You don't build trust through gunboat diplomacy


A final opportunity exists for consent to replace coercion over the Corrib gas project; the State must take it, writes Fintan O'Toole

LET'S CONDUCT a brief thought experiment. Suppose, for a moment, that Sean Dunne's proposal for a massive tower in Ballsbridge is given the go-ahead. Suppose, too, that local residents are infuriated by this decision, seeing it as an assault on their familiar way of life. Suppose then that some of those residents form an action group with the intention of disrupting the building of the tower by staging sit-ins or occupying the site. The dispute becomes embittered to the point where one of the residents decides to go on hunger strike.

If all of this were to happen, which of the two following scenarios do you think more likely to ensue?

The first scenario is that the State decides to use its full might against the burghers of Ballsbridge. The Garda devotes almost as much of its budget to policing the protests as it does to the entire Operation Anvil against organised crime.

The Army is called in and a tank is stationed at the entrance to the site. A private security firm is allowed to film Ballsbridge residents as they go about their daily business, and when residents report this to the Garda, they are told it is a "civil matter". The Garda seeks the help of Interpol to identity protesters.

The second scenario is that the situation is constantly in the headlines. There is a consensus that it has to be handled by dialogue. The Government steps in as an honest broker.

It is not hard to guess that, if all of this were to happen in Ballsbridge, the second scenario is much the most plausible.

But if we end the thought experiment and enter reality, the story is unfolding in west Mayo and everything described in the first scenario is actually happening. That it has been allowed to happen is a particular disgrace for the Green Party and especially for its brightest star, Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan.

Nothing in the outlandish first Ballsbridge scenario is at all an exaggeration of reality in the Erris peninsula. The Garda operation is likely to cost €15 million by the end of the year - Operation Anvil has a budget of €20 million.

The Army hasn't been called in, but for the first time in the history of the State, the Naval Service has been deployed against a civilian protest. The LE Orla was deployed in Broadhaven Bay to police protesters in kayaks. Photographs of protesters have been circulated to Interpol, even when those protesters are not charged with any crime.

A private security firm has been conducting surveillance operations against local residents. One man, Colm Henry, has reported that his grandchildren were filmed walking across their family's own land to Glengad beach. The parish priest of Kilcommon, Fr Michael Nallen, who was himself photographed by a security company, has alleged that his parishioners are "prisoners in their own area".

This extraordinarily heavy-handed response might be justified in some minds by a notion that the law must be upheld, whatever the cost. But the upholding of law is all on one side. The existing law was specifically changed for Shell - for the first time, a private company was allowed to obtain compulsory purchase orders against private citizens. This new legislation was so deeply flawed that it is probably invalid - the Government had to amend it subsequently and Shell used a different legal mechanism for the amended pipeline route.

Key parts of the Corrib project have, moreover, been exempted from the normal planning laws under the Strategic Infrastructure Act - again using powers normally intended for State projects to assist a private operation.

Even with this tweaking of the law in Shell's favour, the project has been marked by some obvious illegalities. Eamon Ryan himself failed to issue notices of consent to some of the current work at Glengad, as required by law - an "oversight" we were told. Shell built a road at Glengad without planning permission - An Bord Pleanála allowed them to retain it. A Shell contractor carried out entirely unauthorised drilling in the Glenamoy area of special conservation - it was ordered to restore the area but no prosecution was taken.

While the Naval Service and Interpol are called in against the protesters, neither Shell nor the State itself has been overpunctilious in observing legalities.

When citizens can't look to the State for fairness, events spiral out of control. This whole problem is rooted in what Shell itself has acknowledged to be "a lack of dialogue and trust".

You don't build dialogue and trust with the literal gunboat diplomacy we've seen in recent weeks. You build it by the State meeting its basic obligations to represent its citizens, even when they are foolish enough to live in Erris rather than in Ballsbridge.

There is now a fortuitous delay in the laying of the pipeline - the project may be put back until the spring. This creates a last opportunity to replace coercion with consent. Having supported the protesters and been elected partly on a promise to review the entire project, Eamon Ryan has a personal moral obligation to take on that responsibility.