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Interview with the Rossport Five

By Rory Hearne
Rory Hearne is active in The Dublin Shell to Sea Campaign and socialist worker.
Despite fading away from the media glare, the battle of the corporate giants Shell and Statoil (and their partners in the Irish government) against the people of Rossport, Co Mayo, continues unabated. Last week the President of the Highcourt postponed a decision for two weeks on whether the Rossport Five will suffer any further punishment. The ‘Rossport 5’; Philip McGrath, Brendan Philbin, Vincent McGrath, Willie Corduff and Micheál Ó Seighin were incarcerated in clover hill prison for refusing to allow Shell on to their land to construct a pipeline that will bring untreated gas in from sea to n on-land refinery. Large demonstrations around country created considerable public pressure that the government and shell couldn’t ignore. After 94 days the five were released. The men spoke to Rory Hearne about how their lives have been turned upside down by this development, and how they no longer trust the government. Willie Corduff feels very angry over their prison sentence. “We didn’t break the law,” he explains. “Even the prisoners wouldn’t believe us, they used to ask: ‘did ye hit them’. It was hard in there, leaving a home, wife and family behind when they know you had done nothing. Shell and the government don’t care about people.” The high court Judge, Justice Finnegan, acting on behalf of the Government and the Shell/Statoil consortium, condemned the five men to prison for breaking an injunction that Shell placed on the men. The injunction attempted to force the men into allowing Shell on to their land. But the men bravely stood their ground and as a result spent 94 days behind bars: that’s much longer than any corrupt politician has spent in jail – but the Rossport 5 committed no crime, they just bravely stood up against the multinationals and the government. What would happen if the pipeline exploded? The proposed pipe will carry untreated gas at incredibly high pressure and it will run at the foot of a near-by hill where a recent landslide swept away entire bridges. A retired US Navy officer with expertise in explosives told a hearing into the safety of the pipeline that if it were to rupture, the ensuing explosion would kill anyone within a mile radius. The men spoke of their concern for their families, the people they met in prison, and how their fight is also about the use of the resources of Ireland for the people.
“I always voted Fine Gael”, Philip says. “But not any more, Kenny left us down and prison has changed me. We have stood up for the country. This disgrace had to be highlighted. It was being pushed under the carpet because the government didn’t want it coming out. We were put into prison for protecting ourselves, they said we broke the law but we only broke an injunction that shouldn’t have been there. We never done any harm, we were just trying to protect our families and rather than listening to us they put us into prison for 94 days”.
“It was very sad,” Brendan adds. “Society lets those people down. The court fines them and then puts them in prison but where is the sense in that? Where is the justice? Would they not be better off putting them in a hostel to help them rehabilitate than hauling them through prison. Prison is not an answer to their problems.”
Philip agrees: “you’d see all the young fellas, their brains melted by drugs, just tossed out of the way.” Philip adds jokingly that he loved prison, but the worst part of it was: “having to be stuck with Willie (Corduff)”. They all had a good laugh at that.
It is easy to see why the people of Rossport are so angry. The pipeline never went through the normal the planning process and the local Mayo County Council refused to listen to their concerns.
“They just rolled over and anything Shell wanted, they got,” says Willie Corduff. “The people of Rossport are suffering because of Minister Fahey’s decision to allow a multinational to take people’s land, but it could be another community tomorrow.”
Estimates vary as to how much gas Ray Burke gave away when he granted Enterprise Oil (now the Shell/Statoil consortium) the rights to the Corrib gas field off the Mayo coast. Some companies have suggested that as much as 5 to 7 TCF (trillion cubic feet) lies in the Corrib field but Shell says there is only 1 TCF. The gas is important for Shell because they are desperate for gas reserves given the recent scandal where Shell overestimated their oil and gas reserves. They are also looking for secure locations. Ian McCredie, head of Global Security Services at Shell recently warned in The Financial Times: “International terrorism, corruption and local activism are threatening our operations in many countries…the growing risks have forced Royal Dutch Shell to make its own security arrangements in hostile environments”.
The main criminal act in this saga is this give-away of our natural gas resources to private companies, which is particularly disgraceful at a time when people are trying to scrape money together to pay another gas price hike of 25%. The Rossport Five and their families are disgusted at this hand over of resources, when they are so badly needed for the people.
“It’s a shame to think the gas is gone when we are so short for money in health and education,” Willy explains.
“We have let all of this go for nothing but to turn around and then destroy this beautiful area. Why wouldn’t the government take it on themselves? Why not have it for our own country? Why give the benefit to Shell, Statoil or Norway?” For the men, this campaign has brought up much wider concerns than just their immediate campaign. It has gone to the heart of our supposed ‘democracy’.
“The people have been awoken,” says Michael O Sheighin. ”This can’t stop. There hasn’t been such a change in the assets of this country since the plantation and the landlords. It’s a very dangerous time with Harney and Ahern imitating Thatcher and Reagan. We need to change the mindset of government to the satisfaction of need rather than enriching a small oligarchy. We have allowed our democracy to be sidelined by our subservience to parties of the past. We need more activism to create a real democracy.” Caitlin Ni Sheighin, wife of Michael agrees: “I’m horrified about the whole thing. The day Micheal was sent to prison, I was so angry. They were all crying in the court but I did not shed a tear. I was thinking about the wasted money on consultants, the greed. We don’t have a democracy when it’s not our gas anymore. We have given away our assets and will buy them back at market value”. Caitlin also thinks that in the Celtic Tiger it’s one law for the large corporations, and one for the ordinary person.
“People need to stand up,” she says. “We sat for too long and took it on the chin. We are supposed to be the second richest country, well you could fool me when I was out visiting Cloverhill jail seeing the young men and listening to people’s stories at the rallies- how they suffered from planning, over a bit of land, over the hospitals; people must start staying no to our county councils and government.” The men, their families and the Shell to Sea campaign are as determined as ever to continue their campaign to get Shell to refine the gas at sea and for the resources of Ireland to be developed for the people of Ireland. The Rossport Five showed clearly that people power can win.
“We got released because of people power and the pressure on Statoil,” adds Vincent McGrath. “The problem hasn’t gone away. We are all prepared to go back in again.”
Despite talks of compromise and the appointment of a mediator, Shell says that the pipeline will go ahead regardless of opposition. The bias in the courts is incredible. Justice Finnegan’s decision to adjourn the court last week appears to have been taken so he can have more time to create new laws that will give him the power to hand down a very heavy sentence to the five men for breaching Shell’s injunction, yet, at the same time he ruled that Shell did not breach the consents given by the minister (when a lot of the evidence from Mayo suggests otherwise). Speaking after the court the five men said that the Judge seems determined to put them back behind bars. They said they will be given no choice but to go back into jail to try and stop the pipeline. Justice needs to be done not just for the five men of Rossport who had 94 days stolen from them, but for the people of Ireland, the young men condemned to Cloverhill and the old and sick dying on hospital trolleys. The resources exist in this country to adequately fund hospitals and schools - but the government ensures they are starved of funding, through it’s free market policies that prioritise the profit needs of big corporations before the health and needs of people.
The action of people around the country that forced the release of the Rossport Five has shown that this consensus of the powerful can be reversed, if even only momentarily. The hope is that the Rossport Five will inspire many struggles and victories that will reverse the skewed priorities of the Celtic Tiger.
In Bolivia, three years ago the people there won a successful battle to reverse the privatisation of their water. Since then their battle for the nationalisation of the gas resources has forced the resignation of three governments in as many years. Their success has been achieved through the unity of teachers, miners, the poor and trade unions into a movement that mobilises and protests until they win action. Central to their movement is the empowerment of people at the base of society-the taking back of power, control and decision in to the hands of workers, the poor, the youth and the exploited. The lesson from their movement, in my opinion, is that if campaigns like the Shell to Sea campaign are to be successful then they need to extend their support into schools, workplaces, local communities, trade unions, and in particular support and link-up with other campaigns around issues that are concerning people at the grassroots such as the development of public and natural resources, privatisation, fulfilling human need etc. If this unity of campaigns and concerns could happen there would be a greater possibility that, just like in Bolivia, the government (or the ‘opposition’ that replaces them) would be forced to reverse their free market policies. The root cause of our problems is the same - the growing power of corporate globalisation - therefore we all face the same enemy. Unity is strength.
To find out about the Dublin Shell to Sea Campaign ring 087 6181620 or 086 1523542

Posted Date: 
31 October 2005 - 2:21pm