THE Government has directly intervened in the Corrib Gas dispute for the first time -- by setting up what critics say is a "talking shop".
It comes after more than six years of bitter protests in north Mayo, which have divided the local community, led to the jailing of five Rossport men for 94 days and resulted in an €11m bill for garda overtime.
Yesterday, Energy Minister Eamon Ryan and Community Minister Eamon O Cuiv said their community forum next month was designed to find a "way forward" so that vitally needed gas supplies could be brought ashore.
Mr Ryan said it would give the State greater energy security, help bring down gas prices and bring in €1.7bn in corporation taxes over the project's estimated 15-20 year lifespan.
The forum, chaired by former Department of Justice secretary general Joe Brosnan, will include representatives of government departments and will be open to both pro and anti-Corrib Gas field groups.
Although it will discuss ways of bringing more benefits to the north Mayo area, no specific extra funding has been committed by the Government or Shell. And the forum will be separate from the planning process, so the Corrib Gas field project can go ahead even if it fails to reach agreement.
Mr O Cuiv said he hoped the forum would help to heal the divisions in north Mayo.
But the announcement of the forum has already provoked a protest from the Shell to Sea group, which has led the opposition to the Corrib Gas field project.
Micheal O Seighin, who was one of the Rossport Five, said he feared it would be just a "talking shop".
Shell said it would participate wholeheartedly in the forum's work.
Michael Brennan Political Correspondent