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How the State deserted its people and resources

James Laffey - Western People

A new book on the Corrib Gas project exposes a litany of failures on the part of the State, writes James Laffey.

Once Upon A Time In The West

‘LIGHT touch’ regulation is to blame for all our current woes. Or so we are told. Each day politicians from all sides of the Dáil divide queue up on the plinth at Leinster House to assure us that it’s the ‘wild west’-style practices of the country’s bankers and regulators that have brought us to this sorry pass.

“We trusted the bankers, we trusted the regulator!” they plaintively lament, the import of their message being that firm and decisive action would have been taken if only someone had told them what was going on. Methinks differently. And here’s why.

Kevin Moore of An Bord Pleanála was a regulator par excellence. In 2001 he was asked to assess the merits of locating the State’s largest infrastructural project – the Corrib gas terminal – on an unstable bog in a remote, isolated area serviced only by 12-feet wide boreens.

Moore took his responsibilities seriously. He appointed an expert hydrogeologist to assist in his deliberations; convened two lengthy oral hearings and trawled through thousands of documents over a two-year period. His 377page report was exhaustive in its detailed analysis of Shell’s plan to construct a gas terminal and onshore pipeline at Bellanaboy in North Mayo, a project that was being fiercely opposed by locals, most of whom were reasonable, sane and ordinary people with no history of popular protest.

Moore’s report was damning in its assessment of Shell’s ham-fisted plans. Instead of hiding behind the usual bland, cautious pronouncements of public servants, the planning inspector baldly concluded that the Corrib terminal was being built on the wrong site. He didn’t use the phrase “wrong site” once in his summation, nor did he use it twice; he used it all of FOUR times. His message to those in power could not have been more explicit: allow this project to go ahead at your peril.

Moore’s report, published in May 2003, should have prompted an emergency meeting of the Cabinet. Troubling questions had been raised about a national project that was to be the most important of its kind in the 21st century. If this servant of the State was raising such grave concerns, surely it was time for the Government of the day to get a firm grip of the Corrib gas project?

The planning inspector, like any good regulator, had also highlighted a worrying trend in the lackadaisical response of other State bodies to the Corrib proposal, including the National Authority for Occupational Health and Safety, several Government departments and Coillte, the semiState forestry company.

Moore’s damning report prompted political action, but not the kind one would have expected. The then Minister for Natural Resources, Dermot Ahern, said he “regretted” the decision of An Bord Pleanála to refuse permission for the terminal, while his party colleague and junior minister Frank Fahey – the genius behind the terminal in the bog – asked his fellow TDs from the West of Ireland to meet with no less a personage than the managing director of Shell E&P Ireland, Andy Pyle.

So much for the regulator getting a fair hearing! Kevin Moore might as well have stood on the Erris shoreline and shouted into the broad Atlantic. His warnings went unheeded, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Twelve months after a landmark report from a courageous and conscientous public servant, An Bord Pleanála gave the project the go-ahead.

Within two years, several of the residents who had outlined their fears to him at the oral hearings were languishing in prison – at the behest of no less a personage than Andy Pyle, emboldened no doubt by the sympathetic ear he received from Bertie Ahern at a private meeting four months after the publication of Moore’s report.

Within three years, there were more police and security personnel in North Mayo than in any part of inner city Dublin. And today, the project is still several years from completion, with gas unlikely to flow before 2010, the tenth anniversary of the inspector’s report.

The Corrib gas project is a lesson in everything that is wrong in the Irish State, and it is a lesson well told by Lorna Siggins in her newly published book, Once Upon A Time In The West.

Ms Siggins, the Galway-based western correspondent for the Irish Times, is widely recognised as the foremost journalistic authority on Corrib. As Fintan O’Toole astutely notes in the foreword to the book, Lorna Siggins has always treated the reportage of Corrib as being in the public interest – even when the public were not especially interested.

Corrib has been a hard sell in media terms because, let’s face it, gas pipelines aren’t very sexy. People don’t want to read about manifolds and boreholes and slug catchers.

Consequently, the reportage of the long-running Corrib project has tended to focus on the more sensational elements of the story – the jailing of the Rossport Five, the clashes between protestors and gardaí and the involvement of subversive elements on both sides. But Lorna Siggins has always looked beyond the sensational headlines, probing to the rotten core of a story that exposes the wretched flaws in modern Irish society.

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Her devastating book – coming as it does in the wake of the collapse of our entire economy through inept Governance – is akin to the chorus at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy. The whole sorry truth of our imperfect little ‘democracy’ is laid bare before our eyes.

Having endured ten years of the Corrib gas project, Ms Siggins could easily be forgiven for launching into a diatribe against the main protagonists. Instead her analysis is measured, her writing succinct and her story founded entirely on facts: cold, hard, undeniable facts.

Indeed, it is one of the great achievements of Once Upon A Time In The West that its author manages to weave her way through the spin and counterspin of the Corrib gas saga to emerge on the other side with a book that is an honest and fair assessment of one of the most distressing sagas in modern Irish history.

The true value of Once Upon A Time In The West will only be seen in years to come when future historians sift through the wreckage of our ruined republic. They will wonder, for example, how an Irish Government could surrender its natural resources to private enterprise, particularly when the deal was brokered by a corrupt former minister, Ray Burke, in a private meeting with oil and gas bosses. They will wonder, too, how millions of euro could be spent on paying gardaí to provide private security for a multinational whose annual profits regularly top €15 billion. And, most of all, they will wonder how a democratic State could desert its own citizens – decent, law-abiding people who never had any truck with trouble – at their gravest hour of need.

Lorna Siggins’ book makes for uncomfortable reading because for the very first time we have an analysis of the Corrib gas project that goes right to the heart of the matter. Forget about early morning baton charges; forget about maverick protesters hurling abuse at gardaí; forget about boats being sunk on the high seas. Such incidents may make for explosive headlines in the tabloid press but they don’t explain the real story behind the Corrib project.

Through a forensic analysis of the facts, Lorna Siggins clearly demonstrates the process whereby a group of local residents, who set out to protect their health and environment, were initially ignored, then ridiculed, then isolated and finally criminalised. It is a story that should frighten every citizen of this State because it proves beyond any doubt that to raise a voice in protest in Ireland can be as detrimental to a person’s health and safety as a gas terminal built on an unstable bog in a picturesque village.

The financial regulator Patrick Neary kept his mouth shut and clambered from the wreckage of the Irish economy with a golden handshake of €600,000.

Kevin Moore, on the other hand, railed against the inadequacies of the Irish regulatory system and was rewarded with a pointed message from Shell Inc, delivered to the offices of An Bord Pleanála five years after his damning report on Corrib. The good people in Shell had ‘requested’ that Mr Moore be excluded from the assessment of a new planning application for amendments to its gas terminal at Bellanaboy.

There were a few desultory protests from An Bord Pleanála but Shell ultimately got its way. Who needs ‘light touch’ regulation when you’ve got a multi-billion euro corporation to do the real regulation for you?

The Celtic Tiger banking bubble was founded on the spurious and utterly preposterous notion that economic collapses don’t happen in Ireland. Bertie Ahern freely admitted in a recent television documentary that the bankers told him “everything would be fine” and he took them at their word.

And that is precisely the issue that has been at the heart of Corrib for the past decade. Gas pipelines shouldn’t explode in the same way that banks shouldn’t implode. But just because these things haven’t happened in the past doesn’t mean they won’t happen in the future. Which is precisely why normal, responsible democracies have regulatory systems that protect citizens rather than citadels.

Lorna Siggins has produced a landmark book that exposes the appalling lack of regulation in Ireland. She has done the State some service and one hopes that those in power will learn from the failures of governance and regulation highlighted in this book.

Any Irish person who cares about their country and its future should read Once Upon A Time In The West. And by the time you have turned the last page you really will want to lock Bertie Ahern in a cupboard…beside a gas pipeline, of course.

Once Upon A Time In The West, published by Transworld Ireland, is available in all local bookshops. Lorna Siggins will speak at the John Healy Festival in Charlestown on Sunday night next.