"The Government have clearly sent the message to Shell, ‘you can do whatever you want’. Fortunately due to protest, the refinery remains unconnected to the gas field. If, as Shell planned, gas had been flowing by now, we would potentially all be dealing with a gas leak and explosion.”
A film about how a small community in Co. Mayo took on the might of Shell Oil and the Irish State is coming to audiences in Britain for the first time.
The Pipe is showing as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival — with three sold out screenings at the BFI Centre on the Southbank.
It tells the story of a community tragically divided, and the prospect of a pipeline that can bring economic prosperity or destroy a way of life shared for generations.
The documentary took four years to make and follows what happened after gas was discovered off the remote coastal village of Rossport. Five locals spent 94 days in jail rather than let the proposed Shell pipeline cross their lands. And with a once tranquil area engulfed in turmoil huge numbers of police were drafted in.
The film follows the personal experience of three main characters at the height of that tension. Here director Risteard Ó Domhnaill, who was covering the Corrib Gas controversy as a cameraman at the time, talks to Siobhán Breatnach about why he took such an interest in the story.
What were your greatest challenges in making this film?
Money. When I began to film more intensively, my other work in television suffered as I could not commit to certain jobs, and so that held my career back and made it very difficult to earn a decent standard of living. As the filming was so long and exhaustive, accessing funds was extremely difficult. Dealing with people down in Mayo was actually the easiest part, even the Gardaí became so familiar with me that, after some initial tension, they did not prevent me from filming even amongst the most heated confrontations. The one challenge I could not overcome was getting Shell to agree to an unconditional interview, despite numerous meetings, assurances and correspondence.
What was your greatest reward from the process?
My aim was always to tell the real story of the people in the path of the pipeline, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. This story had been completely lost among all of the hype, spin and media manipulation, by weak journalists and strong PR companies, and this resulted in coverage of the Corrib controversy being moved away from the locals struggle with Shell and onto outsiders ideological battle with the state. If people in Ireland and abroad can finally witness the real story of the locals against Shell, that will be the greatest reward.
What do you hope this film will achieve?
The aim would be that the film would provoke debate and focus discussion on the issues surrounding the Corrib Gas controversy. One of the casualties in this whole saga has been open and transparent examination of the facts surrounding Corrib, and often truth has been the victim. In the early stages of the edit, I tried to tackle some of the main causes of the conflict — alleged political corruption surrounding the licensing of Oil & Gas in Ireland, political interference with the planning process, failure of the regulators and manipulation of the media — however, even though I had done a massive amount of research and filming on all of these subjects, they were just too complex to even attempt to resolve within an 80 minute documentary.
Did you ever fear for your safety while filming?
Looking back at some of the footage now, many of the situations appear very dangerous. However, at the time I never once felt my safety was in danger. Even though I was on a small fishing boat out in, at times, very rough seas, within metres of one the largest pipelaying vessels in the world and surrounded by Navy and Police boats, I knew that at every stage both Pat ‘The Chief’ O’Donnell, and the Garda water unit would never let anything happen to me despite all that was going on around me.
How did you achieve such access into the lives of the people in this community?
Although I grew up in Tipperary, which is on the other side of the country, my parents were secondary school teachers, so every summer we would spend our summers on my uncle’s farm in Inver, just a few miles from Rossport. In early 2006, I moved in with my uncle when I found work in Mayo, which allowed me to move out of Dublin. By being familiar with the area and the people, while also having a strong family connection in the area, my uncle was well known in the area and my cousin being a parish priest, gaining access and trust came very easily at first.
Do you, and if so, how do you think this situation can be solved?
I believe the only way to resolve any conflict situation is through dialogue, and sooner or later this is what will have to happen. The community have always been open to dialogue, however their good nature, and possible naivety, has been manipulated and used by Shell to wiggle their way out of open and transparent dialogue with the locals.
From Shell’s point of view, this is quite understandable as in all the open and meaningful forums — planning hearings, human rights and investigative reports, and Garda Ombudsman’s inquiries, the genuine local objectors have always come out on top — remember both the refinery and the pipeline were rejected by the planning board following marathon oral hearings, and it was only due to political interference from the Taoiseach of the day, Bertie Ahern, that the refinery permission was overturned.