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Published: Western People, 10 January 2006

Outside Bangor Erris, a massive roadside hoarding tells you that you’re about to enter the crucible that grabbed national and international news coverage throughout the summer of 2005. Up near Bellinaboy, site of the processing terminal for the Corrib Gas Field, another single large sign sits uneasily among a myriad of small, hastily painted, plastic signs denouncing the corporate intruder.

Crosses in remembrance of the eight Nigerians “murdered by Shell” are driven into the ground opposite the gates; and the abundance of tricolours flapping in the winter wind suggest there is a view here that the resource causing all the ructions belongs to the people and not to private business, even if this private business has done everything by the book and spent years trying to get this project where it is today.

At Bellinaboy, the most memorable sign is the one marking the 94 days, which the Rossport 5 spent in jail. In just one afternoon, the vast middle ground of public opinion, which had been there for the taking, swung instead behind a handful of local men, who were prepared to go to prison rather than agree not to interfere with work on the pipeline. Every day since their release, from 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening, teams of local people stand guard at the terminal, reminding the company that the one last consent it needs, the will of the people, has not yet been given.

Shell has always hoped that concerned local residents could be persuaded to accept the rational argument that a production pipeline operating at potentially very high pressures would nevertheless be safe. Shell might well be right, but the problem with a rational argument presented in complicated language is that it ignores people’s fears, their emotions, their beliefs, and their need to feel that they will not be exposed to unacceptable risks and potentially catastrophic consequences.

However, both sides now find themselves beggared on a beach of gold, a situation that is due as much to happenstance as circumstance. Because they have spent most of the past five years talking past each other rather than to one another, there is little by way of understanding between them, and areas where they might be able to find common ground are obscured in the thick air of mistrust and recrimination.

Shell has no chance, at this time, of completing the terminal or building the pipeline, not just because of its abject failure to explain the project, its complexities and its challenges in a language that is simple, clear, persuasive and reassuring; but also because it took the unacceptable step of having people locked up when it should have been listening to their concerns and engaging to try and address their fears.

However, the people of Rossport, Bangor Erris and Bellinaboy have also lost out. Few believe that the release of the five men was a victory for the community. Fewer still would believe that the gas field should be plugged because of what happened last summer. Yet the prospect of face-to-face engagement between company, community and government, aimed at finding a way of bringing the gas safely through and ensuring real, lasting benefits for communities in the west, seems as far away as ever.

Last August, I outlined in this newspaper, a possible solution to the impasse. I proposed then that both sides should agree to be bound by the outcome of the safety review, and that the company should agree to implement any additional measures that might be recommended by the consultants. I also proposed that Shell should consider handing over the construction work to a third party, or alternatively that it would retain responsibility for the construction, but oversight for the project would transfer to a permanent group with expert representation from local people.

Though it undoubtedly doesn’t give both sides everything they wanted, the safety review carried out by Advantica seems to offer more than a glimmer of hope. The consultants have called for a drastic cut in pipeline pressures, along with beefed-up safety measures to keep the pressure within these new lower limits, independent audits and inspections while the pipeline is being built and while it is in operation, and a thorough review if it was ever required to work beyond retirement age.

Shell lost any support it had with the silent majority when it sought the injunction that led to the imprisonment of the Rossport 5. Yet the basic problem it faces hasn’t changed. Essentially, the company needs to get the gas safely to its refinery while the men and their families in particular need every assurance it can be taken there safely. The Advantica Report might just be the catalyst for addressing their genuine fears.

Whether Shell can ever win concerned residents over, and restore the confidence of the silent majority before its own shareholders lose patience and pull the plug, only time – and talk – will tell. Trust will be hard won and even harder to keep given past experience. But it will never happen if the two sides don’t start talking soon, either directly or through the mediator, former trade union congress chief, Peter Cassells.

Shell may yet find it easier or more practical to let another company finish the construction work it started, or concede to the involvement of local people through expert representation in the management of the project itself. In any event, there would seem to be enough in the Advantica Report to get the two sides talking about how they might try to balance their interests rather than holding to their positions.

Even small, simple things done now could make a significant difference in helping to build trust – for example, replacing the massive roadside signs with something a little more understated, which says even to an outsider passing through, there is a partnership between this company and the community.

Government too must play a part in resolving this crisis. People are entitled to ask why there appears to be no development blueprint for ensuring the gas is fed into places like Ballina, Sligo, Westport, Castlebar and Claremorris; and they are also justified in asking why local political representatives do not seem to be making the case for such a plan at every turn.

In the absence of a clear political vision of the benefits which this natural gas find could bring to the West of Ireland, and given the company’s continued insistence on fighting for the project on purely rational grounds, the spotlight remains fixed on health and safety issues, especially the consequences rather than the risks of pipeline failure. If the safety review is to achieve anything, it would be to focus the primary debate on risk rather than consequence. Only the parties involved can decide this.

A few miles over the road, the solstice sun pokes through the low evening cloud and lights up the ghostly wreck of the old turf-fired power station at Bellacorick once again. Maybe it’s far fetched to think that a new Bellacorick could yet be fired by the natural gas that lies deep under the seabed nearby, but it’s worth remembering that this station, like many others of its age, was built on a vision of how natural resources could be used to support communities, both economically and socially. The Corrib gas field has as much if not more potential. Let’s hope that all sides can realise it.