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International awareness can bolster Rossport campaign

THE sorry tale of five ordinary men imprisoned for standing up for themselves is now snaring international attention.
As Deputy Jerry Cowley led a deputation of independent politicians to the gates of the Norwegian embassy on Tuesday last, to question Statoil’s part in the Corrib Gas controversy, a South African man was arriving at the front door of Cloverhill Prison to meet with Willie Corduff, one-fifth of the Rossport quintet.
Bobby Peek (pictured above), from South Durban, is a director of non-profit group, GroundWork, which seeks to improve the quality of life of disadvantaged groups and communities throughout southern Africa and further afield.
Founded in 1999 by Peek and seven others, GroundWork works on air quality issues, toxic chemical concerns, and medical and industrial waste issues. The group offers assistance to citizen and community groups and provides the public with background information on environmental and public health matters.
“We try and harness experiences and build solidarity to resist the environmental injustices of the oil industry,” Bobby Peek explained to The Mayo News.
His interest – for want of a better term – in this area is grounded in the Shell oil refinery located ‘over the fence’ from his childhood home in South Durban. For 30 years he has grown up under the Shell shadow. Even at the height of international sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s, Shell persisted with its Durban depot and business as usual.
Since the turn of the century Shell’s Durban, South African joint venture refinery, SAPREF has recorded sulphur dioxide emissions, tetra ethyl lead leaks from rusty storage tanks, and oil spills, with five families leaving their homes after high levels of benzene were detected in 2001.
In recent years, Peek’s attention has stretched to similar causes in Nigeria, Russia, Brazil, the US, Shetland Islands and the Philippines. The group holds a single share in the Shell empire, a wily investment which enables members to protest at the corporation’s annual general meeting. At last June’s gathering in The Hague they made the acquaintance of Maura Harrington. Last Tuesday, Bobby Peek made the acquaintance of Willie Corduff.
“William was very emotional and I took a deep sense of emotion out with me, and also a deep call for support from Africa and South Africa,” Peek reflected on their 25-minute meeting.
“How does one bring an international perspective to this to make sure that the guys inside are continually supported? What needs to happen is to make sure that their heads are up high always because it’s going to be a tough struggle. They have to see that there is support out there for them, and so far so good.”
He first encountered Liam Corduff – Willie’s 18-year-old son – working on family land a couple of days earlier, and it is this enduring bond with the land that most struck Peek when Shell to Sea campaigner, Maura Harrington, took him on a tour of north Mayo.
“It’s seeing people who have lived very hard for many centuries, who want to live in that area, who survive off the land, people who are happy to be there,” he mused. “The land itself is untouched by big fossil fuel development, by big industrial development, and Shell wants to literally invade both the social dynamics of a very strong, historical community and also try to force itself onto the natural environment.”
If he is struck by the love affair between the people and its land, Peek is alarmed by how the Irish Government seems to have failed its people. During his fortnight sojourn – ostensibly to visit relations working in Ireland – he has observed a political groundswell not entirely behind the government’s position.
“I think it is an important stand that they [Rossport Five] have taken because they are clearly questioning the democratic principles of Ireland, of a democratic State. They are saying ‘we vote you into power, you are our politicians, and we want you to protect us’. The Government is not protecting them now and they are not backing down. They are saying, as free citizens, they will stick by their convictions. I think that is a very important statement to be made against the corporate State.
“If there’s one party in all of this that can bring resolution to this very rapidly, it’s the Irish Government. They can decide if Shell go ahead or not, they have the power, they are supposed to be a democratically elected government. At that level I believe this process is not in vain.”
However, the need for the development of an international awareness of the campaign to release the Rossport Five was also to the fore in Peek’s mind as he returned to South Africa on Thursday last.
“It is [about] getting the attention of people all over the world, not only in Ireland. I think that is going to be critical, to be able to ensure that the international aspects of this campaign are geared up and that the Irish Government feels the pressure.”

Posted Date: 
15 September 2005 - 7:25pm