A NEW Government-backed initiative on the Corrib gas project expects to begin hearings "within the month", according to the two Ministers involved.
Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan and Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív have appointed retired senior civil servant Joe Brosnan to chair a community forum, which has been given no specific time limit.
Mr Brosnan, who has said he will do his best to be an "honest broker", is a Kerry-born qualified barrister and former Department of Justice secretary general. He was chef de cabinet to former EU commissioner Pádraig Flynn from 1993 to 1999.
He is a former director-general of the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin, of which he is currently a vice-chairman. He was chair of a number of Law Society of Ireland taskforces, and is a member of the Independent Monitoring Commission for Northern Ireland.
The initiative follows discussions held by the two Ministers with groups in north Mayo in late September. It represents the first Government intervention since the appointment of former Irish Congress of Trade Unions secretary general Peter Cassells as a mediator in late 2005.
Shell EP Ireland, Corrib gas lead developer, has welcomed the move, while several north Mayo community groups have given it a cautious response.
Shell said that as "developers of the most significant infrastructural project ever undertaken in the Erris region, we look forward to participating wholeheartedly in the forum's work".
Pobal Chill Chomáin, the Erris community group which has filed complaints to the OECD and the European Commission on the project and is backing a compromise refinery location, said it appeared that "some effort is being made by Government to recognise that there are grave difficulties with the Corrib project to date".
John Monaghan, spokesman for Pobal Chill Chomáin, said: "Dialogue is vital, and there is a potential for a solution and a potential to perpetuate the mistakes. We'll need to see the terms of reference."
Shell to Sea spokeswoman Maura Harrington said that the group would "reflect and consult nationwide". She said that in 2004, she had called for an open forum that would include independent, internationally recognised witnesses and journalists.
Green Party Galway councillor Niall Ó Brolcháin, who travelled with Pobal Chill Chomáin to Norway to discuss the issue with Corrib gas partner Statoil, said he believed the "two Eamons" had the capacity to resolve the conflict.
Significantly, the Government forum will not revisit any consents or planning permissions already granted by the State, and it stops short of an independent review of the optimum development concept originally sought by leading community interests.
Speaking at Government Buildings yesterday, the two Ministers said Mr Brosnan would "engage with all relevant local community and interest groups from all sides", and Shell and "representatives of its local workforce" would be "invited to participate".
The Irish Times