"You cannot buy safety and happiness"
Five men from the village of Rossport, Co.Mayo, were jailed when they refused to stop resisting workers from Shell who had been awarded a Compulsory Acquisition Order to put a high-pressure gas pipeline through their land. They became national heros of a fast-growing campaign to defy the multi-nationals and their government backers and make them build their gas refinery at sea. This was the Shell to Sea campaign and this book tells the story of 'The Rossport 5' in their own words.
Last summer five men from the village of Rossport in a scenic and unspoilt corner of Erris, County Mayo chose to defy a court injunction and go to jail for an indefinite period rather than give way to what they perceived as the bullying tactics of multinationals supported by the government. Shell / Statoil / Marathon partnership want to install a refinery and high-pressure gas pipeline 9 km inland to process gas from the Corrib field in the Atlantic ocean. The concerns of the community about health and safety had not been satisfactorily addressed. A campaign was formed to get Shell to build their refinery at sea – the ‘Shell to Sea’ campaign. The men spent 94 days in Cloverhill prison before Shell decided to drop the injunction. Meanwhile, support for the campaign had grown nationally and internationally, Shell work sites were picketed and the Corrib Gas project was brought to a halt. It is now partly restarted as work continues on the refinery site and Shell are proposing alternative routes for the pipeline. The Shell to Sea campaign is strongly resisting and insists that the project should be done at sea.
Dr Mark Garavan, a lecturer at Galway University, has taken up the cause of the Rossport 5 and in this book he has put together a series of recent interviews with the men and their families which tell their story in their own words This is a rich and moving human story told in plain language of a community who lived a simple, tough and happy way of life suddenly being disrupted by the forces of big business. The passion and emotion expressed is clear and undisguised.
In his introduction, Dr Garavan explains that the book is about their direct experiences at the hands of Shell and the Irish State. It describes the personal feelings of a community who did what they did because they felt they had no choice because their way of life and the future safety and well-being of their families was at stake. He says that the resistance of the north Mayo people was not simply defensive and reactive – it was also an assertion of autonomy, participation and democratic rights. Also at stake, he claims, is the integrity of Irish administration, the power and responsibilities of global corporations, environmental well-being and the rights of citizens to dissent and protect themselves from threat.
Willie and Mary Corduff talk about ‘the love of the land and the love of the place’. They describe a tough life of peat-cutting (for fuel), seaweed gathering (for fertiliser and food) and fishing – a time when there used to be no money around, but people helped each other. It was self-sufficiency and a truly sustainable community. They describe first hearing of the gas from the priest announcing from the altar that poverty was finished ! Next came a man telling them where test holes would be dug on their land. People were talking about getting money for nothing. Meetings were held but too many questions went unanswered and people began to get suspicious – in Erris, you never got anything for nothing. People began to do their own research and were shocked to discover the true magnitude of the proposed project and the possible dangers. Another big shock came when the government gave Shell the right to compulsory acquisition of their land. They claim that they were never properly consulted and they felt betrayed by their own government. They chose to resist and Shell brought an injunction which took the five to court and thence to jail charged with contempt. It would be 94 days before Shell dropped the injunction and the men were released.
The story includes vivid descriptions of life in prison – the initial fear – had they done the right thing and would their families cope ? – followed by strong resolve as support grew, including unexpected support from other prisoners and prison officers. Wives tell about the stress and strain of having to travel across the country on visits and non-stop telephone calls helping the campaign and picketing the work sites whilst trying to keep a family and home together. They drew strength from messages of support saying things like “thankyou for standing up for us and protecting our future” and from visitors coming from all around the country to give practical help.
Micheál O’Seighin says that health was a major concern from when they first heard about a gas refinery – long before they learned about the high-pressure pipeline. He could not accept so-called expert assurances because they failed to take account of obvious things such as the direction of the tidal tow in the bay which was inward, not outward as the ‘experts’ assumed. Politicians were distrusted – one claimed when asked if he had read the Environmental Impact Statement, “Oh, I’ve read the important bits” ! This became a standing joke in the community – ‘nothing to worry about – he’s read the important bits !’ Micheál’s wife Caitlin says : “This is not the country I thought it was. It’s an awful shock and a shattering experience.” Micheál asks : “What kind of Ireland do we want ?” He believes that the context of the issue is the important thing – what the future will be like rather than what is a convenient way to make money quickly. The questions certainly go much deeper than any pipeline and give us all pause for thought.
Philip and Maureen McGrath describe the unique quality of peace and quiet in Erris. They say that their first question on hearing about the project six years ago was regarding safety – that they got no answer then and have not had any satisfactory answer since. Jobs were promised, court action threatened and compensation offered, but this was not about jobs or money to them and they felt it necessary to stand firm for safety and the environment – even if it meant going to prison.
Vincent McGrath says that they were never against development as the media have tried to make out. It was a matter of it being done right. He thinks that people are no longer allowed personal responsibility for their lives and we are now expected to live under the rules of Big Brother. He says that going to jail was an act of faith in the Irish people which he feels was vindicated by the growth in support as people learned the facts. He said to the judge that he had no option other than to resist the injunction because the safety of his family was being left in the hands of Shell and that was not good enough. The law might have to prevail, but where was justice ?
Those interested in facts and figures will appreciate Brendan Philbin’s account and his comparison of this project to the far more satisfactory one in Kinsale in the 1970’s. He points out that the proposal is for an unprecedented high-pressure raw gas ‘production’ pipeline through unstable peat-bog, accompanied by a waste pipe taking mercury and other toxic substances into the bay where whales and dolphins swim and local fishermen try to make a living. There was also the discovery that the gas had already been given away by a corrupt politician and the people of Ireland would gain no benefit other than use of the gas when bought at market value from the multi-nationals involved.
One thing is clear – these people were never criminals in any normal sense of the word. Ireland and 175 other countries signed up to Agenda 21 at the Rio Summit in 1992 and made a commitment to work towards sustainable communities and a clean, healthy environment. Ireland seems to be having trouble honouring that commitment and, in many ways, is falling behind other countries. All the signs point to more gas or oil being found off the west coast and other communities may well have to face up to the same issues as the people of north Mayo. Other communities are involved in struggles and currently facing up to similar issues. Perhaps this book can help us understand and resolve them. How can our natural resources be harvested without damage to communities and environment, but with benefit to the nation ? This is the big question for us all and it makes this book essential reading for caring people throughout Ireland and throughout the world.