The Corrib impact: pipelines, protests and prosperity

A decade ago the Rossport Five were jailed over their opposition to a pipeline linking the offshore Corrib gas field to Shell’s inland refinery. With that plant complete, what were the project’s effects on north Mayo’s people, economy and environment?

 

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.

When Brian Espey, a professor of physics at Trinity College Dublin, published a map of light pollution on the island of Ireland in 2012, it was no surprise to find the largest scatter over the major cities. But a flash over the thinly populated bogland and coastline of north Co Mayo aroused some curiosity there.

Betty Schult, who owns a hostel in Pulathomas, was puzzled by it at first. Then she and her neighbours realised that, thanks to the presence of the Corrib gas project, their tiny community could now be seen from outer space.

“It’s not just the gas refinery at Bellanaboy; it’s the double rows of streetlights that have been put in here, along with footpaths in the middle of nowhere,” she says, sitting in a breakfast room with a view over Sruwaddacon Bay estuary, whose water runs into Broadhaven Bay and the Atlantic. Even the village’s graveyard, hit by a catastrophic landslide in 2003, has been illuminated. “Perhaps it has a psychological aim: to make the place look a little more developed, and make it look like a large industrial project might fit,” Schult says.

German-born with a Mayo accent, Schult is accustomed to questions from European visitors who stay with her all year round: questions about the presence of the Garda and private security, high fencing around work sites, surveillance cameras, truck traffic and protest art.

A decade ago, when five local men went to jail over their opposition to a high-pressure pipeline linking the Corrib gas find, 83km offshore, to an inland refinery, Schult didn’t have time to explain much at all, and for years her day had a very different rhythm. During the hot summer of 2005, when the Rossport Five were in Cloverhill Prison, in Dublin, local protests had a hopeful atmosphere.

At that point a 2003 ruling by a Bord Pleanála inspector, Kevin Moore, that this rural area was the wrong site for an industrial project of this scale, was still fresh in many minds. Moore’s 377-page report was scathing in its criticism of the developer for failing to provide an alternative to processing gas onshore, using a “subsea tie-back” that would be the “second-longest in the world” if built.

Moore questioned the socioeconomic benefits of a “highly obtrusive” plan to process gas from a field with a lifespan of just 15 to 20 years, which he said involved safety risks as well as “significant environmental costs”.

Following a meeting of Shell executives with Bertie Ahern, who was taoiseach at the time, the multinational submitted a new application, which was approved in 2004 with 42 conditions. The linking high-pressure pipeline didn’t require planning approval at that stage.

In May 2002 the State, in the shape of the former marine minister Frank Fahey, had signed 34 compulsory-acquisition orders, allowing access by a private company to private property for the pipeline route.

Schult remembers thinking that “someone in authority would stop this”. She had worked as a nurse in Norway after the first North Sea oil finds and had witnessed how the Norwegian state had secured the best arrangement for its people.

Optimism and despair

Schult rarely saw her sons leaving for school, as she rose before dawn to participate in pickets, sometimes returning home in a state of shock at what she had had witnessed. The tactics and altercations – filmed by the cameraman Richie O’Donnell for his documentary The Pipe – discouraged many elderly neighbours who were initially supportive of the protests.

Dr Mark Garavan, a sociology lecturer who was a spokesman for the Rossport Five, forecast that images of the clashes would “feed into an agenda to portray the campaign” against the project “as dangerous and radical”.

Garavan was among community leaders who called repeatedly for an independent review of the entire project. Three local priests, supported by their bishop, also spearheaded a campaign to have the refinery relocated to a more remote coastal site, at Glinsk. This was ruled out by Shell and its partners, Statoil and Marathon, the latter of which was replaced by a Canadian company, Vermilion, in 2009.

The project became the subject of studies in how not to handle development, as trust between the local community and gardaí fractured and there were attempts to smear protesters with paramilitary links. In research conducted for Front Line Defenders in 2009 and 2010, which analysed the long-term impact of the project, Brian Barrington, a barrister, found no evidence to support “republican direction” of demonstrations, although he found that individuals associated with various republican organisations had attended protests. Barrington also investigated reports of intimidation, but he found that most of these related to people not talking to each other.

Barrington advised that Shell should intensify its efforts to ensure regulatory compliance in the light of previous breaches, and noted that employment on the project of a former Mayo county secretary, a former Garda chief superintendent and a former editor of a Mayo newspaper gave rise to “the appearance that Shell is seeking to influence those who regulate them, rather than to comply”. Shell responded that it always applied the highest professional standards.

By then Garda handling of Corrib gas protests had been the “single greatest cause” of complaints – 75 per cent of them admissible – to the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission (GSoc). A GSoc recommendation that a senior garda be disciplined for the handling of one protest, in which about 20 people were injured, was not acted on. Policing, now scaled down, cost €16 million over a decade.

Construction complete

An offshore pipeline has been laid, and the final link – the high-pressure pipe from landfall through a 4.9km tunnel under Sruwaddacon Bay estuary – was finished last year. Multiplied project costs can be written off against tax, and the gas, when it flows, will be sold at full market price.

Challenges by the community forced abandonment of the first pipeline route, through Rossport village, and An Bord Pleanála rejected the second route, finding that up to half of it was unacceptable on safety grounds.

“And not one of those engineers who said the first route was safe ever apologised,” Vincent McGrath, a retired teacher who was one of the Rossport Five, says. “Meanwhile, we have dozens of people in this parish who have earned criminal records just for trying to point that out.”

Over in Belmullet, 30km and 30 minutes away by road, the prosperity associated with the project is obvious.

“So many businesses did well out of it, and when the recession hit in 2008 it really concentrated minds,” John Gallagher, a former teacher, publican and Belmullet GAA chairman, says. “Some people who had been on protests in the early days began realising this was their only chance of work, and so they took jobs on the construction site or in security.”

Hotels and guest houses thrived, pubs were jammed on a Thursday night, and a three-bedroom house in the town could fetch €1,300 a month, he recalls.

“It wasn’t easy being in favour, and both I and my wife were verbally attacked many times,” Gallagher says. “I still get abuse occasionally, but I’m a big thick GAA man, and I can take it. John Healy, shop owner in Barnatra, is my best friend, and we were on opposite sides. We never stopped talking to each other.”

More than €7 million that Shell and its partners have invested in community initiatives since 2007, including a third-level scholarship programme, local grants and an Erris development fund, nurtured support, Gallagher acknowledges.

Belmullet GAA secured €500,000 from the multinational towards its €2 million development of facilities.

The direct funding, dismissed as bribery by opponents and welcomed as investment by others, proved divisive. New indirect funding through a Shell-sponsored community-gain investment fund of €8.5 million, disbursed by Mayo County Council, is proving equally contentious. Gallagher says there is “some concern” over how it is being managed; Mayo County Council says in response that it is fully audited.

Now that the project is near completion, Belmullet is not as busy as it once was, Gallagher says. Emigration has started again, and the town, which does not meet the population criteria for a supply of natural gas, has missed out on the broadband promised as part of a 130km fibre-optic cable running on the Corrib gas line between Mayo and Galway.

“We’ll get the fibre optic cable, mark my words,” says Gerry Coyle, a Belmullet-based Fine Gael councillor who has long supported the gas project. “But if there was ever a thesis done on how not to do something, this project would be high up on the agenda. The people of Rossport didn’t go looking for gas, and why should a small community have to take on a multinational?

“Local people never had the resources for big lawyers, and every family has enough to be doing worrying about raising kids without having to worry about what’s being built beside them.

“There were ordinary decent people on every side of the divide, and there are still people who don’t speak to me, but I have my hand outstretched to everyone.”

Ciarán Ó Murchú, a former Air Corps pilot who owns the Coláiste Uisce adventure centre, just beyond Belmullet in Elly Bay, understands where Coyle is coming from, but he has a different view.

Ó Murchú made headlines in late 2006 when he said that he had turned down an offer by Shell to contribute €15,000 towards a climbing wall at his centre, an offer Shell denied.

Ó Murchú was a founder of Pobal le Chéile, representing businesspeople who were opposed to location of the refinery project. His stance wasn’t an easy one to take, he says, but he was supported by his wife, Mary. His parents, owners of a guest house, benefited from the project, and his brother worked on it. Coláiste Uisce also accepted secondary students sent on scholarships paid for by Shell.

“In Pobal le Chéile we were clear in laying blame with the State and with politicians like former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who endorsed it before the planning process was even complete,” Ó Murchú says. “The protests were successful in forcing the company to put in modifications to an outdated plan, but it should never have been approved for here in the first place.

“Looking back, the fact that Shell was allowed to disburse monies such as grants and scholarships before all statutory permissions were in place distorted opinion, and was tantamount to State-approved bribery.

“The aggressive approach adopted by a minority of local campaigners didn’t help either, but no one who took money directly or indirectly from the project can speak with any objectivity about the impact on the receiving community.

“Corrib is proof of our primitive political system, and the fact that our politicians should receive training in business and law and ethics to handle projects of this type.”

‘Injustice of it all’

Mary Corduff

“Criminal records gained as a result of trying to exercise a right to protest here should be erased,” McGrath says.

McGrath and his neighbours are disappointed that the Government has ignored repeated criticism of its treatment of its own citizens by human-rights groups, including Afri, Table Human Rights Observers and Front Line Defenders, and by the United Nations. In 2013 the UN Human Rights Commission’s special rapporteur, Margaret Sekaggya, recommended an investigation into “all allegations of intimidation, harassment and surveillance in the context of the Corrib gas dispute”.

The Government has also ignored a petition calling for a public inquiry into Corrib policing, which has been signed by the South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former UN assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday and the homeless advocate Fr Peter McVerry, as well as by TDs, artists and academics, including Phil Scraton, the Queen’s University Belfast professor who exposed South Yorkshire Police’s handling of the Hillsborough football stadium disaster, in 1989.

The scars that the project has left are both physical and spiritual. A landowner who tried to prevent unauthorised entry by Shell contractors to a private pier was hospitalised with a stroke.

Others sustained injuries, including Willie Corduff, who was hospitalised after an assault at Glengad in 2009.

Two female protesters, who were the subjects of taped remarks by gardaí of a sexual nature, found the subsequent Garda Ombudsman investigation to be almost as traumatic, as did the academics from Maynooth University who supported them.

‘We are not split’

“We are a very experienced community now, with a high degree of political awareness, and this project still has no consent from us,” Betty Schult says. “But there is no sense that the State is monitoring this and looking out for us.

“We were all very upset about the death of a German contractor, Lars Wagner, during the tunnel construction. And our children who grew up during the protests, and are now in their mid 20s, learned a tough lesson about democracy. But we are not split, and to say that would be to fall into Shell’s trap.”

Last year she planted hundreds of daffodil and tulip bulbs in her garden. Currently she is helping members of the former Rossport solidarity camp to compile a collection of music and poetry associated with Corrib, for Sprig Productions in Galway.

Contributors to the forthcoming Songs for Rossport CD include Kíla, Anto Thistlethwaite and Leo Moran of The Saw Doctors, Fintan Vallely, Breeda Murphy, Rita Ann Higgins and John Spillane.

Vincent McGrath is also a contributor; he is heartened by the range of artists involved. “Now that’s what you would call a creative response,” he says.

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