THE CHAIRMAN of the Government's forum on resolving the Corrib gas controversy, Joe Brosnan, has said that there is a "flexibility" in the terms of reference which should allow north Mayo community groups to participate.
"I'm prepared to talk to anybody informally outside the forum context, without prejudice, and there is no prescribed outcome to this," Mr Brosnan said.
The forum, which represents the first direct Government attempt to resolve Corrib gas issues in almost three years, was established by Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan and Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív, in November.
However, Government sources have indicated that it is experiencing serious teething problems. Several key community groups in Erris declined to engage at its first hearing on December 5th in Belmullet, Co Mayo, due to terms of reference which preclude it from revisiting statutory consents and permissions.
Shell EP Ireland and Pro-Gas Mayo were among the groups that did attend, while Pobal Chill Chomáin and Pobal le Chéile, representing community and business interests in Erris, and Mayo Shell to Sea did not.
North Mayo Fianna Fáil councillor Tim Quinn was among those who criticised the "narrow terms of reference".
Since then, Shell EP Ireland has withdrawn its Bord Pleanála strategic infrastructure application for a modified onshore pipeline route - although its consultants have stated a revised application is being prepared. Work on the offshore pipeline has already been deferred.
Pobal Chill Chomáin and Pobal Le Chéile have now sought further clarification from Mr Brosnan in the light of Shell EP Ireland's decision.
Responding to this, Mr Brosnan said that his role was to "facilitate discussion and dialogue" and he could not comment on "substance", which he was "keeping an open mind on" as he has to maintain impartiality.
"I have told people that they can raise anything," he said. "There was a concern among some people that it would be a talking shop, but my view is that in talking about it, the positions of the various parties become clarified - such as relating to what kind of regulation, monitoring and adherence to national and international standards will be in place.
"There cannot be any prescribed outcome of this in advance," he said. "It is a question of getting involved in discussion, and to have open-ended dialogue. I will continue the contacts, and if anyone or any group wishes to speak to me outside the forum setting, I am available. My door is open without prejudice," he said.
Kerry-born and a qualified barrister, Mr Brosnan is a former Department of Justice secretary general and a member of the Independent Monitoring Commission for Northern Ireland.
He is a vice-chair of the Institute of European Affairs, and served as chef de cabinet for former EU Commissioner Pádraig Flynn in Brussels.
Since December 5th, he has been trying to engage with non-participating interests in advance of the forum's next session on January 19th. In a joint letter to Mr Brosnan, Pobal Le Chéile and Pobal Chill Chomáin said that they were "willing to help the forum, the Government and the developers to bring this sorry saga to a successful conclusion".
The groups referred to a compromise location for the gas refinery, which, they said, had "majority community consent" although Shell has rejected it.
"Our groups still have great difficulty in partaking in a process that effectively has no power to change anything," the two groups said. They quoted one of their members as saying that "we do not need more money and we do not need group therapy".
A spokeswoman for Eamon Ryan said that the Minister was "fully supportive" of Mr Brosnan's efforts.
Last month Mr Ryan admitted that "undoubted mistakes" had been made with State and developer management of the project, including a failure to consult adequately with the local community.
Separately, a High Court action taken by four residents seeking declarations that Shell has no interest in lands acquired under compulsory acquisition orders in 2002 is continuing. Complaints have also been lodged with the OECD and European Commission, and with the European Parliament's petitions committee.