Corrib Controversy: Gas flow not the end of community’s struggle

It is a decade since the Rossport Five went to prison for three months. As the Corrib gas pipeline prepares to carry offshore gas for the first time, Noel Baker visits the area to ask if the long-running saga is coming to an end.

The Rossport Five on the day they were freed from jail on September 30, 2005: Micheál Ó Seighin, James Philbin, Willie Corduff, Vincent McGrath, and Philip McGrath.

Rossport’s pain still raw 10 years on

DURING some of the winter nights, the flames lit the night sky, throwing an orange glow over the surrounding countryside. The Corduffs could see it from their kitchen window.

Willie Corduff likens the accompanying sound to that of a burning stove. “It could go up to God knows what height at first,” he says, “then it burns down, like a candle light.”

One old saying has it that “it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness”, but in this case, Willie and Mary Corduff would disagree. The flaming began in November and ran through into January, marking another milestone for the controversial Corrib Gas project. The 40m-tall stack which shot out the flames is just across Sruwaddacon Bay, opposite the Corduffs’ house and farm shed, as the crow flies. The flaring was part of the testing process for the plant, ahead of first gas coming ashore from the Corrib field.

No exact date has been given but the expectation locally is that sometime between now and September, the Bellanaboy Bridge Gas Terminal will become fully operational. It will be a milestone, but it’s not the end. Listen to the Corduffs and they’ll tell you?it’s not over.

Their house is right at the end of a lane. A few cattle mill around in a small field in front of the house. They keep one to milk daily for the house. Down the road a neighbour has a trailer stuffed full of seaweed, likely to be transported to a factory in Westport. Willie, drinking his tea with a drop of the unpasteurised milk, muses that there is talk of a deal with a Canadian company for west coast seaweed — another piece of local life commodified and parcelled out.“The farming is gone; the fishing is gone,” he says, munching on a biscuit. “It’s the big man for everything now.”

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There are reminders all over the Rossport area of continuing opposition to Shell. Opposite the main gates to the terminal stand nine white crosses, bearing the names of people from other parts of the world where the company is alleged to have a connection to their deaths. To the left is a sign saying “Corrib Gas Project has no community consent” and to the left of that again a sign informs people that “you are entitled to be a citizen but not here”, alongside a drawing of a garda. Across the road is a red bus that has seen better days, bearing anti-Shell slogans. Miles away, down by the pier at Glengad, ‘Shell Out’ graffiti can be seen. An old abandoned bungalow down the road bears the slogan “the struggle goes on”.

While the Shell to Sea camps have not been seen here for the past two summers, and all the signals are that the pipe will go live later this year, it seems the struggle does endure. It’s a quiet, unyielding kind of undertaking, personified by the Rossport Five.

Ten years ago almost to the day, Willie Corduff, Micheal O’Seighin, Philip and Vincent McGrath and James Brendan Philbin spent 94 days in jail for contempt as a result of their defiance of an order not to obstruct work on the Bellanaboy Terminal. It was a case that gripped the nation, propelling the men onto the national and international stage. The saga has brought awards, documentaries, continuing court cases, a report by a United Nations Rapporteur — the Rossport Five have even been the subject of a university thesis. Where has it left them? Here, still in Rossport, on a soft day in May, still anti, still against. 

“None of us were against it like, none of us are against the gas,” Willie says. “It’s the way they done it.

“We were brought into the limelight, not through our own fault, and we didn’t want that.”

Today, it is the Rossport Three: Willie Corduff, Micheál Ó Seighin and Vincent McGrath, the other two absent for the occasion.

Micheál, the eldest of the three, now aged 75, begins by referring to the falling away of his music.

“I realised that really, for the last 15 years, my music is gone,” he says. A native of Limerick, he came to Rossport in 1962, because of a shortage of teachers in the area, through his work with Gael Linn. When he first arrived, there were 23 people living on his road. Now there are two “part-timers” left. “The people aren’t there,” he says. “You had the best audience in Rossport for a song.” According to Willie, “It’s an aged population. The youth are gone.” The stock is getting thinner all the time.

Micheál met the love of his life and stayed, though arriving ‘only’ in 1962 meant that at times in the Corrib furore, he was accused of being a blow-in in some quarters.

With a wry smile, he recalls how he stayed to teach while other folk who came here couldn’t take it. “One fella stayed one night and the next day he stole a bike and headed out,” he says.

They all put the year 2000 as the starting point for everything that followed, but Micheál has the exact date in his head: April 12, 2000, and the parish newsletter, written by the local priest at the time, “Saying that all our troubles were over, that we had been saved at last, gas coming and money. They had no idea.”

According to Willie, an older population will think a priest is God. He remembers being at Mass when the priest mentioned the project. “It was the best thing, he said, since sliced bread.”

By his own admission, Micheál has spent the best part of two decades studying aspects of the law and the minutiae of the international oil and gas business.

Erudite, articulate, occasionally poetic, he becomes animated at times, none more so than when he gets to his feet and does a John Wayne impression — in fact, mimicking a person who appeared for a time in the Rossport story and whose enduring legacy seems to have been a swaggering gait like the Duke. He can tell you that the population density in this area of Mayo is eight people per square kilometre.

“The area is made up of little islands of people surrounded by an ocean of bog,” he says. That population is split in three, he contends: Those who saw the dangers and voiced their opposition; those who considered the issue from a business perspective and supported it; and then “the mass of those who were concerned, but not enough to say anything about it”.

According to Willie: “The community were hungry for jobs, to try to keep the youth, and they didn’t think about the flares or pollution.”

According to Mary Corduff, people trusted those behind the project. “And that trust was manipulated, and destroyed.”

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MAEVE is instructive, polite and conscientious, but she doesn’t do small talk. Then again, Maeve is a hologram.

It’s one of the more futuristic elements of the Bellanaboy Plant: Safety induction delivered by a hologram, projected in front of you and giving a full rundown of all the dos and don’ts on the site. Once she’s done — and it’s not a Princess Leah-style vaporous 3D hologram, rather a stylish mini-cinema projection — Maeve doesn’t just disappear. Instead, she ‘stands’ there, placing one palm into the other, gaze occasionally moving right or left. It’s a hint that you need to move on.

The terminal is a network of glittering steel and prefabs. The setting is now 99% complete, and already some of the temporary structures have been pulled up, including a canteen that stood in one corner of the campus.

According to the Shell spokesman on site, it’s arguable that the whole site is temporary: The expected lifespan of the Bellanaboy Terminal is between 15 and 20 years, after which the plan is to return it to what it was before. If this sounds unlikely, the company has a response primed: Sections of bog that were removed from different areas close to the terminal to lay the pipe were taken to a storage facility outside Bangor, where they have been fed and in some cases, already returned from whence they came.

The staff are a mix of local and international. When the tunnel made landfall in Glengad, the first man through was an Austrian tunneller, carrying a doll of St Barbara, the patron saint of tunnelling. Second through was a local man from Kilcommon. The tunnel machine, painted in Mayo green and red and called Fionnuala, worked 24/7 for a year and a half before finishing the job in May last year.

It has already returned to Germany for a refit and has gone on to the next job, while the tunnel it hollowed out has already been backfilled by concrete. According to the Shell spokesman, everything is much more harmonious now than it used to be. While the exact date for first gas is still uncertain, it’s expected to happen in the coming months, meaning the box-fresh terminal — much of which has actually been ready to go for a few years — will finally swing into action. He compares it to a brand new car bought five years ago, then left in the garage.

And yet problems have persisted. While the Shell spokesman argues that people locally have been “underwhelmed” by the flaring, the company accepts that there was more flaring than initially envisaged.

More worryingly, a section of the smaller pipe which returns the treated waste water used in the cleaning process back into the bay has come loose.

“Part of the pipe came to the surface some weeks ago,” he says. “Remediation work is ongoing to successfully fix that.” While the gas pipe is made of high quality steel, the water pipe is plastic ducting and is supposed to transport the treated waste water 12km out to sea. “It was positioned on the subsea but it would appear that essentially due to inclement weather over the last number of years, part of the rock and boulders that were supporting that pipeline came loose and part of that pipeline came to the surface,” he says. “It’s not something that we would have wanted to happen.”

To say the Corrib project has been beset by problems is a gross understatement. As many as 10 diggers might be covering up the work on the tunnel at Aughoose, opposite the Corduffs’ house, but remedying the controversies of a decade and a half is a tough job.

In 2013 came a fatality. A young German worker, Lars Wagner, was killed while working in the tunnel. The Health and Safety Authority is still investigating, and Lars still features in some of the Corrib literature. The spokesman points him out in a group shot on the back of a full-colour pamphlet entitled ‘The Corrib Gas Tunnel’.

“He was working inside the tunnel; he has working at the front of the machine and essentially it was just a freak accident,” the spokesman says. “There seemed to be a surge in the particular piece of pipe he was working with and it came loose.” It was, he says, a “low point”.

“Suffice to say it was a very sorry affair and we continue to remember his family and friends.”

With billions expended on it and billions more likely to be recouped, it’s arguable that Shell and its partners are finally seeing light at the end of this particular tunnel. The language and tone now is one of corporate humility, of lessons learned. There is a choice quote from a former chairman of the company, Jerome van der Veer: “You can’t communicate yourself out of a situation you have behaved yourself badly into.”

“Shell have been very open, we’ve put our hands up,” says the spokesman. “We want to be a valued contributor to Erris and Ireland and we want to be a good neighbour.” As he sees it, the company had its permits in place once it came on board with the project; it met all its legal requirements; but it did not have the community’s consent.

“Corrib acts as a case study,” he says. “We recognise that with an investment like this comes challenges. We realised that a number of years ago and have been working hard in recent years to rectify it.

“There were various points where I believe from a planning perspective we paused, reflected, engaged; we accepted that feeling was strong, but I think that the company has invested in terms of time, listening to people and saying, the company is very clear: We look back on those days, we have learned from our mistakes. We look forward to bringing gas ashore, we believe it is good for Ireland.”

The terminal has tight security and many interconnecting parts, but the real action is taking place 55 miles off the Irish coastline, where currently there is nothing to see at all at sea level. The drilling rig is already gone, and approximately 3km below the seabed lies an estimated 1 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Discovered in 1996 by Enterprise Oil, the Corrib Gas Partners are now Shell E&P Ireland Ltd, with 45%, Statoil Exploration Ireland Ltd (36.5%) and Vermilion Energy Ireland Ltd (18.5%).

The route of the pipe from seabed to landfall is comparatively simple compared to the tortuous saga that fitted itself to what happens once it comes ashore. The offshore pipeline runs for 83km but after that, it got tricky. From landfall at Glengad in Broadhaven Bay, to the Bellanaboy Gas Terminal, is some 8.3km, with the pipe barrelling through Sruwaddacon Bay before swinging right in an elbow motion past Aughhoose, opposite the Corduffs, and into the terminal itself.

The initial plan was that the tunnel would go underneath the land belonging to the Corduffs, close to the homes of Vincent McGrath and others in the Rossport Five. Only with the resubmitted plans was it moved to its current location under the water.

Shell has its figures at the ready: 1,250 full-time jobs since 2004, with 175 long-term jobs for the lifespan of the plant; more than €1bn spent with 300 Irish contractors; financial support to local sporting and voluntary organisations, sponsorships and internships, road upgrades, and connection of towns in Mayo and Galway to the national gas grid and to a fibre optic cable for broadband. Some estimates put the total expenditure on the project at approximately €3bn. At the end of it all is the pipe bringing the gas, a mere 24 inches in diameter; the one carrying the treated waste water back out is even smaller, just 10in in diameter.

Noting a “media shift” in the story, the spokesman says: “We respect the rights of those people who take a different view to us, we want to be good neighbours. From our perspective there has been a large turnaround.”

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ACCORDING to Micheál Ó Seighin: “I have no problem with Shell. I expect a dog to bark. But we do expect the government and the official agencies to do their jobs.” Mary Corduff agrees: “We have no expectations of anyone [now].”

One of the sadder aspects of the Rossport fall-out was the collapse in relations between members of the local community and members of the gardaí. Of course, many of the protesters at the Corrib Camp were not from the area, but incident followed incident, and trust was broken. On being at the forefront of the Rossport campaign, which attracted so many people from outside, Mary says: “That was hard to adapt to, to get used to, but they came. As far as we were concerned they came with good intentions.”

Her husband adds: “We welcomed them coming, but at the same time we used our instincts as best we could.”

According to Micheál: “We knew they weren’t us.” He argues that it was only when “one of two of our own lunatics led them astray” that some of the campaigners acted in a way that the five would not agree with. According to Willie: “We felt when we started this first that we had nothing to do because [of] the truth that we were putting out there, and we didn’t want violence and we thought ‘the guards will be on our side’. But we learnt different.”

According to a spokesperson for the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), that body received more than 100 complaints arising out of the Corrib scheme. In its various reports it made findings of possible breaches of discipline on 16 occasions, but it is up to the Garda Commissioner of the day to decide whether to apply them. In one case — involving the so-called ‘Rape Tape’, in which gardaí made comments about protesters that were inadvertently recorded — one garda was disciplined. a more recent case from 2013, there was an allegation from partners in a company which claimed that they had supplied alcohol, on behalf of Shell, to garda stations in Co. Mayo in 2005, 2006 and 2007. GSOC found no evidence of the purchase or delivery of alcohol to garda stations, nor of any misconduct of garda members, in a report issued last year. It concluded: “These complaints and allegations have been made public and had the potential to undermine public confidence in the Garda Síochána, as well as affect the reputation of others.” 

In one case — involving the so-called ‘Rape Tape’, in which gardaí made comments about protesters that were inadvertently recorded — one garda was disciplined.

In a more recent case from 2013, there was an allegation from partners in a company which claimed that they had supplied alcohol, on behalf of Shell, to Garda stations in Co Mayo in 2005, 2006, and 2007.

GSOC found no evidence of the purchase or delivery of alcohol to Garda stations, nor of any misconduct of Garda members, in a report issued last year. It concluded: “These complaints and allegations have been made public and had the potential to undermine public confidence in the Garda Síochána, as well as affect the reputation of others.” Shell says it took the allegations, made by a firm called OSSL, “very seriously”, conducting three investigations, both internal and external, and all finding no evidence to support the claims. Yet in some quarters, distrust still burns.

Gardaí in Belmullet declined an interview for this article, and a Garda spokesman said: “There are a number of matters still outstanding in relation to investigations into Corrib/ Rossport. Under these circumstances it would be inappropriate to discuss this further at this stage.”

According to the Department of Justice, the overall costs of the policing operation for the Corrib Gas project from August 2005 to the end of December 2014 was €16.3m.

Vincent McGrath says: “If you said it was €30m, the State would justify it.”

He evokes the notion of “the appalling vista”, stating that after the Rossport Five had gone to jail for 94 days, “nationally and internationally we had public opinion on our side, so the decision was made to criminalise [the protests] at that stage.”

Micheál says just two of his former students who became gardaí came down to the area during the protests, and one of them only stayed for one morning.

Looking back at their time in prison, it seems to have tightened the bond between them. Willie Corduff says: “I felt way safer [in jail] than before that and since — more so since.”

Micheál remembers a jail visit from philanthropist Chuck Feeney. “He said, ‘don’t give in, we’re all behind you’.” Any domestic pressures seem to have been absorbed and dispensed with. “That is the oddest thing about it, I would say,” Micheál argues. “The oddest thing is that there is no disagreement within the families at all. There was absolutely none, Willie’s people, my people, Vincent’s people. There was absolutely none.” He remembers his four children at home before the prison term and him telling them: “‘I will probably be in jail the next time we meet you’ — and they said ‘we know’.”

Alongside the gardaí, the families have choice views on the judiciary, and successive governments.

Micheál believes the seeds for the Corrib controversy were planted back in 1992 in a section of a Finance Bill. They mention the use of statutory instruments, and query GSOC’s role. Only recently the time limit on complaints — the gap between the alleged incident and when the complaint is made — has been doubled to a year. Might that time limit have made a difference regarding some of the allegations made over the course of the past decade and more? Who knows.

At one point Micheál tells a story and finishes up claiming: “This sounds so paranoid. We have had to examine ourselves again and again. That is not the kind of people we are. But this is what we are coming across, again and again.”

Right from the beginning, they say it was about health and safety. Not gas, not the right of a gas company to bring it ashore, not the right of the Government to permit that to happen — it was about health and safety in a small, rural, aging community, a knot of people in a sprawling, beautiful but mostly empty part of the western seaboard, conscious of their rights as citizens.

It was their land, their livelihoods, their community they felt were under threat. Now the gas is due to come ashore one of these days. What about the alternative plan for the terminal to have been built in Glinsk, a much quieter area some 20km away? Couldn’t there have been another way?

Shell says that by the time the option was on the table, 60% of Bellanaboy had been built, notwithstanding other “significant technical difficulties” with the site.

Now, members of the community have visited the Bellanaboy terminal, community liaison officers knock on the doors, scholarships have been awarded locally and the Shell-sponsored Carne Pro Am in nearby Belmullet will tee off later this summer. Yet still, the Rossport families resist. They are concerned about pollution, accidents, the fear of a potential disaster. Willie asks: “How can we relax and say ‘this is over’?”

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WHEN the gas finally enters the national grid it will be able to supply 60% of the country’s gas requirements, maybe more, on a good day.

But according to Dr Paul Deane of the Energy Policy and Modelling Group in University College Cork’s Environmental Research Institute, while the Corrib gas field is an important addition to Ireland’s energy infrastructure, “by global standards, Corrib is a small field and is certainly not a game-changer for Ireland”.

“Natural gas accounts for a third of the energy we import and plays a primary role in generating electricity and providing heat for our homes and industries,” he says. “By 2018 Ireland will again rely on natural gas imports from the UK as a major source of gas.

“Despite a successful prospection of gas at Corrib, drilling for gas in offshore Ireland is very high risk, with associated very high costs and it is unlikely that any new finds will be uncovered in the next few years.

“Drilling activity in Ireland is at an all-time low, with only four wells drilled in the past five years. Comparisons with Norway and their gas resource are completely misrepresenting the reality of gas exploration in Ireland. It is like comparing Shamrock Rovers to Manchester United.”

Shell and its partners in Corrib will pay 25% tax once the gas flows. According to Dr Deane: “Given today’s gas prices, sales from Corrib in the first year will be worth just under €1bn. How much of this is returned to Exchequer depends on production costs and how much can be written down in tax.”

The Shell spokesman agrees. The likely annual return from the gas is “commercially sensitive” and decided by supply and demand. On the issue of a likely tax take, he says: “Can we offset our investment to date against it? Yes, we can. That’s not Shell, that’s the rules and guidelines that are currently applicable in Ireland.

“From our perspective, we believe the investment here has been huge, it has been extremely significant.”

On the likelihood of a sixth well somewhere out in the Atlantic, he says Shell does not foresee that as of now. “Our focus at the moment is first gas, getting the terminal completed. In due course we will look at the offshore section again and determine whether further drilling is required.” Another round of licensing will take place in the autumn, and Shell and co have yet to decide whether to apply. In the meantime, it is awaiting the Revised Industrial Emissions Licence from the EPA — the final regulatory staging post before the gas can flow.

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AT one point during the interview in the local community hall, Micheál Ó Seighin places his right hand on top of Vincent McGrath’s ciotóg and leaves it there a while. It is a gesture which says ‘old friends are best’.

On the future, Willie says: “It’s grand at the moment — we are getting on with our lives because there is no gas in the pipeline.”

“To say, Willie, that we’re getting on with our lives is one way of saying it,” argues Micheál. “When this thing began I was 60.” He retired a little while afterwards, at 63, after 40 years’ teaching .

“I am now 75 and the time in between has been taken up with learning and working about a fecking subject that I have no interest in the wide earthly world in.” With a tone of incredulity, he says: “I am an expert in the oil and gas industry. I have stopped playing music, I have stopped singing and I am now 75. It’s an awful different ball game being 75 and being 60, I assure you. And the same applies to ye, who are much younger than me. ”

Mary gestures to Willie, referring back a decade to when their first grandchild was born around the time of the spell in jail.

“He missed the first three months of his first grandchild’s life,” she says. “You don’t get that back.”

“No,” Micheál agrees. “That’s gone.”

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Vital statistics

Rossport and the Corrib Gas Field — some dates and figures:

1996 — the field is discovered by Enterprise Oil. An estimated 1 trillion cubic feet lies beneath the seabed, 350m below sea level.

2002 — permission granted for the overall Corrib development, and Shell Ireland join the project.

2004 — planning permission granted for the Bellanaboy terminal.

2005 — following increasing rancour over the project, the Rossport Five are jailed in May for defying a court order that they stop protesting at work being carried out by Shell. The five — Micheál O’Seighin, Brendan Philbin, Willie Corduff, Vincent and Philip McGrath — are released on September 30 after 94 days in Cloverhill Prison, with O’Seighin stating: “We do not intend to leave the area more dangerous for the kids coming after us than we got it from the people before us.”

2006 — work resumes on the terminal site after Shell temporarily suspended it. 2007 — Willie Corduff wins the Goldman Environmental Prize.

2008 — modified pipeline route identified.

2009— Application for new onshore pipeline made with planners asking for the route to be modified.

2011— approval for onshore element granted following oral hearings the previous year, with work beginning in July.

2013 — tunnelling starts in January. In September, German man Lars Wagner is killed in an accident while working on the tunnel. Also in 2013, the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, is published, making a number of recommendations, including that the Irish Government “investigate all allegations and reports of intimidation, harassment and surveillance in the context of the Corrib Gas dispute in a prompt and impartial manner”.

2014 — tunnelling completed at Glengad site, while flaring starts in November as part of the testing process.

2015 — first gas expected.

60%— the amount of Ireland’s gas that the Corrib plant is expected to be able to provide once operational.

15 to 20 years — the expected lifespan of the field.

€16m — the bill for policing the Corrib operation in the decade to the end of last year.

100+ — the number of complaints received by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission in connection to issues with the Corrib project.

25% — the rate at which Shell and its partners in the project are to be taxed at annually once gas begins coming ashore.

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