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The West's awake: The Battle of Rossport

The West's awake: The Battle of Rossport
By Rory Hearne
This is a story of heroes and legend. A ballad has already been written. This is a titanic battle of David versus Goliath proportions. Five residents ofRossport, Co Mayo, Micheál Ó Seighín, Brendan Philbin,Willie Corduff, Philip McGrath, Vincent McGrath andtheir families and neighbours have fearlessly taken onthe corporate giant Shell. On 29th June the five menwere sent to jail for opposing Shell's attempts to laya high pressure gas pipeline within 70 metres of theirhomes. They have been in Cloverhill prison in Dublinnow for over four weeks. Since then the people ofIreland have rallied to support the men. Thousands ofpeople marched in Mayo and Dublin. Shell and Statoilgarages have been picketed, blockaded and boycotted.So what the hell is going on? Why are five decentordinary men in prison for committing no crime otherthan standing for up for the rights of their familiesand villages? We tried to talk to the men themselvesbut in this great 'free' country of ours the press isnot allowed in to the prison to interview them. Isuppose if that was the case maybe the men's side ofthe story might actually be heard?

The West's awake: The Battle of Rossport
Maire McGrath is the daughter of Vincent McGrath, oneof the jailed 'Rossport Five'. She is 21 and is goinginto her final year law in UCD. She had just visitedher dad in prison before talking to me and explainedhow the guys felt. ''They are in good form. I was inwith them today and they said that even if it tookuntil October they will stick it out. The five of themare very determined. Maire got up at half three thismorning and then took the 5 hour journey to Dublin tovisit her dad in prison but she gets animated whentalking of the whole saga. '' Our house is closest tothe pipe line. Its less than seventy metres from thepipe. Its just too dangerous to have run by the house.Noel Dempsey (Minister for Communicatons, Marine andNatural Resources said that a safety zone of at least500 metres is to be established around the sub-seapipes to protect the fish but its ok to put the piperight beside houses?
My Dad took an interest in the proposed gas refineryfor Ballanaboy. He realised how dangerous and howcorrupt the whole thing was with the planning. He thenfound that others thought the exact same. They triedto get in contact with government officials but theyall say it falls out of their remit. No governmentagency is taking responsibility for all of this, theyjust want to hand responsibility to shell. Its unfairand very unjust. Its kinda crazy when you think aboutit-because we didn't elect Shell -we elected thegovernment to look after us. The government is justbowing to the multinationals and Ireland gettingnothing out of it. The gas should be making money forthe people of this country instead of Shell.However, despite this Maire is upbeat about thesupport the five have received, ''Huge support frompeople around the country. Its really kept the guysmorales up inside. They have received huge amounts ofletters. We have received letters in our house fromall over Ireland-Kerry, the north and the south east.Its been fantastic.
I also talked to Brid Ni Seighín a Teacher in Rossportand daughter of Micheál Ó Seighín. She talked of theimpact on the men and the families and the supportthat has emerged for them. ''The weeks in jail havebeen very difficult for them. The men are used to thefreedom of living in the countryside and to being outin the open. It's been very difficult for the familiestoo. We haven't been able to get on with our lives.The wives and children are looking after the farmsnow.But we feel very encouraged because at last people arebeginning to understand what the issue is all about.There has been great support from the neighbours andlocals helping out with the turf and the hay.Before now many farmers had signed the land over.People in Erris thought the project would bring inemployment. But people were misinformed and no one inthe area was told how dangerous the pipeline would be.It was only when we researched it we realised it wasnot just an ordinary gas line. Since the jailingthings turned around. People thought 'If the five arewilling to go to jail, there must be something wrong''.
Shell E&P (involving Shell, Statoil and Marathon) wasgiven the rights by the government to explore theCorrib gas field off the coast of Mayo. They plan tolay a high-pressure pipeline linking an off shoreterminal in the Corrib gas field to a refinery atBellanaboy 9km inland. The gas in the Shell pipelinewill be raw untreated gas because it is comingstraight in from the well. Such an on shore pipelinehas no precedent anywhere in Ireland or indeed inEurope.Normally gas is processed at sea but by processing thegas onshore Shell will save millions in capital andoperating costs.In 2004 twenty one people died in a gas pipelineexplosion in Belgium and in August 2002 twelve peopledied in New Mexico when an underground natural gaspipeline ruptured.Both Maire and Brid said that a key motivation of thefive jailed men was the health and safety of theirfamilies. According to Brid ''The proposed pipelinewill bring gas from out in the sea to the refinery.The pipe comes to land less than 70m from houses inthe village of Rossport. The route passes only 70meters from where I live! The pipeline will becarrying unrefined 'raw' gas raw at very highpressures. This type has never been brought on landbefore. There has been numerous examples of peoplekilled. Shell oil don't intend to make pipelinesexplode but it happens. The men so worried because thehouses are so near. If anything happens we will haveno chance.''
So how did it come to pass that a private company canget people put in jail for refusing to allow thatcompany access to their land? I thought that right wasrestricted to the state through Compulsory PurchaseOrders (CPO). But Brid informed me that ''theGovernment introduced legislation in 2002 to allow aprivate company take out CPOs. Its never been usedbefore now. Also there was no planning process for thepipeline. It is exempt from the normal planningprocess and only needs consent from the Department ofCommunicatons, Marine and Natural Resources.''
The Rossport Five claim that Shell doesn't have theofficial permission (referred to as 'consents') tostart work on the pipeline. I would tend to believethem before this current government that lies overeverything and protects corrupt gardai, racistpoliticians and multinationals profits before therights of ordinary people. The five say that thereforeit was illegal for Shell to enter their lands. Maireexplains how the locals tried to stop Shell and howthis highly principled opposition led them to be inprison.
Shell and their workers tried a few times to getaccess to the land but we would stop them and say thatthey didn't have the proper consent (legal consent todo preparatory work). Each time they would trydifferent fields and we call each other and say ''getto that field, Shell are back again''. One day I was athome on me own and I saw all the shell people tryingto get into field , there was around ten of them. Theyhad two gardai with them. I went out and only Philipand his wife Maureen were there standing on their ownat the entrance to the field. The ten Shell guys weretrying to intimidate them saying, ''are you aware thatthere is an injunction against you''. Philip respondedthat he was aware but he ''still couldn't let them inbecause they didn't have the consent and theinjunction was wrong. The pipeline was too dangerousto let through the land''. He said he ''didn't mind ifthey used the injunction'', they could arrest himanyway. His ''life was not worth living there if thepipe was there''. Then the Shell people went and triedto get into another field but by that time we had gotback up. We live in the middle of no where and ittakes ages to get people together! We went through the same ordeal a few times. When Shell got sick of goingaway that's when they got the injunction even thoughthey still didnt have the right consents.Each time they got the gardai to take the names ofwhoever was in the fields. The gardai had a fair listof names after a while. Shell must have gone throughthe names and decided to pick out for an injunctionwhoever they saw as the most threatening to theirinterests. They must have picked out the five peoplewho they felt were coming out the most strongly-thepeople shell thought it would be to their advantageto get rid of. They thought if they get them out ofthe way then they could get on with the pipeline.Micheál Ó Seighín only had his name taken once but myname was taken a few times. But because he has done alot of research and testified against them at the oralhearing for planning permission they see him as athreat and must have got him jailed with the others.So the five had to appear in court and they refused toobey the injunction and were put in jail then forcontempt of court.So did they expect to go to jail I asked.I think they naively thought if they went to court andput all issues before the judge he would see how wrongit was but the judge refused to listen to the issues.That shows up how the state and judges operate. Thejudge was more interested in the fact that they hadbroken the injunction than the reason why it wasbroken.I wonder what she thinks of her dad's actions, being alaw student they are breaking the law. But as shepointed out it's a law for the powerful and rich, ''Thefive are taking the law into their own hands becausethe law is not protecting them. They don't have achoice, they have to protect themselves. Dad is aninspiration. I am very proud of him, that he isputting himself through this for us.The Nigerian government hanged nine environmentalactivists in 1995 for speaking out against Shell'sintimidation and destruction of their lands. Maireasked a hard question about this. ''There are parallelswith Shell in Nigeria,'' she said. ''Nigeria used theseverest sentence in their law (hanging) against thosewho opposed shell there. Our govt has used itsstrongest form of punishment-jailing- against myfather and the others who have opposed shell here.Would they have been hanged if that was our severestform of punishment?
A question that arises from all this is who benefitsfrom Ireland's natural resources? Bertie Ahern in 1992introduced new measures that meant oil and gasexploration companies pay a mere 25% tax. This is thelowest in the world. Tax on oil profits in Norway is78%! Shell will have 100% control over whatever gas isdiscovered and pay no royalties. Jerry Cowley,Independent TD for Mayo has been supporting theRossport Five from the start said ''We should ensurelike Norway has done where it is the people benefitingfrom exploration of natural resources. Here ourgovernment has written it off. The politicians arecowing to the corporations. Fine Gael and others arekeeping in with the corporate sector. But they cantserve two masters. It has to be the people or thecorporations. I serve the people's interests first. Itis a lie that shell were given permission to build thepipe. It is the parasites shell who should be in jail.The guys were only defending their rights. The men areheroes. This will be resolved by the pipe going out tosea and in no other way.
I Finish by asking her for her final thoughts andwhere the campaign goes from here?The country is run in the interests of the profit ofmultinationals not the ordinary people. Politicianshave ignored us. Enda Kenny is not doing his job asthe opposition, as the next Taoiseach. He should beforcing the government to act but he's just doingnothing. FG don't stand for anything now and theLabour Party are gone soft. We have to keep thepressure up and the campaign going. Its not going toend until Shell goes off shore.
I was never really following anything politicallybefore. I was just trying to get through my course,now Ive seen how people have come from all overIreland to support us even though they don't know us.Now they have supported us, I will be enthused tosupport others. So I encourage everyone to getinformed, find out about the issues and get active.

Posted Date: 
21 August 2006 - 1:08am