Skip to main content

Corrib gas will be the wild card in forthcoming elections

The Western People
Corrib gas could be wild card in election battle 3/14/2007 - 12:30:37 PM Daniel Hickey looks at the impact the Corrib gas dispute will have on the forthcoming General Election.
DEMOCRACY is understood to be sacred. It is something dignified, to be treated with respect. And a General Election is supposed to be the absolute expression of it, when the impalpable idea of government by the people becomes the palpable act of exercising a vote. We participate in decisions which directly affect us, in decisions which affect our health, safety, environment and quality of life.
But, according to Dr Mark Garavan, Seanad candidate in this year’s election and spokesman for the Shell to Sea campaign, it is “the refusal to accept that important principle” - local participation - which is at the heart of the seven-year conflict in Erris.
“In my own view,” says Garavan, “it’s a huge issue. Of course, it’s hard to know how huge an issue Corrib will be in the General Election itself, but the issues thrown up by the situation are hugely important, to do with the nature of democracy.
“And for me,” he adds, “that has always been the biggest issue, the right of citizens to participate in decisions affecting them - that’s democracy. Corrib should be designed around community consent.”
Of the eleven declared Mayo candidates for the upcoming election, three have been visibly, actively, supportive of the Rossport 5 and the Shell to Sea campaign - Independent TD Dr Jerry Cowley, Sinn Fein councillor Gerry Murray, and Labour Party candidate, Harry Barrett.
Barrett is from Erris, brought up in Belmullet. It is an area, he says, that has been “neglected”.
“The people were never consulted as to the process of planning the pipeline and refinery. And that hasn’t changed one single iota except in the re-routing of the pipeline. They’ve [Shell] only consulted the people to get what they want. Consultations should start at the beginning and not at the end. Planning permission was given [by Mayo County Council] without negociating local benefit.”
“The opposite of democracy happened at Rossport,” says Jerry Cowley. “The opposite of an election.”
It is an oft-made complaint, one Gerry Murray makes, that a lot of politicians only really consider the electorate every five years; that active, participative democracy fades after the votes are tallied. “But if the government were stakeholders, we would have been able have a say,” says Murray. “It would have been good for democracy. But at the moment, they are only mere spectators.”
The Corrib gas field is controlled by a consortium, including Shell (45%), the Norwegian state company Statoil (36.5%) and Marathon (18.5%), and is worth up to •8 billion, according to sources in the oil and gas industry.
And, according to the Centre for Public Inquiry, the Corrib and associated fields in the Slyne/Erris basin off the north west coast are estimated to be worth up to •50 billion.
Opponents of the onshore refinery, say the Norwegian tax-payer (through Statoil) benefits more directly from the gas find than the Irish public.
By way of contrast, in 1973, when the oil company Mobil discovered the Statfjord oil field off the coast of Norway, it was required, by Norwegian law, to bring in Statoil, the state-owned oil and gas company, as a 50% partner in the development of the field. The deal started the process of training the Statoil workforce, who took on-the-job training, and it secured the transfer of knowledge from the oil corporations, and the development of indigenous Norwegian industry.
And in 1975, the Norwegian government was taking up to 90% of the oil profits.
“That’s the kind of model we ought to have but we don’t have,” says Dr Garavan. “If people realise what they could have, then it could be an election issue.”
Harry Barrett believes that, come election day, people will keep Bellanaboy in mind. He says: “It will be on the minds of people who see how resources like that could have transformed the area.”
Like Barrett, Dr Jerry Cowley TD believes it will be, and should be, an issue. “It has major implications for the county,” he says.
“Any politician worth their salt should make it an election issue, especially from the opposition,” says Mary Corduff, spokesperson for Shell to Sea.
In 1975, the Fine Gael/Labour coalition in Ireland paid attention to the Norwegian developments, and Minister for Industry and Commerce, Justin Keating, introduced the Ireland Exclusive Offshore Licensing Terms for oil and gas exploration, ushering in three principles regarding State revenue and participation based on the Norwegian model which meant the State, acting for the people as owners of the resources, should be paid for this resource; that companies engaging in offshore development on the Irish Continental Shelf should be subject to Irish taxation; and that, since the resources are public property, the State must have the right to participate in their exploitation.
In the years since, those three principles have been dismantled. Successive Irish governments have relaxed taxation and licensing terms to make them more favourable to firms involved in petrochemical exploration. The terms mean that Ireland grants leases without taking royalty payments or a stake in projects - as is done in some other countries - and imposes a tax rate of 25% on profits, against which companies can write off the huge cost of exploration, meaning that in practice their tax liabilities should be much lower.
In 1987, Dick Spring, then leader of the Labour Party, called the move “an act of economic treason”.
Petrochemical companies like Shell and the Irish government say that these conditions are needed to encourage oil and gas exploration in Ireland.
And Dara Calleary, Fianna Fail candidate in North Mayo, says that Noel Dempsey, Minister for the Communications, Marine and Natural Resorces, has undertaken a review of those licensing terms. He says the 1992 licensing terms were given when there was no drilling off the west coast. “If they weren’t given, Corrib might not have been found at all.”
“People would like to see our own government manage our resources as well as the Norwegian government manages theirs,” says Gerry Murray. “On the doorsteps, people feel that natural resources have been given away for nothing.”
“As I talk to people,” says Garavan, “this is an issue for them, they do think people have been treated shabbily, but how that will translate into votes is hard to know.
“It’s up to people like me to make it an issue,” he adds, referring to his Seanad candidacy.
And if the site at Bellanaboy does become an election issue, will the current FF/PD government suffer?
Jerry Cowley believes they should, “if you think about the billions of euro that are at stake.”
“I know there are people who feel aggrieved with the government,” says Dara Calleary. “But we need to get it ashore, in a manner that allows the local community to benefit.”
Though a member of the opposition, Michael Ring TD feels that Fine Gael has suffered more criticism than the government as regards Rossport. Ring says he supported the people of Bellanaboy when there was little news about it. Along with Eamon Ryan of the Green Party, he “kicked up at the time that there was going to be no benefit to the people of Mayo.”
“The terminal shouldn’t be where it is,” he says, “but it’s there now.” And although he says he what is happening at Bellanaboy is “a scandal”, and that he “can’t but support the people there”, he says he now supports “the law of the land.”
Mary Corduff says she read in a newspaper that Ring - who performed strongly in the polls in Erris in 2002 - is prepared to give up Erris this time round in the division of the constituency between candidates. Corduff says she’d phrase it differently: “I’d phrase it that ‘Erris has given him up’,” she says, adding, “Any politician should suffer at the polls if they don’t highlight Corrib.”
But Michael Ring says he has no intention of giving up Erris to anybody. “Erris is my area,” he says. “I have served there for 13 years. I’ll stand on my record in Erris. I’ve been there every single month. And there is to be a special meeting of the Fine Gael organisation in Erris to say they want me there.”
Harry Barrett says he wonders how the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael candidates can canvass in North Mayo “after ignoring the people there.”
And what of Barrett, and Murray and Cowley? Will they benefit from the controversy?
Mary Corduff firmly believes that Cowley and Murray will benefit from it, while Gerry Murray states that Sinn Fein’s stance is “a principled one, not in the business of chasing public opinion.”
“It’s not about votes,” he says. “It’s about what’s right and wrong. We’ll remain steadfast that, ideally, we should have complete ownership of our natural resources.”
But some argue that this happens every five years; that, in a rural area, in the run-up to a General Election, a local issue becomes a centrifugal point to which politicians, the media and the electorate return, again and again and again, until it appears that there is going to be a shift in voting patterns after decades of more or less the same.
But then, on the day of the count, the same patterns emerge. “It will be one or the other,” says Michael Ring. “Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, probably in coalition with someone.”
Yet, is Corrib only a local issue? True, the protests are mostly local. But it has been argued that the controversy has awakened a national debate, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud. And the main issue in that debate, says Garavan - a belief echoed by Murray, Cowley and Barrett - “is of benefits foregone by the state.”
“Corrib is a fantastic asset with incredible value,” he says. “The problem we have is that the government thinks the interests of oil and gas companies and governments are the same. There is that phrase ‘the rip-off republic’. Well, Corrib is one of the greatest rip-offs. There is something a bit bizzare about it. It’s shameful, the trinkets that pass for benefits.”
The benefits appear to be 50-70 permanent jobs on the refinery site after the construction work is done, and the security of gas supply. The Irish government says the Corrib gas field is expected to provide up to 60% of Ireland’s domestic gas requirements when it is up and running, replacing the Kinsale field which is running out, and says it will provide a welcome indigenous gas supply to Ireland.
Those opposed question the strategic argument, citing statements from Bord Gais which say that supplies from gas interconnectors to the UK are very secure, and that “the possibility of gas supplies to Ireland from these sources being restricted is very remote”.
“The big losers have been the Erris people,” says Harry Barrett. “They’ve had all the conflict but none of the benefits. It will be an election issue especially in North Mayo, when people focus on what could have been, especially in a place where there’s poor roads, poor ESB and broadband networks. What could have been will hit home in Erris. When the terminal is up and running, automated and only 50 jobs, the people will say, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”
It appears that the Corrib Gas controversy and the other election issues - health, education, environment, economy, infrastructure, etc. - are not autonomous, isolated, fenced off from each other. Like the pipelines which run beneath the earth we walk upon, the issues are part of a larger, though often unseen, national grid, a network of issues which interlink, which are not independent but are part of a complex, contradictory - and often conflicting - system of the hopes and fears, the interests of the electorate.
“The whole lot,” says Mary Corduff, “can be interlinked to Corrib. Think of the natural resources that have been given away. We’re crying out for funding for Mayo General Hospital and we handed away our resources.”
“Of course the issues interlink,” says Cowley, who has been vocal about what he sees as the “crisis” in Mayo General Hospital. “It doesn’t make sense that people are giving this away, billions of euros given away. Ray Burke, the whole saga, there could be tribunals down the line about all this.”
Up until Bellanaboy and Rossport became more than just placenames, Erris was a relatively apolitical community, most votes based along the traditional patterns of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
In 2002, Michael Ring got 2,352 votes, Fianna Fail’s Frank Chambers got 1,578, and Cowley got 1,356. It is a community which has been forced into political action. And perhaps the possibility - though slim or even nil according to some - of the dispute opening up what was traditionally a Fianna Fail/Fine Gael area to policies more synonymous with the Greens, Labour and Sinn Fein, is the symbol of a broader, more national, dissatisfaction with the mainstream.
“I think there will be an increase in the anti-establishment vote in the county,” says Gerry Murray. “More people will vote against Fianna Fail and Fine Gael than ever before. There’s a radical constituency opening up right across the country. For the Greens, Sinn Fein and Labour there will be a huge increase at the next election.”
“I think that’s true to an extent,” says Garavan. “People are tired of the old party political game. They want politics that focus on real issues, not on the politicians’ own self-interests. People are disenchanted. They want a society where people are treated with respect. They don’t want any system, be it left or right, to drown out their dignity.
“And Corrib highlights that,” he says, “people being treated without respect and without dignity.”

Posted Date: 
14 March 2007 - 5:48pm