Threat of closure envelops Ferbane in a mist of gloom

 

These autumn mornings the town of Ferbane in west Offaly takes a long time to shrug off the mists that cover it, mists that roll in from the surrounding bog at Boora.

The sun and wind eventually blow or burn off the fog but these days a different fog remains, the fog of uncertainty which hangs heavily on the town of around 1,200 souls.

For many days now the town has been living in the shadow of losing its primary industry, the peat-burning power station with its 114 jobs. But the dependence on the ESB power station, with its giant cooling towers spilling out steam from the generators, does not end there. Nearly 200 more jobs in Bord na Mona depend on its future.

A fortnight ago, the ESB said it would be recommending the closure of the plant to the next board meeting which will take place in Athlone in eight days' time. It said it was recommending the closure of the plant because of the failure of a small number of employees at Ferbane to implement agreements entered into 18 months ago.

This refusal has put in jeopardy a £16 million refurbishment plan which would give the plant another 15 years and keep life going in the west Offaly hinterland that depends so heavily on it.

The details of the bitter dispute are complicated. Skills overtaken by technology are involved: new work practices to be implemented are at its root. Personal pride and dignity are involved.

The union opposed to the change is the MSF. It has only three members in the Ferbane plant and the company claims these three men stand between progress and closure.

Last Saturday the union met to consider the situation and accused the ESB of "demonising" its branch secretary in Ferbane, Mr Don Geraghty.

It even went as far as to offer Mr Geraghty and his wife sanctuary in Belfast and said that what was happening to him and his two companions was contrary to the Belfast Agreement.

A union spokesman said Mr Geraghty and his colleagues at Ferbane were merely following union instructions and were doing nothing different from any of their union colleagues in other plants.

"I am glad to say that the people of Ferbane are not swallowing the bait and demonising Mr Geraghty and we are glad of that," the spokesman said.

When news of the proposed closure broke, there was panic, not only in Ferbane but also throughout Offaly because of the impact this would have on the entire surrounding area.

The matter was raised in the Dail by the Birr-based TD, Tom Enright, and Offaly County Council set up a sub-committee to act as an "honest broker" in an attempt to keep the station open.

Any thoughts that the threat to close the plant was designed to whip MSF into line were dispelled on Tuesday when ESB managers came again to Tullamore to repeat their closure message.

They had come at the invitation of the council sub-committee and met the Offaly county manager, Mr Niall Sweeney, to spell out the bad news to the media once again; the message was as blunt as before.

The majority of the staff at the 41-year-old plant want it to stay open. Without agreement refurbishment could not proceed and it would be closed down a year from now.

While the message was being spelled out, Don Geraghty was at a meeting of the ESB group of unions at the power station.

A statement issued after that meeting reaffirmed the unions' commitment to finding a resolution of the difficulties.

By late in the evening the pace of the story had quickened. The group of unions was flexing its muscles on television, giving an unsubtle hint that no matter how small a union's membership, it should not be bullied.

This must have been sweet music to the ears of Don Geraghty, who celebrated his 27th wedding anniversary on Tuesday. In the town, no one was prepared to go on record, not even the local clergy, to talk about the situation. And no one was badmouthing Mr Geraghty or his colleagues in public, perhaps because a basic rural decency still pervades an industry which has moved only inches from the land.

"He is a decent man and he is doing what he believes is right and what his union is instructing him to do," said one local man who works in the plant but is not in the MSF. "We believe that the ESB wants to close not only this plant but the other peat-burning plants too. They may have got lucky by finding the Ferbane Three," he said bitterly.

A friend of Mr Geraghty's confided that he, Don Geraghty, was having a very difficult time, not from the people of the town or his work-mates but from the media.

"He has not been going out as much of late. He is not afraid or anything but he doesn't want to embarrass people he might meet who believe his enemies," he said.

Everyone in the town is aware of the sensitivity of the situation but the MSF men are part of a tight-knit community and here in Offaly, community comes first.

That solidarity was questioned, however, when townspeople met at St Mary's Parochial Hall on Monday night to contemplate a bleak future without the station which has been the lifeblood of this area for over 40 years. They agreed to send a letter to the union's headquarters expressing anger over the attitude of its members who, they claimed, reneged on an agreement which would ensure the survival of Ferbane. At the meeting the mood was clear. Ferbane did not want to become the town that turned its back on the an industry which had sustained generations of people, housed them, clothed them, educated them and prepared them for the world.

There was a feeling that if it allowed its power station to close, no industry in its right mind would locate there again when the will of a few could overcome the wishes of so many.

There was another issue too. Most of the workers in the ageing plant are as old as the power station's towers that dominate the landscape. The men who generate the power are mostly on the wrong side of 40 and too far away from 65 to know the security of any pension.

The mood was not bitter at the meeting but there was a sense of desperation.

There was also a community spirit; that same spirit which delivered them very high marks in the recent National Tidy Towns competition.

The people of Ferbane are proud of their town but know that with or without the plant there are deep-seated problems. The population continues to fall and the Ferbane electoral area will return one councillor fewer in the next local elections.

But the ripples that could flow from the closure of Ferbane will be felt in Athlone, in Tullamore, Banagher and Kilcormack.

The workers in the other peat-burning stations at Lanesboro, Rhode and Shannonbridge are unsettled too. They realise their futures may be hammered out on the anvil of Ferbane.

The county manager, Mr Sweeney, believes that the closure of the plant will signal the death of west Offaly and the loss of many ancillary jobs.

"A lot of small plants and suppliers are in business because of the power plant. Any interference with it will have far-reaching consequences." That was why they were so desperately trying to ensure that the proposed closure was averted, he added.

He and the people of Ferbane hope that the council's helping hand on the sidelines may yet lead to a solution. Meanwhile, as the daily mists shroud the community, the locals continue to look for a breakthrough in the dispute. They are looking closely at the Ferbane Three to see if they also share the sense of foreboding that they feel for themselves and their families.

The ESB group of unions meets today to seek renewed negotiations with the company on the future of the plant.