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Mayo land war of 2005 stirs up some unpleasant ghosts of old

In John B. Keane’s play “The Field,” Bull McCabe cannot comprehend how the owner of the land he has leased, loved and tilled for years could sell it out from under him. So what would the old Bull have thought if he had owned the land, and the government forcibly took it from him and gave it to a private company? Such is the real-life scenario being faced by the Rossport Five and a number of other farming families in Erris.Ireland’s disdain for its citizens is the real story regarding the Corrib gas pipeline. Shell spokesman Gerry Costello’s reply to my previous article focused narrowly on whether odorization is required for a pipeline of this nature in Europe, but did not refute the major point – that Ireland does not have an open public process for encouraging citizen input on the routing of natural gas pipelines or a uniform set of safety requirements for such projects. Shell’s conduct is not the central issue here – most large for-profit companies will do only what it is required of them because their obligation is to their shareholder-owners. Rather, the sobering reality which the Rossport Five have exposed is that present-day Ireland apparently has no more respect for its citizens and their land than the imperialist regimes which stole Irish lands from Irish people for centuries. I recently had the opportunity to visit the site of Shell’s proposed Corrib gas pipeline and talk with some of the landowners. While Willie Corduff remains in Cloverhill Prison like a common criminal, his wife Mary and their children struggle to maintain the family farm while wondering whether their husband and father will be freed, or whether she may join him there. The determination of the Corduffs, Brid McGarry, and others I met in far north-west Mayo shows through despite the emotional turmoil to which the Irish government is subjecting them. The juxtapositions of the situation in Erris are stunning. First, there is the striking beauty of the place, so rudely interrupted now by the beginning marks of construction work. To get to the project site, one passes miles of windswept, pristine boglands, surrounded by Blacksod Bay and the Mullett Peninsula on the West and the Nephin Mountain range to the East. To the North lies the vast Atlantic Ocean where the gas field was discovered, while to the South is Achill Island, once home and inspiration to Heinrich Böll and Paul Henry. After passing through miles of this breathtaking countryside, the narrow roads suddenly announce a new and unwelcome presence – rows and rows of small rocks lining the roadways, their incongruous piles irregularly interrupted by gap-toothed scatterings where they failed to serve their purpose of containing the oversized construction vehicles on country roads that were never intended to hold such tonnage. Next the mean signs begin to assault the natural order, the jarring red and white and yellow signs warning people not to trespass, not to come any closer, not to interfere with such important work, implicitly warning not to even think such dangerous thoughts. There are not just a few, but scores of loud warning signs posted on every conceivable patch of the Shell staging compound along the pipeline route, signs screaming at anyone and everyone who dares look, so many signs that they substantially block out the ability to see through a chain-link fence. They are hopelessly, gruesomely out of place in such an environment, and overbearing in the extreme for their multitude. Their great offense is further exacerbated by Shell’s abrupt unilateral relocation of a public right-of-way to the river so their in-your-face signs could be posted where the old right-of-way was located.Then there is the enigma of various tents and teepees scattered along the route by protesters not associated with the Rossport Five, but apparently intent on opposing Big Oil wherever the opportunity presents itself. The campers are a peaceful, quiet lot, but their presence imposes another awkward visual intrusion on the surrounding landscape.Finally there is the ultimate juxtaposition of the opposing sides. The heartbeat of the landowners’ movement is the small trailer which serves as their base camp and humble headquarters. Perched by the entrance to Shell’s refinery site, at first impression the vigil seems a hopeless, almost pitiable effort. The multinational giant’s refinery site, with its looming gated entrance, bristles with grim-faced gardai pacing in the cold rain while waving off any would-be visitors. Yet, inside the little makeshift trailer is a buoyant, close-knit community of people sipping tea, sharing sandwiches, and singing Irish ballads when the mood strikes. The camaraderie is infectious, and is continuously enlivened by new arrivals and passing vehicles honking their support. Mary Corduff is an energetic, optimistic mother of two daughters and a son, with a deep reserve of faith, commitment and underlying strength. She gazes uncertainly on her family’s beautiful well-kept farm and on their future, while expressing exasperation at the ignorance of those who declaim on her condition and motives without knowing one thing about her condition or motives.Numerous politicians have routinely taken turns shedding crocodile tears, proclaiming that everyone’s number one priority is getting the men out of prison. Mary Corduff has a message for them – her family’s number one priority is living in safety in their homes. Mary is willing to join her husband in prison before relinquishing that basic human right. She is a strong woman, but the possibility of imprisonment, and losing all they have worked for, is frightening beyond her ability to adequately describe.Brid McGarry, another landowner who was not thrown in jail only because she is a woman, moved back to County Mayo from Dublin several years ago to take care of her aging mother. She too did not bargain on her government trampling on her land, her rights, and her life. Like Mary Corduff, she is resolutely determined to go to prison before seeing her Mother’s land and way of life destroyed by a government which has lost its way.The police-state tactics used on the Rossport Five should send shudders through all decent people and particularly Irish landowners. The farmers were told that Shell had authorization to destroy their land, but they were not allowed to see the order. Next, they were hauled before a court which is further from West Mayo than the English courts were from Ireland. Then they were held in contempt and imprisoned – in Dublin, six hours of hard travel from their families. Finally, they have been subjected to the ongoing humiliation of being brought back before the same Judge who incarcerated them to be told repeatedly that they are going to stay in prison indefinitely. PRISON!!? In a real democratic society, landowners, farmers, and citizens don’t get thrown in prison for protesting projects on their own land. The journalist Liam Collins in the Sunday Independent has incomprehensibly written that the people of west Mayo prefer to “stay idle and on the dole” and send their children to Dublin. Mr. Collins obviously has never met Mary Corduff, Brid McGarry, or the other hardworking, independent people he so cavalierly marginalizes. Prior to my trip to Rossport, I attended the Parnell Summer School in County Wicklow, whose theme this year was “Fixing the Boundaries: Ireland from the Margins.”A topic of one of the sessions was the attempted marginalization of people who do not fit neatly into categories dictated by self-appointed Defenders of the Realm. Donncha O’Connell, Dean of the Faculty of Law at NUI, Galway, spoke of the urgent need for the law to protect human rights in a civilized society. The attempt to marginalize the good people of Erris who are suffering, and to deny them their basic rights of life and property, will not succeed because it is based on ignorance, distortions, lies, and false laws.Peter Kissell is a US-based attorney who has has represented public entities in natural gas and electric energy regulatory matters for over thirty years. He is a partner in the law firm of GKRSE in Washington, D.C

Posted Date: 
21 September 2005 - 9:03pm