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Walking all over our rights

The Irish Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Few notions generate as much hypocrisy and cant as that of private property. And seldom has the double standard that surrounds it been clearer than in the last week.

Two events related to opposite sides of the country have caused the miasma of hypocrisy to lift for a moment, revealing the way power and vested interests influence the interpretation of what seems to be a basic principle of Irish society. In both cases, farmers are trying to keep people off their land. In one, the farmers in question are being treated as obstructive troglodytes standing in the way of economic progress. Yet in the other, they are the salt of the earth, standing up for their rights.

The first case concerns a major transnational corporation, Shell. It went to the High Court last week seeking orders against five landowners in Rossport, Co Mayo. The farmers in question have been refusing to allow access to their land for the construction of a pipeline as part of the Corrib Gas Field project. The Department of the Marine had made compulsory purchase orders to enable the pipeline to be laid on their lands. The farmers, however, believe that the pipeline will be unsafe, and they also point out that the compulsory purchase orders were granted, not to Shell, but to Enterprise Oil, which was subsequently acquired by Shell.

Shell has a potential fortune on its hands. The Corrib field, which is about 80 km off the Mayo coast, has been around for 237 million years, and belongs, as a natural resource, to the Irish people. But because of an extraordinary deal done by Ray Burke as minister for energy in the 1980s, Shell can exploit this resource without paying a cent in royalties to the State. It will pay tax at a very generous rate (25 per cent) and the State, in turn, has cleared the way for the transfer of this public wealth into private hands. The costs will be borne by the people, and the environment, of north-west Mayo. Having initially had its plans turned down by An Bord Pleanála, Shell was last year given the go-ahead for two huge developments: a terminal at Bellanaboy and a site at Srahmore, where 450,000 cubic centimetres of peat from the terminal site will be dumped.

These developments are happening because they suit Shell. There are other ways to exploit the gas field, such as processing the gas offshore. There is also a good case for simply leaving the field intact as a resource for future generations. Instead, a particularly beautiful and sensitive landscape is to be carved up. The terminal at Bellanaboy is next to natural features that are recognised as being of special importance: the Carrowmore Lake complex and Glenamoy Bog, which have been listed as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) ; and Pollatomish Bog and Broadhaven Bay which are proposed National Heritage Areas. This is also a dangerously unstable landscape, as last winter's dramatic bog slide at Pollatomish has shown. But the maximisation of private profit trumps all these cards, including, ironically, that of the property rights of the Mayo farmers.

Contrast this, then, with the removal by Wicklow County Council last week of 33 public access routes from its draft development plan. They include a number of pathways around Glendalough and even parts of the Wicklow Way, the most popular walking route in Ireland. They have been deleted from the development plan, pending the deliberations of a committee that is looking at the general issue of access in the county, and some of them may eventually be restored. But in removing them, the council has essentially accepted that public access is not a right, but a privilege to be negotiated. Yet the State, which is happy to set aside the rights of landowners for Shell in Mayo, seems to have no interest in recognising any modification of those same rights in Wicklow.

It may be argued that there is a big difference between the Mayo and Wicklow cases, in that the first involves economic development and the second doesn't. But this is a fallacy. Even leaving aside all of the issues of principle, walking routes are a huge national resource. Walking tourism is the biggest engine of growth in what is our largest indigenous industry. Other countries recognise this and put significant public resources into its development. A report in Scotland in 1998 estimated that walking and mountaineering were worth around €500 million to the economy and sustained 13,350 jobs. In Wales, walking is responsible for 3,000 jobs. In England, it generates at least €2 billion in revenue and supports around 200,000 jobs. Ireland has the potential to match these figures, but has instead experienced a decline in walking tourism because a narrow and negative approach to access has scared tourists away.

What, then, is the real difference between the Mayo and Wicklow cases? Why are pipelines good and walkers bad? The answer is obvious enough. Shell can sweep aside both the collective property rights of the Irish people and the individual rights of farmers in Mayo because it is immensely wealthy and immensely powerful. (It made a profit of £9.3 billion sterling last year, or £1 million an hour.) And we are now so mesmerised by corporate power that the State can think of nothing to do about it except fall down and adore it.