Thursday 21 March 2019

Dirty War: what really is going on at the battle of Rossport?

IT'S a saga that bears all the hallmarks of 1920s Ireland, an era where conflicting views of the Treaty led to a bitter civil war.

But this is North Mayo in 2008, where the picturesque community of Erris has been divided by the arrival of multi-national company, Royal Dutch Shell.

The proposed benefits to the local economy and community compete with fears over the possible dangers of a gas pipe running through an inhabited area. For every compelling argument, there is a compelling answer. And it has slowly descended into a sorry mess where confusion, disagreements and mistrust reign supreme.

On one side is the well-known Shell To Sea campaign, calling for the current on-shore refinery to be re-located to an off-shore rig. On the other are those who, after asking many questions, have welcomed the project as a much-needed injection for the local economy.

In the middle is a curious fusion of two local groups, Pobal le Cheile and Pobal Chill Chomain, which includes members of the Rossport Five, who hope to reach a compromise by seeking an uninhabited site for the refinery at Glinsk.

One expects the ghosts of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera to float into the mix, whispering wise words about the perils of pro- or anti-Treaty stances.


In front of the three main players is the spectre of Shell, the multinational company that is currently in the process of creating an impressively large project in the heart of rural Ireland. Above it all is the Government, which is castigated and congratulated in equal measure for its handling of the country's natural resources.

The story of the Corrib gas field controversy has been played out during eight years, involving worried community groups, break-away factions, frustrated businessmen, clever PR games, physical clashes, jail terms, garda overtime bills and enough reports and statistics to paper the entire county.

Along the way, key figures such as the Rossport Five and hunger striker Maura Harrington have emerged -- fodder for daily news bulletins that keep the rest of the country abreast of developments.

So just what is going on in Mayo? Such is the barrage of accusations and counter-accusations that it's hard to keep sight of the genesis of the conflict.

It was October 1996 when gas was first discovered some 70km off the coast of Mayo, by the consortium now known as Shell, Statoil and Marathon.

Attracted by the abolition of state royalties and a State stakehold in commercial finds, and the abolition of state participation in oil and gas exploration, the company could take control of the lucrative Corrib gas field.

It would be some four years later before plans for the exploitation of the gas and its refinery at Bellanaboy first emerged. When they did, they triggered a wave of questions from locals worried about the environmental impact, health, and safety of an onshore refinery and pipeline. Furthermore, it led to an outcry at the perceived scandal of allowing a multinational to benefit from a valuable Irish natural resource.

Amid planning applications, rejections and appeals, locals banded together to demonstrate their opposition to the project. It would reach a grim point in 2005, when five farmers in Rossport were imprisoned for refusing to allow construction on the pipeline to take place on their land.

Today, the refinery at Bellanaboy is believed to be 50pc complete. A compound has also been constructed four miles away at Glengad, where the proposed pipeline from the gas field would come ashore. It is here that former school teacher Maura Harrington has based her protest in the past two weeks, in opposition to the appearance of the pipe-laying vessel, the Solitaire.


The Erris area boasts one of the most beautiful landscapes in Ireland, where rolling hills sweep down to Broadhaven Bay. As it cuts inland, it divides the community, with Rossport on its left and Glengad on its right.

Standing above Glengad beach, the view over the bay is breathtaking. Deep under the soil, an unseen pipe will pump pressurised gas from the Corrib gas field. It will then cut right through the heart of the community before it reaches the vast Bellanaboy compound.

Above Broadhaven Bay, two large tents are erected, identifying the Rossport Solidarity Camp. This, one might say, is the spiritual home of Shell To Sea, the group which has campaigned tirelessly against Shell's proposals for nearly 10 years.

The tented accommodation may be basic, but the view over Broadhaven Bay is five-star quality. Along a road, heavily policed by gardai, campaigners form a steady trickle to and from where its star member, Maura Harrington, has been making her case.

Shell To Sea's objectives are simple: to see the refinery moved to an off-shore shallow-water site, and to force the Government to re-visit the licensing and fiscal terms relating to the reclamation of our natural resources.

"Why are we so fixed on giving Shell everything?" asks Niall Harnett, media coordinator with Shell To Sea.

"We're in a failing economy yet we're reduced to buying back our own natural resources from a foreign company."

Safety is a huge issue for the group. Niall cites the gas explosion in Carlsbad, New Mexico, in 2000 as a perfect example of how their fears may be founded. On that day, 12 members of the same family were killed.

Despite Shell's insistence that the on-shore pressure of the pipeline will be 144 bar or below, these campaigners are not convinced of their safety.

An opposing view is taken by Padraig Cosgrove, former councillor, retired teacher and chairman of the Mayo Pro-Gas Group. He has regularly spoken out in favour of the project, insisting he has not been "bought" by any Shell envelopes.


While his home is not close to the pipeline route, it is just four miles away from the Bellanaboy site.

He too was concerned about safety implications of the massive project. Now, he insists, his fears have been assuaged.

"Yes, gas can kill people, but so does electricity, smoking and drugs. I believe there is no problem in the world with that pipe. I believe professionals have worked on this job and they've done it right."

Padraig believes his support of the project has come at a hefty cost.

"I've been intimidated, as have members of my family. I've been photographed going into public meetings. Even my signature on the register has been photographed.

"On one occasion three years ago, Shell put an advert in the paper inviting members of the public to visit their treatment facilities. I went along and saw every single aspect.

"But when we tried to head for home, there was a motorcycle blocking our way at the gate," he said.

"There was bargaining going on, people were saying that if we were let out, the Shell To Sea protestors had to be let in. That's the kind of intimidation I'm facing.

"The whole thing has caused a lot of enmity among friends and every single time an illegal action takes place, there's more bitterness.

"People have it in their power to pull back from the brink."

That same bitterness reappeared on Wednesday evening outside the Shell project offices in Belmullet, which culminated in the arrest of two protestors, who had scaled the building. The many colours of the campaigning organisation were evident -- on one side stood locals proclaiming their support for Maura Harrington, and a few feet away, environmentalists and supporters from Ireland and the UK added to the mix.


While most of these so-called blow-ins have come here for the right reasons, their presence is sometimes marred by the antics of a few who appear to have nothing but anarchy at all costs on their minds.

One thing is for sure, an agreeable, lasting solution to the ongoing problem will require the mother of all Treaty negotiations.

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