The Corrib impact: business boomed and friendships died

The Shell gas project enabled some Irish companies to thrive in the recession, winning profits, creating jobs and raising standards. But there was often a personal cost

 

Gas is expected to come later this year to the Shell terminal in Bellanaboy, Co Mayo, through the controversial pipeline that rises from the Atlantic seabed 83km offshore. The terminal is currently being commissioned and tested. As gas passes through the terminal, impurities will be removed and pressure adjusted before the gas is pumped into the Gas Networks Ireland network.

Outside the terminal, at Glengad and Aghoose, the start and end points of the 4.9km tunnel under Sruwaddacon Bay, work to restore the landscape is under way.

The protesters are no longer at the gates, although an abandoned protesters’ van still sits outside. One contractor, Lars Wagner, died during tunnelling in 2013; the Health and Safety Authority investigation results are still pending, as is the inquest.

Production cannot begin until the project gets a revised atmospheric- and marine- emissions licence from the Environmental Protection Agency. This decision is expected by early September; the go-ahead to pump gas could come a month after that.

That would be almost 20 years since the Corrib field was discovered, in 1996. This series explores the project’s legacy for the north Mayo community in which it is based, for the businesses that participated in the project, and for Ireland as a whole.

Ask a person where the precision steel brackets that hold together some of London’s prestige developments come from, or the stainless steel bollards at the Dalma shopping mall in Abu Dhabi, and they’re highly unlikely to guess Belmullet, in Co Mayo. But that is where they were made, inside a hangar-style shed on the edge of the town.

Cathal Shevlin is in many ways the stand out local contractor who worked with Shell on the Corrib gas project. His experience illustrates the way that the project helped some individuals, the town of Belmullet, and large parts of northwest Mayo, to weather the recession.

Aged 41, Shevlin is a stocky man, with spiky hair and a ready smile. Without hesitation he describes Shell’s effect on his business as completely transformative.

Shevlin Engineering began in 1999, pitching for quarry-maintenance work around north Mayo and steel fabrication related to the area’s fishing industry. Today, as a result of his work on Corrib, his company employs 32 people and turns over about €3 million a year, compared with €200,000 15 years ago.

His company also has some of the most sophisticated precision steel fabrication machinery in Ireland. He says his beam drilling line is the first such machine in this country, the second in Europe and one of just six in the world outside the US.

Pitching for work on Corrib, Shevlin had to prove himself up to the task. “We showed [Shell] we were serious and were going to up our game,” he says, adding: “They set the bar very high as regards health and safety.”

Shevlin’s company now has a clutch of quality and safety certifications, including, crucially, the European Union’s CE quality and traceability certification, which became obligatory for structural steel fabrication in 2014. This cert has given him an edge on rivals, allowing Shevlin Engineering to tender to supply almost 9,000 steel brackets involved in the 4.9km gas pipe tunnel under Sruwaddacon Bay.

They have also made pipe-storing racks, galvanised steel stands, piping and fencing.

Working on the project in the face of high-profile opposition was not something Shevlin did lightly. Sitting in his cluttered office on the edge of Belmullet, he recalls his reasoning.

“It was very difficult, to say the least,” he says. “You would have your neighbour who was against it. I had to make a decision. I had to sit my guys down and say: ‘We’ve a couple of choices to make: do I back the project – and, in backing the project, back Shell or not?

“And I think it’s fairly simple: in my eyes, I believe that if this project does go ahead they are going to get their supplies, regardless of who it comes from. It wasn’t difficult in the sense that it was clear-cut in my mind that we were going to chase this work and we were going to get it . . . It was difficult in the sense that not everyone will agree with your views on it.”

Shevlin is acutely aware that Corrib construction is winding down but is optimistic that foreign work, much of it won on the back of his Corrib experience, and a reviving domestic building sector will see him through. He has just applied for planning permission to make his factory 50 per cent bigger.

Heavyweights of civil engineering

Farther up the contractor food chain are two long-established heavyweights of Irish engineering, Roadbridge of Limerick and Mercury Engineering of Sandyford, in Dublin, the major contractors on the land side of the Corrib project.

Roadbridge’s chairman, Jim Mulcair, says working on Corrib was critical to his company’s surviving the recession. “It has been a huge influence in our development – in fact vital, given what happened to our domestic market.”

When the economy imploded in 2008, 70 per cent of Roadbridge’s then €350 million to €400 million a year in business – the part that was rooted in the Irish market – “vaporised” more or less overnight.

Roadbridge is still there, but 70 per cent of the company’s business is now outside Ireland, and that, says 50-year-old Mulcair.

In 2004 Mulcair and three colleagues went to Shell’s offices in Dublin and pitched for the contract to develop the 13-hectare site at Bellanaboy ahead of the gas terminal’s construction.

“Out of that contract in 2004, a €30 million contract, we probably became their biggest contractor and key delivery partner.”

Mulcair says what was different about Shell was that its standards were higher than anything he had experienced with Irish clients, including several State bodies. “The level of control – safety, quality and environmental control – they were demanding of us was a step higher.”

The initial contract grew into a €300 million partnership with Shell that saw Roadbridge take a lead role in virtually all aspects of construction, from the gas-pipe landfall to the terminal.

As the recession deepened, about a quarter of Roadbridge’s workforce of about 1,700 people transferred to the Corrib project.

Since this introduction to the oil and gas industry, the company has won terminal and pipeline contracts in the Shetland Islands and pitched for business around the world. Today its workforce is 1,000 abroad (many of them Irish) and 460 in Ireland.

Specialist training

A similar story comes from Mercury, which in 2006 won the contract to build much of the mechanical, electrical and instrumentation aspects of the plant. The contract, for which it tendered without experience of the oil and gas industry, was worth “in or around €50 million”, says Darren Monaghan, Mercury’s Mayo-based project manager.

Many of Mercury’s 800 to 900 workforce during its three peak years on the project – 2008 to 2010 – received specialist training in the UK in welding and electrics, because the safety and quality of work standards demanded were, again, beyond anything Mercury had experienced.

“Traceability was total,” says Monaghan. “Every light fitting, every valve, every piece of work can be traced back to who made it, who installed it and who signed off on their work.”

Mercury today has a workforce of about 2,000 and an annual turnover of about €500 million.

Ross Glen

Rossport is small. Down the road from Timlin’s house lives Willie Corduff, one of the Rossport Five; around the corner is Michael Corduff, a distant cousin to Willie, who took a very different approach to Shell.

The Timlin family have been local builders for several generations, specialising in one-off houses, extensions, renovations and maintenance work for schools and parishes. In the early years of the Corrib project, Timlin did not pitch for work, preferring to stand back from the controversy.

“We kept neutral,” he says.

But once it was decided that the pipe would go into a tunnel from Glengad, and run under the bay, he decided to try to get work. In 2010, with his cousin Thomas, he set up Ross Glen Construction, a small building-contracting and labour-supply company.

Their initial efforts to win some of the smaller contracts were unsuccessful, but eventually Ross Glen got contract work on the building of the tunnel, supplying ground workers, carpenters and plasterers, eventually having about 40 workers on site.

To get to that point Timlin, like Cathal Shevlin, had to obtain certificates on health-and-safety work practices and environmental management. The experience has projected Ross Glen into a different league.

“When we approach companies now we throw [our Corrib experience] in quite early, because their ears prick up. Once you mention you’ve been involved in the Corrib project, immediately you are taken seriously.”

Ross Glen has since won work on several regional hospitals and is pitching for work in London and Bristol.

“Not

much ever comes here”

Getting workers in and out of the construction sites became a major part of Michael Corduff’s life, often pitting him against neighbours and erstwhile friends.

In the mid 1990s, when Enterprise Oil (owner of the gas field before Shell) appeared in Erris, Corduff was running a small bus and taxi business from his yard in Rossport. He decided that if there was work to be had, he was going to try to get it. “This is Erris and not much ever comes here,” he says.

Corduff now employs about 50 drivers for 70 vehicles – large touring buses, minibuses and taxis – and has transport depots in Castlebar and Dublin.

He started bussing contract workers in and out of the terminal when it was a building site. Workers would assemble in Belmullet or Bangor Erris to travel to the site – under Garda escort because of protesters.

Corduff remembers the atmosphere among the workers. “There’d be normal chat in the morning; they’d have a fag and chat, and the bus would go at 7am. We’d have an escort by one of the Roadbridge guys, and in front of that was a Garda car, to clear the way, because the protesters were driving slow in front of us – at 10-20km/h – and people [were] stopping on the road in front of us and parking in the middle of the road. So the Garda car had to lead the way.

“In the dark winter mornings everyone would be talking away on the bus, but the minute you’d see the terminal [site] you could see all the yellow jackets on the road, and that’s when the bus went pure quiet. Not a word. I used to put off all the lights on the bus. Darkness . . .

“And these were decent people that wanted to do a day’s work, make a day’s pay, to raise their families locally, and they were being intimidated, being shouted at and bullied by these people.

“The things that were said there,” he says. “I was stopped one morning by a man and his two sons, and I was told I was a shame to my father, a shame to our name, and that my father was over in the grave behind in Pulathomas graveyard waiting to talk to me, and to come over and talk to him.

“My father’s buried in a different graveyard altogether. That was very hurtful. That was most hurtful thing in the whole project that got to me.”

Corduff says that his children were bullied at school and that on one occasion someone opposed to his stance tried to frighten a horse his son was riding. “It was awful stuff. We lost friends. My wife lost friends. We couldn’t even go out in the community.”

Community relations mended

Despite all that happened, Corduff says community relations have mended. Most people get on fine now, whatever their differences in the past. This view is echoed to some extent by John Healy, a local man who made decisions different from Corduff’s.

Healy runs the petrol station and supermarket closest to the terminal, and he felt obliged, as he puts it, to stand with the local community.

“You had to,” he says. “There was five local men basically put to jail in the wrong. It was [for] breaking injunctions and old rubbish like that. Sure, it was only technical stuff. What had happened before and after proved that. Lookit, you cannot go over the whole process of the whole Garda involvement in everything else then afterwards, so.”

At one stage, Healy says, he and an associate were involved in supplying food to the terminal site, but when that contract ended he was unable to secure further work from Shell. “I know from the workers over the years [that] we were boycotted by Shell, and it was a terrible thing to do to a local business,” he says. But, like Michael Corduff, he sees the past as water under the bridge. “You cannot be bitter.”

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