’s single biggest health and safety concern, is exempt from planning permission. This is due to its effectively being classed as an “offshore” pipeline, despite the fact that it would extend 9km inland, passing close to houses en route.

As for the terminal’s planning history, in April 2003 its proposed location was described by An Bord Pleanala’s senior planning inspector, Kevin Moore, as “the wrong site” and the board rejected permission. Planning permission was eventually granted after high-level meetings between Shell executives, the Taoiseach and government ministers, and within a week, a meeting between Shell and the chairman of Bord Pleanala. (For more detail on these meetings, obtained under Freedom of Information, see pages 15-16 of the Centre for Public Inquiry report, ‘The Great Corrib Gas Controversy’, November 2005.)

Local man Ed Moran at protest in RoRossport resident Ed Moran makes his point on the road near Bellanaboy, Co Mayo, October 2006. Copyright: William Hedermanssport, November 2007. Copyright: William Hederman

Another crucial misconception is that protestors have been objecting to gas coming ashore and thus that if their campaign is successful the region will miss out on jobs and development. The existence of this myth has provided the basis for emotive discussion about the desperate need for local employment. During October, feature pieces about the stand-off invariably set the scene by describing the by-passing of Erris by the Celtic Tiger. However, the Shell to Sea campaign has never called for the project to be scrapped. As its name suggests, it is calling for offshore processing (and has been consistent on this demand since November 2000).

The report by the Government-appointed mediator Peter Cassells, published last July, helped to blur this question. He wrote that, based on his “discussions with local people”, the “majority of people in Erris are in favour of the project”, without clarifying that the protesters are not opposed to the project per se, but rather to the locating of the terminal inland and the associated production pipeline through Rossport. So while his statement — which has been widely cited by Shell, the Government and by journalists — may be true, it misses the point entirely.

Interestingly, it seems that no reporter or commentator has thought to ask how many jobs and how much investment would result from a terminal built offshore. Would an offshore terminal not require human labour also?

The argument that protests are delaying something that is in the wider national interest has been partially deflated: most readers will by now be aware that the Irish State will receive no royalties nor any share in the gas extracted from Corrib. However, Shell and its supporters have fallen back on the “security of supply” phantom: the idea that we urgently need a domestic source of gas in this age of geopolitical uncertainty and rising oil and gas prices. What has not been made clear is that technically there is no guarantee that this “domestic” supply will remain domestic: the Shell-led consortium is at liberty to sell the gas to the highest bidder, even if that bidder is outside the State.

Indeed, at a recent conference in Dublin, Exploring Atlantic Ireland 2006, the assistant secretary of the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources, Martin Brennan, told the international audience of potential investors in Ireland’s offshore gas that “there are now three interconnecters between Ireland and the UK, so if you do hit a gush, there’s plenty of market out there.”

Trevor Sargent (right), then Green party leader, at Shell to Sea protest outside Shell HQ in Dublin, February 17th, 2006. Copyright: William Hederman

While many of these myths are the result of misinformed reporters, commentators and callers to radio shows, some are constructed by Shell, whose PR game has recovered this year, following the nightmare of having five people jailed in 2005. The finest example of the company’s cleverly crafted spin is the company’s offer to re-route the controversial pipeline.

When Shell made this announcement on August 3rd of this year, reports suggested the pipeline would be re-routed “around Rossport” or “away from Rossport”. The tone of the coverage was one of finality and of victory for the protesters. However, a phone call to Shell’s press office the next day clarified that they would CONSIDER “modifying” the route WITHIN Rossport. The spokeswoman conceded that this could mean simply moving it a few metres to one side, or even sticking with the original route.

This is corroborated by Green Party leader Trevor Sargent. In October, following a meeting with Shell executives, he said it was clear the company had “no intention” of giving up on the original route. Further evidence is provided by the company’s insistence on retaining the compulsory acquisition orders relating to the land through which the original pipeline route runs. Despite this, the belief that a new route will be used is now ingrained, which helps to sell the idea that nothing will satisfy these stubborn protestors.

The Government has had its own successes in Corrib-related spin, most notably in the way the Government-commissioned Advantica review was presented as giving the “green light” to the pipeline bringing gas to the terminal. The content of the report tells a very different story. The authors begin by criticising the terms of reference they were set, which precluded them from assessing certain critical safety issues. The report goes on to raise serious concerns about various aspects of the pipeline, which are too numerous to mention here.

Shell and the Government have been unable to convince the community affected by the project that it is safe in its current configuration. Injunctions and imprisonment only served to generate awareness of and sympathy for the campaign, so they resorted to a tried and trusted method: discredit opposition to the project through a clever campaign of spin and smear. They have been facilitated in this by the unwillingness of much of the news media to do a little background research.

If this project is forced through in its current configuration, it will set a hugely valuable precedent for Shell and its fellow hydrocarbon multinationals, who will be able to point to north Mayo when seeking to build further inland refineries and high-pressure pipelines, especially overseas. If a wealthy democracy like Ireland accepts it, they will argue, it must be safe.

If Ireland is to allow Bellanaboy set the standards for similar projects along the west coast and abroad, then we should be provided with the realities of this project rather than unresearched assumptions served up as fillers between unverifiable scare stories.

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