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Community campaigner reflects on Corrib controversy

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Pictured at the launch of their book, ‘Our Story’ at Christmas in 2006, were the Rossport Five, from left: Brendan Philbin, Willie Corduff, Vincent McGrath, Philip McGrath and Micheal Ó Seighin.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Pictured at the launch of their book, ‘Our Story’ at Christmas in 2006, were the Rossport Five, from left: Brendan Philbin, Willie Corduff, Vincent McGrath, Philip McGrath and Micheal Ó Seighin. ?Pic: Peter Wilcock

Community campaigner reflects on Corrib controversy


Retired teacher, Micheál Ó Seighin was reluctantly forced into the public spotlight when he was jailed in 2005 over flouting an injunction facilitating Shell’s development of the Corrib Gas project. Here he speaks exclusively to Áine Ryan as the gas is about to come on-stream.

AR
It is almost 20 years since the Corrib Field was discovered in 1996. Can you bring us back to those early years and how you became involved in the debacle?
MOS I know now, as the rig workers did at the time, that the gas field to be called Corrib was well worth developing and would make money. My first introduction to it was an article by Mike Cunningham in the Western People in 1998 pointing out the potential for County Mayo in this new source of development a potential never to be realised.  At that stage Broadhaven Bay or its environs or other areas of European designation did not figure in the proposed development and I saw no significance in the moves by Coillte in the summer of 1999 to get legal title to its lands at Ballinaboy, the project’s refinery site. Nor, in 2000, was I aware of the flood of minor legislation passing through the Dáil to facilitate this project specifically.
In the early summer of 2000 and then in early autumn the ‘suits’ crowded into the area with models and scenarios and promising ‘goodies and pie in the sky’, buying pints etc. The Catholic Bishop of Kilalla and our local parish priest were charging around like harbingers of the Day of (good) Judgement; obviously we would never see a poor day again; but I personally was very aware of the limited short-time benefit accruing to any community from the extraction of raw materials. Still I was not concerned as I expected a project like that of Kinsale gas but my attitude changed when the [original] developer (Enterprise Oil) applied for planning permission in November 2000 and I saw what they intended to do to us, effectively to launch a heavy metals assault on us from land sea and air. That is how and why I became involved in objecting for the first time in my life.

AR Then, almost ten years later, you were jailed along with four other local men and the phenomenon known as the Rossport Five was born. What was your main emotion on the day you were incarcerated?
MOS The day I was jailed was just another in a continuum. I was sorry of course for our people who now had another responsibility dumped on them but my main response was how to navigate the immediate future. In matters of conflict I am, I am afraid, rather a cold fish. Hurling imparts a discipline that says ‘wait’. The phenomenon of the Rossport 5 should have warned the establishment –  even in Celtic Tiger days –  that there is a limit to the patience of the public with the abuse of power. To me it was (to be emotional for once) wonderful to see so much anger at injustice and so little fear of the instruments of the establishment. The extent to which the organs of the establishment went to try to choke off the phenomenon of the Rossport 5 is yet to be told.

AR Some commentators would argue that you won many battles for the community of Erris and did the State some service in improving the regulatory system. Is that your view now as Corrib gas is about to come on-stream in the coming months?
MOS It is little comfort for the local community that we have made substantial gains from our fight: the gains are for others, the losses are for us to live with for the next 50 years. It is not likely that the Dáil will publicly debase itself so abjectly again by such rapid changes in law and regulation at the behest of a commercial developer. However, the public at large has suffered one major loss as  a result of our success in fighting battles: since the nineties there has been pressure on successive Rialtais to introduce a fundamental change to the planning laws that would allow a dangerous project such as a chemical plant or gas refinery to go ahead if the developer could show mathematically that the risk was ‘acceptable’. Were such a law in  place An Bord Pleanála could not have turned down Corrib twice as it did. Eamon Ryan, the Green Minister, changed the law to make it acceptable to the oil and gas industry. Ag Dia fhéin atá fhios (God only knows) when the obscenity of this change will strike home.

AR The fundamental ethos for big corporations like Shell is to make money. But should the relevant local authority become their facilitator? Did Mayo County Council engage with the community in a fair way from the outset?
MOS I have no issue with Shell: I expect a dog to bark and bite, it is its function. On the other hand the local authority has an obligation to the community which it made no effort to fulfil. We would be much better off dealing with Shell et alia on their own without the obstruction of the local authority.

AR If you could have a face-to-face meeting with Mayo TD and Taoiseach Enda Kenny now, what would you say to him about his attitude to the protesting community over the last decade?
MOS  Enda Kenny had not stood in this parish (Kilcommon)  since his initial election 1974 until we were jailed. Were I to meet him I would say nothing to him as his attitude to this community in their struggle is beneath contempt.

AR The Corrib controversy caused huge division in Erris. Do you think the Community Investment Fund has helped heal this splintering of  this community?
MOS The Community Investment Fund is an irrelevance not a healer: money heals nothing – easy got, easy go. People who go for it never get enough: those who give it out, believe they got too much. Most of it is spent outside this parish although that is not implied in the Bord Pleanála decision making it a condition of Shell getting planning permission. Although the fund was established on the order of An Bord Pleanála Shell,in co-operation with the local authority and other beneficiaries, have used considerable ingenuity to get across the message that this is a goodwill contribution by the developer. It is not.

AR The anti-austerity marches and jailing of some protestors must cause a certain sense of  déjà vu for you. In light of your experience,  is the media’s reportage of these protests fair?
MOS The media can only report fairly on what its reporters have not a vested interest. The hatred – actual hatred – shown to Paul Murphy, his community’s representative, by major media figures illustrates clearly how impossible it is for a cushioned unleavened ‘elite’ to get over its fear of a risen people. Never has class hatred been so clearly expressed as it is at the moment and not by the ‘proletariat’. On the other hand, it is tempting to deal with protests as one homogenous lump but the anti-austerity world is one of many colours and also one fraught with individuals representative of themselves only as well as those with a community brief.

AR How does Erris move on now, as the project is completed?   
MOS Erris, like rural Ireland in general, is losing population, losing life, coming nearer to a great wild park. This parish lost 14 percent population from 1996 to 2011 while Mayo gained 18 percent: but then the tiger was chained even for Mayo. The only relevance of the ‘project’ going forward is how much or how little it will impact on the health of my people. For me and us this has always been an issue of health –  for the cheerleaders of the project it is a matter of money. There is no halfway between these two realities. I notice that the departing CEO of Shell pays tribute to the top class technology used on this project but the facts are different.  We always demanded BAT (Best Available Technology), instead  we got BATNEEC (Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Costs), in other words the cheapest we can get away with. Moving on I notice that Shell now declare that 150  high paying jobs will be left in Ballinaboy: initially 25 jobs were declared as the final package but then we revolted and now it’s 175. I wonder how many of them are for security?