Review: Our Story – The Rossport Five (Small World Media, 2006)
6 June 2007
This book chronicles the case of five unassuming Mayo men who last year became national figures on being jailed for 94 days for their resistance to Shell’s plans for development of the Corrib gas field. What the book does is not to present a journalistic account, nor to go into the technical details behind the dispute, but to allow the Five and their wives to tell their story in their own words, mainly through interviews. Their eloquent description of the small Rossport community and the development of the ongoing Shell To Sea campaign since the first moves to develop the field in 2000, peaking in their imprisonment, makes for a gripping read and an indictment of modern Ireland’s takeover by the multinationals.
The case argued by the Five is unanswerable – the Corrib project, as currently set up, involves an on-shore refinery (the first in Ireland) belching pollutants into an environmentally sensitive area, as well as the health and safety implications of laying a high-pressure gas pipeline through boggy ground. It appears that the project is a disaster in the making, and the people of Rossport are being used as guinea pigs. The position of the Shell To Sea campaign, in favour of off-shore refining and safe development of the Corrib field, is quite reasonable and a long way from the Luddism of government caricature.
However, the way in which Shell have been able to ride roughshod over local objections, and the involvement of state, church and media in backing the multibillion-dollar energy giant, have both stoked the campaign and raised more searching questions about modern Irish society.
Roots of resistance
What makes Rossport so extraordinary is that any resistance at all should have arisen. The Irish population is deeply indoctrinated with the idea that any development is good development, and promising a poor area like North Mayo that big benefits would accrue from the Corrib field – money for nothing for the locals – would have been enough to buy off most people. Besides, Enterprise in its initial application went about things very cleverly, enlisting the Church in support of the pipeline, getting the backing of local bigwigs like Enda Kenny, and encouraging locals who had signed up to sell the project to their more wary neighbours. It is really an accident that some locals whose backs had been got up by Enterprise’s hard-sell tactics would then develop more serious objections to the project, and would begin to get organised.
But, paradoxically, perhaps a poor and isolated area like North Mayo – part of the traditional Gaeltacht, cut off from Mayo County Council 60 miles away in Castlebar almost as much as from central government, and where subsistence agriculture is still a reality – was more likely than a more developed area to see such a movement. This is a close-knit area where community still means a great deal and there are strong traditions of solidarity amongst the farmers. One of the strongest aspects of the book is the prominence given to the Five’s sense of place and of community. These networks of support became crucial once the resistance to the pipeline turned into a full-fledged local revolt.
The story of the revolt
The structure of the book, with the Five putting forward their experiences, is an invaluable account of the campaign as it developed. The movement against the Corrib pipeline sprang up in a haphazard way, as movements do in real life. It began with a few local residents feeling uneasy about Enterprise Oil’s appearance in the area. As time went on, they started asking awkward questions of the oilmen, while making contact with other people who also had misgivings about the pipeline. They began to educate themselves about the technical aspects of the pipeline, about the environmental issues involved, and about Shell’s record in places like Nigeria.
The heavy-handed response of Enterprise, intensifying with Shell taking over the project, only stoked resentment, and an escalating cycle began. Small demonstrations gave way to civil disobedience. As related here, nobody took a decision to blockade lorries – they simply couldn’t pass cars on the narrow road to Rossport – but the oilmen were convinced this was deliberate, and so it became a deliberate tactic. At the same time, Shell’s attempts, aided by the state, to crush the protest movement only fuelled more anger in the area.
The culmination of the story is the court battle in Dublin, with the five men – singled out from a much broader movement – injuncted against obstructing Shell, cited for contempt, then jailed for refusing to purge their contempt, with Judge Finnegan appearing as a corporate hatchet-man rather than a representative of the independent judiciary. This is what catapulted Rossport to the top of the national agenda and sparked a public outcry that ended in the men’s release. The battle continues however, with Shell still building the pipeline and Rossport residents still resisting.
The Irish state indicted
This is not just, however, a story of corporate malfeasance. The level of government complicity in the Corrib pipeline project has been nothing short of scandalous. This is particularly the case for former Minister of the Marine Frank Fahey, whose changing the law to allow a private company to issue Compulsory Acquisition Orders means nobody’s land is safe if a powerful commercial concern wants it. As Mary Corduff points out, a Compulsory Purchase Order for road-building or the ESB is one thing, but giving a private company the power to compulsorily acquire land is something quite new, and if it is allowed to stand Rossport will set a precedent for the rest of the state.
There are further examples. There are the credible accounts of central government arm-twisting Mayo County Council to allow the original planning application. There is the action of the council in inviting Enterprise to resubmit the application after the approval was struck down by An Bord Pleanála with a devastating report. Finally there was the government ruling that planning permission simply did not apply. There has also been the deployment of a huge force of Gardai into North Mayo, ostensibly to keep order, but in fact to facilitate Shell and baton-charge farmers who got in their way. Outgoing Justice Minister Michael McDowell went so far as to label the Shell To Sea campaign a subversive plot masterminded by Sinn Fein, a transparent attempt to lose the farmers sympathy but whose main effect has been to boost Sinn Fein’s profile in Mayo.
And despite all this, the North Mayo farmers have survived unbowed. Extensive polling carried out by RTE last year indicated that 45% of the entire county supported the aims of the Shell To Sea campaign. What has long been a deeply conservative rural area is being radicalised by Rossport. For people on the ground, Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny calling for the law to be respected is little more than a joke when the law has been changed to facilitate Shell. And Judge Finnegan’s threat that he could take the land of every farmer in Mayo, if he had to, has not gone unnoticed.
The story of the Rossport Five throws modern Ireland into stark relief – the corruption, Church and State kowtowing before the multinationals, the courts and Gardai used as enforcement agencies for corporate interests. This book is essential reading for militants, not only as a guide to what is happening on the west coast, but as a portrait of a rotten system and how a small number of ordinary people could stand up and challenge it.