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Women of Erris voice concerns about gas giveaway & proposed refinery

The Western People
Erris women give election candidates a good grilling 3/14/2007 - 12:29:51 PM Daniel Hickey was in Belmullet on Thursday night to hear the women of Erris grill some of the election candidates.
The politicians arrived, some of them only just, after travelling along the dirt track from Castlebar to Belmullet that’s called the R312.
They mingled then by the bar: there, at one spot, was Beverley Flynn with Gerry Murray and Dara Calleary, the ex-Fianna Failer with the current-Fianna Failer with the member of the Republican Party.
And look, over there, a coalition of Jerry Cowley, Harry Barrett and Michelle Mulherin - the colours of their suits, the blacks, greys and dark blues blending into the one shade before the show began.
It was Thursday night last. A Questions and Answers session was taking place in the Broadhaven Bay Hotel in Belmullet to celebrate International Women’s Day. Eight questions were chosen from the many that were submitted by the women of Erris and were delivered to the politicians the day before.
Rose Walsh is the project co-ordinator of Iorras le Cheile, Community Development Project, who organized the event. Before handing the microphone over to Helen Mortimer, an NUIG graduate, feminist activist, and chairperson of the night’s proceedings, Rose pointed out the exits, “just in case,” she said, “anyone has to leave in a hurry.” “That doesn’t apply to the top table by the way,” she added.
Helen Mortimer was flanked either side by the Gerrys, or was that the Jerrys; Murray and Cowley, Cowley and Murray. About one hundred or more of the women from Erris turned up to listen to the candidates. “The women want specific answers,” said Rose to the panel. The first question was “If you are elected, what will you do to ensure that the people of Erris have a decent road to Castlebar. What commitment can you give to the major refurbishment of the R312 and what timescale do you envisage?” Michelle Mulherin was the first to answer. “Having been on the council for the last number of years, I have very particular views on it,” she said, “and it’s an issue that has been raised by your local councillors. Without a doubt it’s substandard.”
Harry Barrett agreed and said he felt that the R312 is a monument to the absolute neglect of the Erris area. “It was one of the main reasons I decided to get involved in politics in the first place,” he said. If Barrett gets elected, that road is something he intends to be judged on. Or so he said. “It’s a privilege to be here in this lovely part of the county,” said Jerry Cowley. “However, it’s not such a privilege to be travelling on that road. It is a scandal that such a road exists. I’ve described it as a dirt-track, the worst road in Ireland by far.” Barrett had called the road “a monument”. But when a monument is “a dirt-track”...
“A disgrace,” said Dara Calleary. “There is a fund within the government for what’s called strategic roads. But Mayo County Council submitted the application too late. “I will pursue Dick Roche and whoever follows him,” he added. So does that mean that Calleary, in pursuing whoever follows Dick Roche, will be pursuing himself ? Chasing his own tail through the corridors of the Oireachtas? “E3.75 b has been underspent in BMW region,” said Beverley Flynn. So the BMW gets the worst roads in Ireland. Ironic.
Gerry Murray mentioned the tourist potential of Erris; “the equivalent of the Ring of Kerry,” he said. The Ring of Erris was absent that night. But his colleague, Cllr Mulherin, was there instead.
A woman in the audience stood up and pointed out the pictures of Broadhaven Bay - “or Toxic bay, please God it won’t be,” she said - hanging on the wall behind the politicians, aerial photos of the bay under a blue sky, the surf breaking on the beach. “I’m looking at all these wonderful pictures,” she said. “There is a wealth of beauty around here and it should be tapped into. And if you look at the road to Bellanaboy, there’s no money spared on that. I suggest that Shell processes the gas at sea and the government of this country reclaim their authority, and take 50% of the revenue to plough in to our beautiful west coast.” Applause echoed around the room. Well, moving on (over potholes and wary of the ditches), what, tell us, is at the end of the R312? A hospital in crisis, that’s what’s there. The road to Mayo General is paved not with good intentions. Indeed, it’s hardly paved at all.
“If elected,” the panel was asked, “What do you think you can do to provide a greater range of healthcare services here in Erris to avoid people having to travel?” Dara Calleary said that “an audit should be performed in Castlebar to see which of the services could be provided at local hospitals, including Belmullet. Are there services that can be provided in Belmullet?” he asked, turning the notion of Questions and Answers on its head. “Are there services that can be provided in Belmullet, preventing people from being dragged to Castle-bar?” “There’s no ambulance station in Belmullet,” said Cowley. “The ambulances are on call, so they may well be in Castlebar.” And will have to travel the doomed R312. Cowley overspoke his time limit. The chairperson interrupted and asked him to cease. And he might have been thrown out again if he didn’t do as she said.
Part of that second question wondered about the high rates of cancer in Erris and a woman in the audience said: “With regard to the cancer, I would be concerned if FF or FG get into power that the Corrib refinery will be built and cancer will be very serious in Erris then.” And again, applause rippled and flowed in and amongst the seats. It all seems so simple; a better road, a better hospital. Why, in reality, is it so difficult, so complicated? Why all the regulations? These were questions, it seemed, that shouldn’t had to have been asked.
The third question - already alluded to in the audience responses to the first pair - was: “Do you agree that the Irish government had committed a grave disservice to the women, children and men of Erris by giving away our gas in Corrib to Shell, Sta-toil and Marathon, instead of using our resource wealth to fund a decent health service and pay nurses a fair wage?” The issue round which the others had so far swung.
“Our roads, our health system, even a basic thing like our water quality - money from royalties could have been used for all these things,” said Harry Barrett. Cowley said, “It’s a ridiculous situation where you have a pollutant, something that is a highly refined pollutant, located in a pristine area... The honest to God people of this area are not prepared to put up with a refinery right in the middle of God’s own country.”
God’s own country! Broadheaven Bay! Where the roads are terrible and the health-care woeful. Heaven, it appears, ain’t exactly paradise. “When the real story of Corrib is told,” said Cowley, “people will go to jail, and they should go to jail.”
Michelle Mulherin didn’t appear particularly bothered about getting the applause of the Erris women. Though aware of the feelings of most, she said what she thought. “In this country we have our rule of law,” she said. “And we have a planning permission that’s been granted and we’ve a lot of decisions that’s been made that have the weight of the law behind them “ There was the odd sigh and mutter of discontent from the crowd. “Now of course,” continued Mulherin, “All laws must have the confidence of the people, and I’m well aware of that...” She was interrupted by the chairperson, told to hurry it up. “I believe I’m entitled to answer it with the integrity it deserves,” said the Fine Gael councillor. “You are the people of Erris,” she continued. “I’m somebody living in Mayo... There has to be, apart from the emotive aspects of this, and I understand the emotive aspects of it, but no problems are solved by emotions. Emotions have their part, and they’re part in a whole process of solving something but you have to sit down and talk...” Again Mulherin was told her time was up. “I’m going to stop you there.” “Sorry chairperson... I’ll conclude shortly chairperson... It has to be based on logical debate and argument...”
Allusion being a familiar tactic in debate and argument, Gerry Murray quoted James Joyce who, he said, “once described Ireland as a country where Christ and Caesar were hand in glove. But if he returned today he cound make the observation that commerce and Caesar are hand in glove. The established parties are making huge concessions to the private sector.” Murray evoked horrible, biblical images of things being slaughtered on the altar of free enterprise; not Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac at the behest of God, but the Irish government about to sacrifice a local community at the behest of Shell. But will Shell, like God, step in at the last moment and say, hey Irish Government, we were only testing you, no need for the sacrifice but thanks anyway...
“The people of Rossport aren’t radical revolutionaries,” he concluded. “They aren’t mad eco-warriors.”
Beverely Flynn said she’s hopeful that the licensing arrangements will be renegotiated but then proceeded to talk about nurses and how she’s been very much to the fore in campaigning for them, the question sidestepped and used to blow her own bugle.
Calleary said that “Ireland is spending same amount of money on a per head basis as Norway in terms of health so we are matching Norway on health so we’re not short of money on the health service...”
A woman in the audience wasn’t having any of it. “Where’s it goin?” she said. It was then that Maura Harrington - leading Shell to Sea activist, and one of the more prominent Erris women of the last couple of years - stood up. “The idea of Broadhaven Bay, Glengad, being torn apart,” she said, “which is a place of divine beauty, has been and, for so long as many of us are here, will remain so, for the sake of a few dollars more profit for Shell, when a report states precisely that they do not spend their profits to clean up the mess which they have created for the past one hundred years. One hundred years of Shell in Erris? No thank you.” Applause again swirled round the room, resounding off the walls and ceiling, and off the pictures of Broadhaven Bay on the wall behind the candidates.
Another woman was about to have a drink of water there that night but changed her mind because she now drinks only from the well in Pollathomas. “I know we have aluminium in our water,” she said. “We have checked our water, and we’ve found aluminium leaking from Bellanaboy, and it’s serious, it’s serious for all of us...” Dara Calleary, at that moment, accidentally knocked a jug of water over the table. “I hope the water’s OK,” said Beverley Flynn, “cause it’s gone into my phone.” Calleary, pouring cold water over the communication between the Independent and Fianna Fail? Hmm? Probably not.
There were two questions which directly addressed specific women’s issues. “What is your party’s, or your own, policy on violence against women?” asked a member of the audience. “And how do you think, in your capacity as a politician, you can help combat violence against women?”
“It’s a very heinous crime,” said Cowley, “and a crime that very much takes place behind closed doors. It’s something as a GP I’ve seen quite a lot of. There’s a terrible shame attached to it. It’s about financial independence. It’s a case for empowering women, to make sure that they have their own income, a wage, social welfare, whatever. It’s not just physical abuse, it can be verbal and emotional.” “There should be zero tolerance to violence against women,” said Michelle Mulherin. “Women, where they’ve tolerated it for years, somehow it becomes normalised. Domestic violence is a breakdown of communication, of one person being particularly victimised. Women have to be empowered to know that when they do look for help, help will be availible for them.” There was acclamation from the seats but the chairperson, Helen Mortimer, said that she has worked in the area of violence against women for the last thirty years. “Just to be really clear about it,” she said, disputing something Mulherin had said. “Domestic violence is not about breakdown of communication in a marriage.” “I just wondered if any of the parties had an opinion,” asked a woman in the audience, “of what would be done with the evidence that is out there of the violence that is being directed at the women of Erris by the Gardai up at the protests at Bellanaboy?” The applause told how most of the crowd approved the question.
“It’s political, corporate policing,” said Gerry Murray in response. “Summary justice dispensed by gardai. A kind of PR policing. Normal conventional policing procedure is not being adhered to. It’s totally, utterly wrong.”
If the night was to be judged by clapometer, then most on the mind of those in the room were the issues of the proposed refinery, and equality for women.
The final question addressed the latter. “What are you or your party doing to address the under-representation of women in the decision-making process and in Irish politics?” the panel was asked. “And what is your opinion on gender quotas?” “Fianna Fail have put in place an action plan,” said Dara Calleary. “A minimum of one-third of our delegates at conventions will have to be women.” But he doesn’t agree with gender quotas. “They damage the progression of people within public life,” he said.
Beverley Flynn said “the first thing is, is that I’m offering myself for election. If women voted for women there’d be a lot more women in the Dail.” The clapometer’s dial swung upward. “But there’s women here who won’t vote for women.” And the clapometer’s dial dipped.
“Sinn Fein believe in gender quotas,” said Gerry Murray. “Fifty percent of the Ard Comhairle have to be women. It’s a measure of how seriously we’re dealing with the issue of gender imbalance.” “Labour has the highest percentage of female deputies, thirty-three percent,” said Harry Barrett. “Hopefully I’ll get five to ten ladies here to join the Labour Party and we’ll put them up for the next local election.”
“Inequality is not to do with talent,” said Michelle Mulherin. “It’s to do with opportunities. I’d be for quotas.” And that was it, the questions asked for now. Answered? “We’ll be bringing ye back next International Women’s Day to see if ye have kept your promises,” said Rose Walsh, and the politicians and the audience migrated to the bar, to the tea and biscuits, outside into the night for a cigarette and then, into their cars, and onto the R312 for a bumpy drive home.

Posted Date: 
12 March 2007 - 5:51pm