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The battle of the bog

The battle of the bog

MICHAEL TIERNEY The Herald,Scotland
August 08 2005

A damp summer morning in County Mayo on the northwest coast of Ireland, on my way to the farm of Brid McGarry, and there's nothing but skull-and-crossbone signs for miles around. Not exactly the cead mille failte – or hundred thousand welcomes – I'd been expecting. In fact, it's downright eerie. The signs have been painted on placards lining lamp-posts in opposition to the multinational company Shell and its proposed five-mile pipeline under the Sruth Fada Conn bog blanket. The over-land pipeline will carry unrefined gas from the sea through part of McGarry's farm, and the farms of other families, to an onshore refinery. Before we arrive, we stop at the site of the proposed refinery at Bellanaboy for a closer inspection. En route, more clusters of confusing handmade signs – ''Nigeria, three miles'' and ''Shell to Sea'' – and then more skulls and crossbones. Further up the road, a hangman's noose swings from its home-made wooden gallows.The Nigeria sign, it turns out, is a veiled reference to the nearby community of Rossport, whose people have been dubbed the ''Bogoni'' (the land around here is very boggy) after the Ogoni tribe who fought Shell in Nigeria. Confused? One of the locals tries to explain. ''Good mornin','' says Seamus Healy, a gap-toothed old Irishman with hair that must have been combed with a toffee apple. ''Terrible, awful weather.'' Seamus has been turning up every morning for months beside tractors and cars with dogs' nose-prints on the inside of the windows. He sips from a mug of thick tea. How-are-ye's ricochet everywhere. A smiley woman is serving breakfast from a small horse-box covered in anti-Shell posters. Like the rest of the protesters, Seamus takes his turn for a few hours on another fundamentally uneventful day, before swapping over with another local. The men here – ruddy-cheeked farmers who look like they could tow caravans – talk in measured tones about their battle against the pipeline proposals. ''They thought we were stupid and ignorant country folk that they could walk over,'' says Seamus. ''But they've a battle on their hands, right enough.'' He flashes a wicked grin. His face, craggy and lined, looks as if an aerial shot of the bogs of Mayo has been transposed onto it. ''Nothing but corporate thugs riding like billy-oh over the good people here,'' snorts another, in a fiercely friendly voice. Everyone pauses. We bask in the golden light of scones and thumping ham sandwiches. According to the protesters' well-rehearsed arguments, the refinery would have at least 30 million cubic feet of emissions per day. ''A dreadful amount of muck,'' says Seamus, ''spewing out in the middle of what is unspoilt land.'' The emissions, they insist, will not just stay in that area but will move as the air current moves. Bellanaboy is about a mile as the crow flies from Carrowmore Lake, the source of the regional water supply. ''The lake is very shallow,'' says another man, ''and there isn't the depth of water to deal with the emissions.'' The protesters, sitting on a small bench, accuse Shell of trying to bully their village ''like a character in a John Wayne movie''. By the time we get to Brid McGarry's, the weather has lifted. Pathologically smiley and impeccably mannered, she lives with her elderly mother on the farm that has been in their family for generations. ''Since the Spanish Armada was around these parts,'' she says. I don't doubt her. McGarry, with her dark skin and spookily beautiful blue eyes, has the luminous smile of the Black Irish. ''It's unprecedented anywhere,'' she says of the pipeline proposal. ''My mother is distraught over what's happening. But she's a very strong person.''The McGarrys have 100 acres of land, and Shell wants to acquire 20 per cent of it for the £600m pipeline. ''But they'll not get it. They can't just come in here and take what doesn't belong to them.'' Brid will go to prison, she insists, to defend her land. Already five of her neighbours – Willie Corduff, Brendan Philbin, Míchéal O'Suighin and brothers Vincent and Philip McGrath – are in Clover Hill prison in Dublin. They've been there for more than a month, for refusing to obey an injunction forbidding them from obstructing the construction of the pipeline across their land. Brid McGarry lives in the tiny village of Gort a' Chreachaine, next to the village of Rossport. Smelling bewitchingly of peat and bog, it is a beautiful spot that looks like decimalisation has just passed its second or third anniversary. Defined by its past and increasingly unsure of its future, it has just four houses, boasting a formidable ten or so residents. Translated from Irish Gaelic, the name means The Field of the Thief, after a cattle robber buried in the village. ''It's very apt,'' says the 31-year-old farmer. ''Shell are trying to take from us. But we won't let this happen. They can jail me like they've jailed the men around here.'' According to McGarry, a company memo copied to the protesters indicated that a decision was taken not to put a woman in jail, in order to avoid a public-relations backlash. ''If it comes to it I will leave my mother and go to prison because I have no other choice,'' she says.The Battle of the Bog, as it has been dubbed, began in 1996 when a gas find was struck in the Corrib field, 45 miles from the coast of Mayo. At first it seemed like good news for many of the locals, who eke a paltry living from farming and fishing in what is, thanks to the legacy of emigration, one of the most sparsely populated places in the country. The prospect of jobs was broadly welcomed, but slowly the good news gave way to fears over pollution and explosions, culminating in the jailing of the men now known as the Rossport Five.''If Shell are worried about a public-relations disaster,'' one local with a pack-a-day hacking cough says later, ''they'd better turn their attention to the wives of the jailed men. They're as tough as teak.'' He runs tobacco fingers through his anvil-shaped wedge of hair. ''Shell have been caught,'' he says, ''like a weasel in the moonlight.'' The following day, in the busy kitchen of Mary Corduff's farmhouse, a group of women are making breakfast – tea, coffee, toast and sausages you could plough a field with. The women here – mother-of-six Mary, who is Willie's wife; Aggie, Brendan's wife; Maureen McGrath, wife of Vincent; and another Maureen McGrath, the wife of Philip – are busying themselves with the latest reports of the case. Míchéal O'Suighin's wife, Caitlin, is away.Two days earlier, the women embarked on a five-hour bus journey to Dublin to hear the judge in the case return the men to jail after an attempted peace deal failed. At the High Court in Dublin, lawyers for the men applied to have the injunction discharged on the grounds that they could not interfere because Shell had agreed to cease work on the pipeline. Initially the five were jailed at the specific request of the company, which had obtained compulsory purchase orders for the land in question – the first time in Irish history that such an order was granted to a private company. But the judge said he would not hear any application from the men until they ''purged their contempt'' by agreeing to let Shell on to their land after compulsory purchase procedures. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Mary Corduff sets down a large pot of tea and takes a seat. Their gameplan is simple: fundraising, campaigning and long, sonorous prayers at Sunday Mass. Shell, it seems, might be condemned to eternal perdition. Their language is moral and filled with ''the Lord'', ''vexations'' and ''transgressions''. Although they are still bruised by the previous years of campaigning, the imprisonment of their husbands has only strengthened their resolve and galvanised the community. ''Our men are fighting for their families,'' says Mary, ''and the community around here. They don't want financial gain or compensation. They are fighting for the freedom required by all citizens, which is to protect their families and neighbours. They have no contempt for the courts but they believe that human life has a higher value than any High Court injunction.'' In the background a CD blares out a song telling Shell to go to hell. The families want the company to build the gas refinery offshore to remove the need for a pipeline carrying unprocessed gas less than 70 metres from some of their homes. ''They are not opposed to the project itself,'' says Mary. ''But they are opposed to a high-pressure pipeline near their homes.'' She fixes herself another piece of toast. ''You have to be very strong in your beliefs to be willing to go to jail. The men are country men, not used to confined spaces. Willie goes near mad if he has to spend time in big cities. But they're strong people and that will continue. No matter how long it takes.''Liam, the couple's 15-year-old son, ambles in. Handsome, with a fresh, outdoor complexion, the youngster has been doing much of the farm work while his father is in prison. Any notion of a farming age of innocence is illusory. The work is hard and the financial rewards small. ''Sure it's tough,'' he says, beaming, ''but I'm proud of Daddy.'' The kettle boils again. More toast, tea and coffee bring the women to a state of near rapture. They are talking a mile a minute. It's a bit like being lost in the medina of an old Arab city. Mary never thought she'd see the day when she'd be happy with other women writing to her husband of 25 years. The others laugh. The two Maureens will never forgive Shell for taking their husbands away. Aggie still can't believe Brendan was put in prison away from his four children. ''Willie's father, God rest him, died recently,'' says Mary wearily, ''and he's not had time to grieve.'' She looks away. ''By all accounts the other prisoners have been great. They all support the men. They were going to have a sit-down strike for them but the fellas said no because they didn't want the prisoners getting in bother. The guards have been great as well.'' Three of the men are small-scale farmers. The other two – one of them Míchéal O'Suighin, a pensioner who recently underwent a triple-heart-bypass operation – are teachers. ''Míchéal's been teaching English to the prisoners,'' says Aggie. ''The state should be paying him for that.'' At the prison they wear regular prison uniforms and share two cells. O'Suighin has been at the forefront of the protest movement for several years. Like many of the people around here, the men are part of a Gaelic-speaking community which has watched its lands become decimated by poverty and emigration. ''The same people the Irish government has always been vocal about protecting,'' says Aggie. Over the last five years the community of Rossport and the surrounding villages has gained little or no press coverage, and the locals have been left to fight their David and Goliath battle virtually single-handed. While Shell says that the majority of Mayo residents and businesses had supported the pipeline during consultation schemes, Mary Corduff insists that, in this part of Ireland, people will cling to any scheme that might lift them from the spiral of rural poverty. In the beginning some farmers gave up their land for compensation and the community became more divided than united. Even now, some locals – who don't want to be named – say the men should stop their protest and let Shell get on with its plans to bring jobs to the area.There have allegedly been campaigns of intimidation from both sides. ''But despite everything,'' says Aggie, ''gradually the community came together when the five men were jailed, uniting against Shell with huge rallies in support of the men in Mayo and Dublin.'' Garage forecourts were picketed and there were round-the-clock blockades of the refinery construction site. ''We've got people down at the refinery site every day,'' adds one of the Maureens. She's wearing glasses and a blue tracksuit. Unused to questioning, she even shies away from answering how old she is. A vexed Mary quickly warns ''it's not the type of question you ask people round here'' when I ask the others the same. For a moment the room falls silent, as if I'd just thrown a dead fish at them. But what might seem to outsiders like small and insignificant personal details only serve as a reminder that this is a community of people unaccustomed to others shoving their noses in where they don't belong. ''The community spirit was torn apart here by Shell,'' says Mary finally. ''But they don't understand island life. They thought prison would divide us. That was their fatal mistake. They targeted poor, working people who are resilient and know how to fight.'' She smiles. ''They think we've got ping-pong balls for brains.'' The women's support for their husbands, they say, while running their farms or homes, only highlights the hypocrisy of Irish law that holds that property rights are sacred except when vast public resources are being given to powerful corporations. ''They thought we'd be scalded with shame for our men going to prison,'' continues blonde-haired Maureen. ''But we're proud of them.'' Would they consider going to prison themselves? They all nod. ''Of course we would,'' says Mary defiantly. The Rossport Five and their wives all grew up around here, in villages where confrontation is anathema to communities with shared goals – to live quietly, modestly and morally. ''It's been a shock to us all,'' says Aggie, who lives on a small property down the road from Mary. ''We are very traditional people.'' Her house will still be within 70 metres of the proposed pipeline. ''Brendan's mother is there and she's shattered by what's happening. But they're both strong people, not to be cowed. Brendan will stay inside until it's over. This is the health and safety of his children he's defending.'' The telephone rings again. Someone else offering their support for the five men. The postman drops in another bunch of letters. ''From all over Ireland and beyond,'' says Mary. ''And the priests have been offering prayers at Sunday Mass.'' She pauses. ''Willie misses his fiddle-playing something terrible – and, of course, his family. They'll probably be inside until at least October, and maybe Christmas.'' Shell has been granted an interim consent order by Noel Dempsey, Ireland's minister for communications, marine and natural resources, to mark out the route for its pipeline. But the issue is set to be the subject of a High Court case in October. More recently, the Irish government ordered Shell to explain why it appeared to have breached the terms of permission it was given to carry out work on the pipeline. According to reports from the marine department, it has evidence from inspectors that more than a mile of pipeline had already been welded together, contrary to the terms of the contract. Shell admitted there might have been what it termed ''a technical breach'', and expressed regret if this were proved to be the case. According to an article in the Western People, the area's local newspaper, ''the primary reason why Shell is now attempting to build a gas terminal onshore is because it was generously sold a site by Coillte, the state forestry body, at Bellanaboy. If that site had not been available, Shell would have been forced to go offshore. It is that simple.'' The Irish government has ordered a health and safety review of the proposed pipeline. Since the jailing of the five men, the protesters – from children to pensioners – have watched the Rossport Five grow in stature from selfish cranks to lauded local heroes. According to local County Mayo councillor Gerry Coyle, ''not a single sod should have been turned before Shell had the necessary consent, and the company clearly didn't have the most important consent of all – that of the people.'' While the councillor had always supported the proposals in his enthusiasm to embrace jobs, he says: ''I didn't listen enough to the concerns of these ordinary, decent people. No development is worth this kind of division in the community.'' It's a refrain I hear again and again. Some of the local workers on the project downed tools in protest at recent events, and one security guard resigned his post because he didn't agree with men being sent to jail. Work has been brought to a halt, hundreds of workers have been laid off indefinitely, and Shell finds itself mired in a costly public-relations disaster. In the run-up to the G8 summit, there was a demonstration outside the Irish Embassy in Edinburgh. According to Ed Moran, an avuncular local and vocal supporter of the men, normal practice is to refine raw gas close to the gasfield, after which it can be transported for unlimited distances at much reduced pressures. This gas pipeline will also have adjoining pipes carrying hydraulic fluid, cleansing acids and waste. There will also be electric cables. ''This is a high-pressure pipeline,'' says Moran. ''It is untreated – that is odourless, without the added smell for detecting leaks – and will go past houses and through villages and will pass through boggy land with a history of landslides.'' The bog land, he says, is as ''wobbly as blancmange. There's more percentage water in a bog than a pint of milk. The pipes will float to the top.'' Two years ago there was a big landslide, which locals blamed on the construction of a radar station. Thousands of tonnes of mud swept down the hillside, killing sheep and forcing families to flee. Even the dead were not spared, as the landslide spilled through a graveyard. ''The adjacent residents to the proposed pipeline have a right to defend themselves and their families. This community is being used as human guinea pigs and our concerns have been completely disregarded for profit,'' says Moran. The protesters believe Shell has chosen to process
the gas onshore in order to save money. It is estimated that a land refinery would save the company millions, and shave 40 per cent off operating costs for the expected 20-year lifespan of the field.A recent report commissioned by Shell concluded that risks to the public ''would be tolerable when compared with international criteria''. The company has conceded, however, that the report was based on information that was incomplete. Protesters queried the independence of the assessment after it was revealed that the company that conducted it had previously worked for Shell.Mark Carrigy, operations manager of the Corrib project, insists that what is needed is for all the relevant parties involved to get around the table for serious discussions on the future of the project. ''If the men purge their contempt,'' he says, ''we would be happy to have constructive dialogue with them and address their concerns. We want consultation, not confrontation. There is a lot of misinformation involved here. This project is good for Ireland, good for Mayo and good for the people of the area.'' In the past two weeks Shell has laid off around 90 workers involved in the Corrib project.The clouds overhead are as white as bedsheets. The sun is threatening again. Brid McGarry paces like a captain walking the bridge of a ship, staring out ahead. At the end of a dirt track, across a small expanse of water, gas pipes lie like abandoned rugs on the ground. No-one knows the cost of the 400-acre refinery site that was sold to Shell, because both parties refuse to discuss the details of the deal. ''It's always about money,'' McGarry says. In the shed nearby, filled with freshly shorn sheep wool, she sits down on top of an old beer keg and ruminates over the past few years. She talks of her home with heart-warming familiarity; of a land besieged by God, of good neighbours and of Shell. And of road-trip epiphanies on the roads to Dublin.But this woman is no-one's fool. She runs her mother's farm, has a food and chemistry degree from University College Dublin, and speaks with the fluency of a well-briefed company executive. Although the Celtic Tiger continues to purr, and the attendant cultural, political and economic benefits of this modern European state can be felt, she explains that the residents of these communities truly feel like they are being ''railroaded''. But the battle will continue.''Shell say they have all the relevant consent in place,'' she says. ''But they don't have the most important consent of all: that of the people of this area. We've been saying all along that Shell have been breaching the terms of consent. This is not Nigeria, where they can ride roughshod over the people.
''I'm willing to go to jail for this because I believe in what I'm doing. It's not for money, but for principle. Something that a greedy multinational knows nothing about. We have been placed at unprecedented risk. The men were not listened to in the beginning, and now that they are in prison Shell are trying to make conciliatory overtures. We will only stop when they have justice.''
Brid McGarry, with thoughts of prison filling her head, wanders away down the dirt- track road and, like many in the community around here, turns her back to the pipeline. ''There is so much misinformation,'' she says, the purpose in her voice sucked out like the juice from an orange. She shakes her head. Then she smiles. The Battle of the Bog has only just begun.

Posted Date: 
9 August 2005 - 6:35pm