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Stalemate turns to siege

Sunday, October 29, 2006 - By Nicola CookeIt is 7.20am, and the biting cold hasn’t deterred 100 or so protesters from gathering one kilometre from the Bellanaboy gas terminal in Mayo.In the darkness, the fluorescent jackets of the gardai are visible ahead. It is day 23 of the morning protests for a small Mayo ‘‘community under siege’’, according to their homemade signs. A short time later, the group starts to move.A soft tune emanates from a wooden flute, as the group hoist their Shell to Sea signs high above their heads. The gardai flank the protesters - mainly locals - herding them onto one side of the road to make way for the convoy of workers.Headlights appear in the dark, causing shouts of ‘‘scabs’’, ‘‘spongers’’ and ‘‘shame on you’’. Gardai gathering evidence record the jeering on cameras as the cavalcade of cars, jeeps and garda vans make their way along the road. The locals are not impressed.Before the protesters reach the gates of the terminal, gardai direct them to make their way back. Most acquiesce, but a small group press on, and a scuffle breaks out. ‘‘Arrest me, sure why don’t you arrest me!” shouts one angry protester who wants to continue on.This is now a familiar scene in the small rural community in Erris, north Mayo. The recent start-up of operations by Shell - which is building an inshore terminal on 400 acres to refine one trillion cubic feet of natural gas found 80 kilometres off the Mayo coast - has triggered the latest protests.While the main focus of most media and many politicians has been on the protests, a complex and layered history lies behind them. At their core is a company attempting to carry out a business, and a group of residents with health and safety concerns.In recent weeks, however, sinister developments have emerged. Senior gardai at nearby Belmullet garda station told The Sunday Business Post that threatening calls had been made to officers at the station, and to individual gardaý´ on their home phones.These are now under investigation and gardai believe that ‘‘it is not just ordinary civilians’’ who are making the intimidating calls. Some are described as having republican ‘‘overtones’’.While a force of 170 gardai was initially drafted in to deal with sporadic sit-down protests, this has now be whittled down to about 70 officers.The gardai are all rostered on duty, but every morning an inspector and a number of officers evaluate the size and mood of the protesters to assess how many gardai will be drafted in.‘‘We don’t want to over-police it,” said one senior garda.‘‘But we are often caught between a rock and a hard place.“We don’t want to be seen to be heavy-handed. The situation with Shell is nothing to do with us - but the public roads, and access to them, is. Everyone has the right to protest peacefully, but barricading or blocking public roads or entrances will not be tolerated.”Two files detailing minor assaults on gardai have been forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions.There is a wide divergence of opinion on the Shell project - and the protests against it - among the Belmullet business community.In a random survey of businesses on the town’s main street, the only consensus was an unwillingness to go on the record with comments, for fear of being identified as belonging to either camp.One shop manager said: ‘‘Well, I’m neutral because I have to be. I have a business to run.‘‘But the current situation is the government’s fault, as far as I’m concerned. They are the ones who gave it [the Corrib gas field] away for nothing in the first place.”One shop assistant said: ‘‘I think the tide is turning in favour of the protesters - just from what I hear people saying.“The more that gets out about it, the more you wonder about it.”A number of business owners refused to comment under any circumstances. Pat Coman, secretary of the Belmullet Chamber of Commerce and a developer who did work for Shell on the initial stages of the project, said the community was too small to be divided over the issue.‘‘This is a black spot [for employment].“The chamber has always been in favour of the gas project, if all the proper planning conditions are adhered to. It has brought, and would bring, investment and hundreds more necessary jobs into the community.‘‘I believe everyone should have a mutual respect for another person’s views, but for everyone’s sake I think the two sides need to sit down and talk.“I think this can move forward, and it will be a boost to the economy in the area if it does,” Coman said.It is unclear how long the protests at Bellanaboy will continue, but the Shell to Sea campaigners are determined to have their voice heard. While there appears to be a stalemate between both sides, they both insist they want to sit down and thrash out the issues.Mark Garvan, a Shell to Sea spokesman, said the campaigners had many legitimate concerns about the Corrib gas project, but had always been ‘‘for it’’.‘‘There are issues like cold venting [releasing gas which contains methane or hydrocarbons into the air] and the release of treated water from the site into Broadhaven Bay, that people are not happy about,” he said.‘‘We believe this project needs to be reconfigured and we want Shell to look at it again. To what level - and how - can be decided if discussions take place. It is obvious that dialogue is the only way this is going to move forward, but we won’t commit ourselves to this until we know Shell are genuine about a complete review of the whole project.”The campaigners believe that an offshore terminal in shallow waters would pose less risk to the surrounding area and the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers.Shell has a different opinion - it has commissioned an independent survey, which it claims showed that 70 per cent of people in Mayo and Erris support the project.Given a choice between leaving the gas untouched or processing it onshore at Bellanaboy, two out of three people opted for the latter, according to the survey.A spokeswoman for Shell said the company had always been willing to talk to concerned locals, and had agreed to implement all of the recommendations in the report of the government-appointed mediator, Peter Cassells. These included rerouting the initial proposed pipeline.But why the fuss about a gas field which is two-thirds the size of the Kinsale field in Cork, and has a field life expectancy of 15 years? Is it worth all this effort - and opposition - for Shell?Observers believe that Shell is quietly confident of finding one or more additional gas fields off the west coast of Ireland.If it does discover another field, its contents could also be processed at Bellanaboy, making it a worthy investment in the long run.However, the firm has suffered some damaging public relations at the hands of the Shell to Sea campaign, including media coverage abroad, particularly with the jailing of the Rossport Five. They were jailed for refusing to undertake not to interfere with the pipeline.If there is major resistance from landowners to a newly-routed pipeline, then Shell will have some explaining to do, according to one source, who has been employed by the oil firm.‘‘They are losing money at the moment, having to pay retention fees to developers when work is not ongoing, and hiring a sizeable security staff.‘‘The Corrib Gas field is only about 2 per cent of their assets, so you could have shareholders asking: ‘What is this Mickey Mouse outfit in Ireland that is losing money and generating so much bad press for us?’‘‘Considering Shell has invested so much in its image as a leading gas and oil explorer, there may be a lot of questions raised about further continuing controversies with Corrib,” the source said.The long road to BellanaboyOctober 1996: The Corrib gas field is discovered 80 kilometres off the Mayo coast and 3,500 metres below sea level.October 2000: Bord Gais outlines plans to build a pipeline from north Mayo to Craughwell in Galway on behalf of the Corrib joint venture partners, Enterprise, Statoil and Marathon.November 2000: Enterprise Energy Ireland (EEI) applies for planning permission for an onshore gas terminal at Bellanaboy in north Mayo.August 2001: Mayo County Council grants planning permission for the onshore terminal with conditions. The decision is appealed to An Bord Pleanala by residents and environmental groups.November 2001: Frank Fahey, then minister for the marine and natural resources, issues a petroleum lease for Corrib gas field, the first new lease in 30 years.February 2002: An Bord Pleanala opens its oral hearing on the appeal against planning permission for the onshore terminal.April 2002: Fahey publishes a Marine Licence Vetting Committee report, which approved granting a foreshore lease to the Corrib project, with conditions.The licence is granted the following month.June 2002: An Bord Pleanala requests further information on the onshore terminal application from EEI, which is now owned by Shell, and raises concerns about health and safety.November 2002: An Bord Pleanala holds a second oral hearing into the terminal application.April 2003: An Bord Pleanala overturns Mayo
County Council’s decision to grant planning permission for the gas terminal.December 2003: a new revised planning application is submitted by EEI, now known as Shell E&P Ireland.April 2004: Mayo County Council grants planning permission subject to 75 conditions.Objectors appeal the decision to An Bord Pleanala.October 2004: Shell is granted planning permission by An Bord Pleanala for the Bellanaboy gas terminal.April 2005: the High Court grants Shell the right to access private land for the installation of the pipeline.June 2005: five Rossport men are jailed for refusing to obey a High Court order not to interfere with the construction of the Corrib gas pipeline.July 2005: Noel Dempsey, the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, orders a safety review of the pipeline.Shell has to dismantle three kilometres of pipeline in north Mayo.September 30, 2005: Shell drops its temporary injunction and the Rossport Five are released.October 31, 2005: Dempsey appoints Peter Cassells, a former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, to mediate between Shell and Rossport/Erris residents.July 28, 2006: the Cassells report is published and finds that the majority of Rossport residents are in favour of gas project.A new route for the onshore pipeline is recommended and accepted by Shell. No face-to-face dialogue between the objectors and Shell took place during the mediation process.October 3, 2006: Shell resumes work at the Bellanaboy terminal. Morning protests, often involving clashes between objectors and gardai, have taken place since.

Posted Date: 
26 October 2006 - 8:05pm