Ireland: ‘Ballad of the Rossport five’

It is David versus Goliath as residents of Mayo try to halt Shell’s efforts to bring Ireland’s gas ashore. They say the oil giant’s plans are unsafe – and five protesters are now in jail.

The following article from The Independent newspaper (London) looks at the Rossport Five jailings in Ireland. The five were imprisoned for protesting over the exploitation of natural gas the multinational giant Shell, off Ireland’s West coast.

(See also reports and analysis on the Rossport Five struggle, posted on 7 September. These include a report by Socialist Party TD (MP), Joe Higgins, of his visit to see the five men in prison).

‘Ballad of the Rossport five’

"Come all ye who love liberty, and listen to my tale,

Concerning honest Rossport men, now languishing in jail,

Because they stood up for their rights,

and would not bend the knee,

To the mighty Shell – who can go to hell,

if they won’t go out to sea!"

The men held in Ireland’s Cloverhill prison now have not only their own title – the Rossport Five – but their own ballad as well, which lauds their gallantry and decries the energy giant Shell as an "ignoble predator" .

Energy development can often generate controversy but the issue of a new gas pipeline in north Mayo, a beautiful and unspoilt part of Ireland’s western seaboard, has turned into a bitter and protracted struggle.

On one side is the Irish government and Shell, who are both intent on making the most of a large underground gasfield 40 miles off the Co Mayo coast.

The Corrib field is 237 million years old and lies more than 3,000 metres beneath the seabed. Its discovery in 1996 was welcomed as a significant new source of energy, and the government happily struck deals with Shell and other companies for its exploitation.

In international terms the field is classified as small to medium, but since this means it contains a bit under one trillion cubic feet of gas it was seen as a highly welcome addition to Irish resources.

Detailed and complex plans for bringing the gas ashore were drawn up, all subject to government approval and various stages of planning permission. There was plenty time for local consultation. Yet somewhere along the line the whole process went pear-shaped, in a classic example of how an enterprise can be favoured by cosmopolitan Dublin yet can arouse opposition in the rural west.

The government was content with Shell’s plans but people around Rossport, where the pipeline is to come ashore from the Atlantic, lodged strenuous objections. They claimed Shell was riding roughshod over their wishes, ruining the landscape and installing a dangerously experimental new system. All of this is strongly denied by Shell, which insisted it was adhering to the most rigorous standards of safety and co-operating closely with the Dublin authorities.

Now a determined pressure group has sprung up, campaigning at home and abroad for support in what it characterises as a David and Goliath struggle. The most determined of all are the Rossport Five, the local men who have been jailed indefinitely for contempt of court over their opposition to Shell’s plans. Yesterday they spent their 70th day behind bars.

As the morass deepened all work on the project has ceased. The five would be released if they purged their contempt and promised not to interfere with work on the pipeline, but they have refused to do so. The anti-pipeline campaign has a credible set of martyrs in the five, Micheal O’Seighin, Vincent McGrath, his brother Philip, Willie Corduff and Brendan Philbin. These are, by universal consent, not born troublemakers: three of them are small farmers, living on bogland, while two are retired teachers.

A man who visited one of them in jail said: "I knew I was in the presence of somebody who had backbone. That is a scarce commodity and when somebody stands up like that we all have a responsibility to stand with them. "

Their campaign has won the support of others who agitate in other fields. One contributor at a Dublin protest meeting enthused: "It’s good to see everybody from every left-wing and liberal group in Dublin here."

But the five are no serial malcontents: they are viewed as principled stalwart country men, described by one local as "really very strong people, men of great character, part of a community revolt against Shell" .

Rossport is one of those areas, to be found in the west of Ireland, where dramatic views and spectacular beaches exist off the usual tourist trail. In the words of Brid O’Seighin, daughter of one of the imprisoned men: " It’s an isolated part of north Mayo, quiet and rural, not visited by many tourists – or indeed by many politicians either for that matter. It’s a beautiful part of the country with clean, sweeping beaches.

"I love living there. Everything was absolutely grand until Shell arrived, that was five years ago. Shell moved in with jeeps and trucks and diggers and all the destruction started."

Any such project is bound to have an effect on the environment, especially in such an idyllically unspoilt area. The exacerbating factor in north Mayo, however, is that most in the area believe it will receive no particular advantage from the project, even though it has an overall costing of €900m (£610m).

The gas is scheduled to run through the area to an onshore refinery where it will be processed and then run through to the national grid. Campaigners claim the refinery will provide only a handful of jobs, and that gas in Mayo will be no cheaper than anywhere else in the country. "There is absolutely no local or regional benefit," insisted a campaigner. " We get all of the trouble and no advantages."

Shell presents the project as being of strategic national importance to the overall Irish economy. It describes it as one of the largest-ever private inward investments in the country, with the potential to supply 60 per cent of Irish gas needs.

But the sharpest and most acute issue of the campaign is that of risk. In most cases, the gas from undersea fields is refined and treated at sea or at the shoreline before being piped inland. In the case of the Corrib field the refinery is to be sited six miles inland.The authorities have given Shell permission to run its pipeline across the property of several dozen landowners. Most have consented, though some say they regret doing so.

Te Rossport Five went to jail in June for refusing to stop breaching a court order restraining the obstruction of the work. They claimed the pipeline was designed to take pressures of 345 bar, which is about four times as high as a normal gas supply line.

In addition to pressure, the five maintain that untreated gas straight from the sea is more dangerous than refined gas, claiming there have been lethal explosions in other countries.

One of the five told the court the pipeline was 70 metres from his home and he was "living in fear" for his safety. Another said he was stressed and not sleeping at night. Shell took out orders for their committal, and they have been in prison ever since.

The protesters have founded the Shell to Sea campaign, highlighting the demand that the company should treat the gas before piping it ashore. Perhaps that would defuse the controversy but it would also cost Shell millions, and the company is set against the idea.

Shell argues that safety standards are high, a spokesman saying yesterday that the pipeline would be three times as thick as others and, though it could, it would never carry pressures as high as 345 bar. He added: " What matters in terms of pipeline safety is how well designed, constructed, operated and maintained the pipeline is. It is designed and will be built and operated to world-class standards."

The campaigners face a formidable array of forces, most obviously the partnership between the Irish government and Shell. Very large sums of money are at stake. Yet their crusade has produced deep historical resonances for many Irish people. One of its first rallies, for instance, was in Castlebar, where a century and a quarter ago, the Land League was formed to take on landlords. "I hadn’t expected it," said a local man interested in history, "but the speakers made a surprising number of references to the league."

The campaign has also, whether consciously or not, taken on a significance which has lifted it from a local issue centring on safety and the environment to a much wider stand. A woman who visited one of the five men said he told her: "This is much bigger than us being in prison and it’s not about us getting out of prison. It’s about what kind of country we want to live in."

The woman proclaimed to a rally: "This touches on everything from environment, health and safety to political corruption and the whole question of democracy. They are the burning issues that people are constantly coming up against in this country."

The campaign is certainly tapping into some existing concerns. Although the Fianna Fail party is the most popular in the Irish Republic and heads the present government, some of its major figures have been tainted by previous corruption scandals. A previous energy minister, Ray Burke, has served time behind bars for personal corruption. There is absolutely no evidence linking Shell and corruption, but there is a generalised Irish distrust of multinationals.

The campaign received a boost in recent months when it was revealed that consultants brought in by the government were not independent, as had been claimed, and in fact had connections with Shell. Criticisms of the juxtaposition of the party and the company draw much applause at the protest meetings, for example when Brid O’Seighin lambasts "the state-corporate two-step". Another campaigner, Maura Harrington, raised laughs when she asked: "Would you buy a high-pressure gas pipeline from that crowd?"

Relations between the Rossport campaign and Shell are now terrible. Either the five men or the company could make moves that might start to defuse the dispute but much pride is involved. Contributions at meetings are peppered with indignation, with Shell and the authorities blamed not just for alleged risks and physical damage but also for their allegedly insulting conduct of the whole affair. One campaigner said: "It’s the insult to the people of north Mayo, an insult to people and place," said one campaigner. " It shows the disrespect they have for the men of the area."

Shell adopted a conciliatory tone yesterday. "We want to see the men out of prison and returned to their families," said a company spokesman. "We are greatly concerned that they have been totally misled about the safety of the pipeline and while their fears are real, the basis for them is not.

"We believe that what is needed most at this time is calm and reasoned dialogue between Shell and the landowners. We would like to use such an opportunity to put all the facts before them.

"It’s a difficult situation for all, especially for the families of the men; we are all trying hard to find a solution," he added.

The campaign has generated much support but has not actually swept the country and has yet to put Shell under enough pressure to force a climbdown. But it has been a public relations setback for the company, and for the moment work has been stopped. The dispute will not be easily settled, for an agreed outcome will need to reconcile commercial concerns and the determined stance of men who have become the pride of Mayo.

From the online edition of The Independent, 7 September 2005

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September 2005