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Report from Trip to Norway

Mayo in Norway - Photos to follow (apologies for delay...)Shell, Statoil, Marathon Oil, Justice Finnegan, the justice system, sections of the state media, Bertie, Frank, Noel, Enda and the majority of politicians have up to now abandoned the Rossport Five and the Irish people. Three months (that's a full season, a quarter of a year!) have passed without any effort at finding the root cause of the problem by those with the means to do so. Appeals have been made, issues outlined, answers sought, all to no avail.The people on the ground, however, have shown a way forward. Protests and pickets at Statoil stations and the Norwegian embassy have highlighted the responsibilities of Norway. As majority shareholders in the state oil company the people of Norway own a quarter of the Corrib gas field. They will benefit from our lack of ownership of what was once Irish gas; they have a role to play.It was decided to make a direct appeal to the Norwegian people, broadly accepted as a liberal and decent society, who have greatly benefited from sensible management of their own environment and natural resources. A self-financed delegation to travel to Norway was agreed between the families of the imprisoned men, consisting of Caitlin Seighin (wife of Micheal), Chris Philbin (son of Brendan), John Monaghan (son-in-law of Micheal), Anthony Irwin (Erris native and environmentalist) and Dr. Jerry Cowley (Mayo Independent TD) and his wife Teresa (as acting photographer).Norway was in the middle of a general election, so it was agreed to make arrangements after the results were in, and contact could be made with (thankfully English-speaking) union representatives, Norwegian media, and incoming parliamentarians. A red-green alliance were victorious, a sign of possible alliance with the people of Mayo! Numerous phone calls and emails were exchanged and meetings arranged, and the trip was on. Travelling cross country and flying out of Dublin airport Monday evening (19/09/05), four hours later the delegation were in a surprisingly mild Oslo, the capital of Norway, and ready for a good night's sleep.Tuesday morning (20/09/05) saw the first meeting over coffee in the Grand Hotel, with the Norwegian union NOPEF's first deputy leader, Frode Alfheim. Representing 19,000 North Sea workers he showed an intent interest in the plight of the Erris people, agreeing that the proposed engineering solution would cause most people great concern, and promised to raise the issue directly with Statoil. Another meeting was pencilled in for lunchtime the next day.Tore Nordtun was next, former mayor of Europe's oil and gas capital, Stavanger, and incoming governmental Labour Party member with many years experience dealing with energy matters. The friendly meeting took place in the elegant Storting Building (Norwegian Parliament) in the centre of Oslo. The details of the Irish Government's involvement were discussed, and the differences between the two country's legal systems highlighted. Mr Nordtun was impressed with the importance of the situation, and promised to raise the matter at a parliamentary level, and would also talk directly to Statoil to seek resolution.An informal tour of the Storting Building itself followed the discussion, and media obligations met at the front gates, where Mr Nordtun informed Irish and Norwegian television and press that what was happening to the people of Mayo would never occur in Norway; just as we suspected.Over a quick lunch in the centre of town, where seafood was the order of the day, the case of the Rossport Five was detailed to Terje Nustad, OFS representative of around 2,000 Statoil and Shell offshore energy workers. Already familiar with most of the issues, Terje told of unsuccessful efforts to secure us a slot at the so-called energy ''leaders meeting'' taking place a short distance away that afternoon ... in about ten minutes time!An impromptu visit outside the meeting venue gave us an opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the big guns in Norwegian energy. Gunnar Berge, former finance minister, parliamentary leader and member of the Storting for over a quarter of a century politely listened to a brief appeal, and received information from the fellowship about the Corrib gas project. Other suits received the same treatment, all in front of the Norwegian television and newspaper crews, but the best was saved for outgoing Oil & Energy Minister Thorhild Widvey. Smiling for the cameras, she experienced a ten minute handshake from Dr Cowley and a lecture on the disgrace visited on the Irish people in the name of Norway!Back across the centre of Oslo saw a second trip through the security of the Storting, to meet with Hallgeir Langeland, Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committee on Energy and the Environment, and Storting member for the SV Socialist Left Party. Showing a good knowledge of the plight of the Rossport Five, he had already raised questions in the house about the jailing of the men, and wanted to know how he could help. The delegation was assured that our presence was causing a stir in Norway, and the message of lifting the injunction would be passed on to those responsible. Mr Langeland also left a personal message for Statoil's Public Affairs Manager, to be delivered at the arranged meeting for the following morning.After the whirlwind of the previous few hours, a stroll down to the Harbour in Oslo gave everyone a chance to relax a while and take in the sea air. Coffee overlooking the moored boats took the slight chill out of the air, as the only spell of light rain passed over the city.Back into town, past the Nobel Peace Centre and Municipal Museum, and the Mayo crew had a sit-down meal in the sophisticated orchestral accompanied surroundings of the Theatrecafe. Following a quick drink in ''Paddy's Irish Bar'' where postcards were written and stamped, it was time to head back to the B&B. The taxi driver, on learning who we were, insisted on stopping the meter and taking a moonlit tour around Oslo, and told of the great support for the Irish people trying to stand up for their rights. A short post-mortem on the day's events and plans for the next day preceded some very welcome shut-eye.After encouraging words of support from Norwegians who had witnessed the visit on television the night before, Wednesday morning (21/09/05) was reserved for Statoil, their involvement being the reason for our presence in Norway; Shell had wanted to meet but were refused, the delegation taking the same stance abroad as at home. Statoil's Oslo HQ at number 8 Sorkedalsveien was backed by one of their own petrol stations, and the top of the glass fronted building was where things got more serious.There to greet us were Public Affairs Manager Kai Nielsen and Senior vice president Helge Hatlestad, in charge of International Development & Production and specifically dealing with the Corrib project on behalf of the company. Statoil's position as a lesser partner in the enterprise was outlined by Mr Hatlestad, who informed those present of their role as technical advisor and financial investor, the main responsibilities resting on the shoulders of Shell.The delegation then proceeded to fill in the gaps that were apparent in Statoil's knowledge of events. Mr Nielsen received his message from Hallgeir Langeland, ''Get this solved'', and the facts were also delivered. The state oil company, for instance, did not know that the upstream pipeline had bypassed the planning process; that the Rossport Five were jailed at the behest of their partners Shell and not the Irish government; that dialogue with some residents began with High Court injunctions; that unstable bogland was to house the proposed pipeline; that consents for work on private land were never shown to the landowners, and that consent to construct the onshore section still did not exist; that three kilometres of pipe, according to Shell, ''came like that'' (in one piece); that Statoil stations across Ireland were being picketed and boycotted; and so on.Mr Hatlestad's demeanor, second in command in Statoil, visibly softened during the meeting, and he took technical points, moral implications, legal arguments, and the human side of events with good grace. He maintained that in principle he believed the proposed design was sound, but also admitted that bogland was an unusual terrain in which to construct heavy pipelines, and that if anyone came to do work at his home without proper authorisation, as was done in Rossport, their entry would also be refused.Shell's responsibilities to their partners were pointed out to the men, and the fact that the local authority, the Irish people and the Irish government were being deceived and misled by Shell E&P Ireland, as were Statoil themselves. They did not appear to be happy about this. A direct appeal was made to Statoil to help put pressure on their partners to lift the injunction; no work was proceeding, and no work would ever proceed while the five men were in jail simply for asking questions. They were also pressed strongly on the fact that Statoil had a responsibility to act, as themselves and the Norwegian people were being brought into disrepute by this grossly mismanaged project.All were agreed that open dialogue was the only way forward, and had been sorely lacking in proceedings to date. The meeting ended in a friendly manner and all descended in the glass elevator overlooking Oslo to face the media once more. TG4, TV2, the Irish Examiner and photographers were there to get
a handle on the proceedings, and were told of the need to move things forward as a matter of urgency; the current situation was helping no-one.Unfortunately the second meeting with NOPEF's Frode Alfheim had to be cancelled, as all get-togethers over the two days had run over time. A quick trip back to our digs and the taxi ride to the airport saw the group leave Norway with mission accomplished, leaving a long line of slightly bewildered but well-informed Vikings in our wake!Light-hearted moments helped keep the spirits high. On the trip out of Dublin we all got bumped up to business class with fancy meals, drinks and extra leg and elbow room; all except Juno McEnroe, the Examiner reporter who's well over six-feet-tall. We were told how Helge Lund, the boss of Statoil, had received a phone call from his mother giving out to him about the treatment of the Irish people, after seeing Caitlín Seighin appealing on Norwegian television. The Statoil worker having a cigarette break outside the offices, when asked what he actually did for the company seemed to temporarily forget that he was on planet Earth, and eventually struggled out that he did not know what he did; we told him the same thing applied to the boys upstairs.All in all it was felt to be a very successful trip, and meaningful contact was made with those who can help make a difference. Special thanks have to be given to all those who helped organise things, including Lars Haltbrekken (President, Norges Naturvernforbund); Eddie Whyte (Fagforbundet); Frode Alfheim (NOPEF); Kalle Hessvetvedt (SVP); Bjarte Trettenes (TV2); Ulf Rosenberg (Stavanger Aftenblad); Juno McEnroe (Examiner); the intrepid TG4 crew, and particularly Franc Myles (Dublin Shell-to-sea), Terje Nustad (OFS) and Michael O'Donnell (Mary Lou McDonald's office) in Brussels. An extra special mention must be given to our Norwegian hosts, who were at all times courteous and understanding of our plight.An abiding memory, and the consistent reaction from all those connected with the Nordic country, was this - what is happening in Ireland would not be allowed to happen in Norway! The fellowship of Anthony, Caitlín, Chris, Jerry, John and Teresa made it back in one piece, and will always look on the journey as a mission on behalf of the Irish people, who have inspired us all to be better. We will continue to seek justice.John MonaghanRossport SouthBallinaCounty MayoIreland26/09/2005

Posted Date: 
29 September 2005 - 4:58pm