To Shell or to Connacht


ENVIRONMENT:LELIA DOOLAN reviews Once Upon a Time in the West: The Corrib Gas ControversyBy Lorna Siggins Transworld Ireland, 418pp. £14.99

FOR ANYONE INTERESTED in the politics of natural-resource exploitation, in ethics in public life or in the rights of small, far-flung communities, not just in Ireland but in any part of the planet, this is an absorbing record. The tale it tells is of matters of high moment, involving the use and abuse of power and the pitfalls of short-term gain against long-term loss. The conflicts that unfold, and the dizzying range of dramatis personae, with their skulduggery and heroism, plus the testing of character in argument and action, all contribute to the narrative swing of this epic saga. Lorna Siggins has covered these events for The Irish Times since they began in Erris, Co Mayo. Her book is a vivid, thorough account, clear-eyed and scrupulously fair to all the parties. It should help educate generations to come.

Ten years ago this month there were reports that Bord Gáis was planning to build a pipeline from north Mayo to Galway, carrying gas discovered 80km offshore in 1996 by an exploration company, Enterprise Energy Ireland (now Shell, with partners Statoil and Marathon). The company would bring the untreated gas ashore, pipe it inland for nine kilometres, then refine it at a terminal to be built at Ballinaboy, on land it had acquired from Coillte. Bord Gáis would distribute the clean fuel to the rest of the country. Erris was not included among the recipients.

Nor would there be much in terms of financial return to the Irish exchequer. Any money had all but vanished since a royalty regime instigated by Justin Keating in 1973 was set aside by succeeding ministers on foot of lobbying by oil interests, and in the belief that a no-royalty regime would attract international capital.

The prospect of prosperity was welcome in Erris, after hard years of insecurity and unemployment when foreign-owned companies stayed for a while, then moved away. Up to 500 jobs would be available, the townspeople were assured. Mayo County Council, Church leaders, the developer and the minister for the marine and natural resources, Frank Fahey, were all enthusiastic and confident. Caithlín Uí Seighin read in the parish newsletter “that we were all going to be rich” and joked to her husband, Micheál: “Dá mbhéadh aon mhaith ann, ní thíochfadh sé anseo.” At the time she believed the gas would be processed offshore, as in Kinsale, “and I had no problem in the world with it”. Caithlín and Micheál had for many years been a powerhouse for art and folklore and scholarship in Carrowteigue. The feeling for place and local history in this Gaeltacht area is well illustrated by Siggins. She honours the fierce pride and love of Erris people for their home place.

Little by little, concerns were raised. Those raising them received hearty or dismissive responses from Enterprise and from local and central government. The government seemed to be acting, one perceptive commentator suggested, as developer and regulator at the same time. It was in a hurry, and prepared to bully people into believing that the loss of this chance would forever end Mayo’s prospects for progress. Fahey signed 34 compulsory-acquisition orders, giving access to private lands.

So some people in Erris began the long task of studying and listening and turning themselves into experts. How could a huge refinery be safely built on a bog, with its shifts and slides, close to homes and to the source of drinking water for hundreds of households? Were there not dangers to marine and shore wildlife and their protected habitats? A pipeline carrying untreated gas at high pressure near dwellings and farmland was surely a threat to health and safety; an outflow pipe carrying chemical waste into Broadhaven Bay would pollute traditional fishing grounds. And there were unauthorised incursions on to their private property.

These were among the concerns of law-abiding citizens who became, in the following years, objectors, protestors and, finally, jailbirds when five men spent 94 days in prison. Others were incarcerated for days and months, suffered injury or were arrested and released without explanation or charge. The Garda bill for providing security to Corrib Gas stood at €12 million by January this year.

There were turning points and possibilities for resolution but, as in many tragedies, the moment was somehow always lost. As Keating said about the history of big companies: “Not very charming; a bit rough, a bit ruthless, a bit inclined to buy people if they had to”.

It is not over yet. All the parties are still standing. Perhaps the gas will stay in the ground until we’ve found a way to avoid industrialising our heritage and what used to be our way of life. This book is an important guide.

Lelia Doolan is a writer and film-maker. She was a member of Burren Action Group, which successfully opposed original plans to build an interpretative centre at Mullaghmore, Co Clare