OPINION: The anti-Shell protesters were depicted accurately in court recently – but not so on these pages, writes GERRY GREGG
FINTAN O’TOOLE’S column last week on the Corrib Gas row says a lot more about O’Toole than it does about the his concern for “the madness” of Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan. The column also revealed more about the agenda-rigging of the author than it did about the “folly” of piping natural gas from the Corrib gasfield across nine kilometres of bogland and hillside pasture, from landfall at Glengad beach in north Mayo to the Shell processing terminal at Bellanaboy.
O’Toole extrapolated from the recent explosion at a gas plant in Middletown, in the US state of Connecticut, that the “headbangers, the cranks and the subversives” who have been blocking the Shell project have turned out to be neither “crazy nor extreme”.
In an article riddled with dodgy details, deft sleights of hand, studied evasions and flawed logic, O’Toole opened his case with a claim that fell well short of the accuracy one associates with the doyen of the opinion page. The explosion in the US was at a power plant under construction, and not, as he suggested, along the route of a long-established pipeline.
O’Toole went on to mislead his readers still further with an assertion that an Bord Pleanála had “rejected” Shell’s plans for the final route of the pipeline last November. In fact, the planning authority “requested” that Shell re-examine the route on the grounds of enhancing the safety of local families living near the pipeline. As it stands, the planned route is considerably farther from the nearest dwelling than is the norm across Europe and North America.
So, an Bord Pleanála has asked Shell to consider moving the pipeline even farther away in an exercise that seems to be more about optics and PR than engineering. A case, it seems, of “just to be sure to be sure”. This was the background to the recent letter from the Department of Energy’s chief technical advisor to an Bord Pleanála criticising its emphasis on “the consequences of an accident” rather than the “likelihood” of one.
O’Toole proceeded to attack Eamon Ryan for not only changing his mind about the project – as he is entitled to do when confronted with compelling facts – but for failing to generate “a decent compromise”.
Nobody who has dealt up close and personal with the ringleaders of the Shell to Sea campaign, as I have in the course of making the documentary The Battle for the Gasfield , believes that any of them are open to compromise. Repeatedly we were told by leading Shell to Sea activists that because the State, the Government, the Opposition and the judiciary had “sold out”, they had no loyalty to the institutions of State and would not obey its laws.
O’Toole failed to declare that, for years, he has been listed as a supporter of the Shell to Sea campaign on their website. In 2005 he shared a platform with Maura Harrington and other activists when he spoke out against the jailing of the Rossport Five and praised their “backbone”. He was also a signatory to a petition against Shell and government policy on the exploitation of the gas-field.
It seems that, unlike Eamon Ryan, O’Toole is not for turning, no matter what the facts are. He claims the Corrib project has been divisive and bitter. In fact, over 90 per cent of the 10,000 people on the peninsula support the political parties and organisations that back the exploitation of the gasfield, a project that has provided hundreds of jobs for people in the area over the last 10 years.
In recent days, Judge Raymond Groarke sitting in the Circuit Court at Castlebar, made a series of withering judgments against the leading activists involved in the Shell to Sea campaign, calling them vigilantes involved in a campaign of harassment and intimidation of the silent majority.
He found that Harrington was the choreographer of a “secret police”-style surveillance operation against workers and farmers going about their lawful business.
Describing the protesters in heroic terms trying to protect people from reckless endangerment doesn’t quite fit with the picture that emerged from the court proceedings in Mayo, now does it?
Pat O’Donnell, who claimed last summer that his trawler was sunk off the north Mayo coast by armed and masked men speaking a foreign language, who then managed somehow to disappear without trace in the clear light of dawn as rescue services arrived to save O’Donnell and his crewman from a watery grave, was branded by the judge as “a bully and a thug”.
Judge Groarke’s remarks depicted in stark detail the hell the people of north Mayo have been put through. O’Toole ignored all this while acknowledging vaguely that “some protesters had used the issue for their own purposes” but described the police operation to uphold the right to work as “heavy handed”.
Where is the evidence for this? “The Garda Ombudsman Commission has recommended disciplinary action against one senior garda,” wrote O’Toole, failing to mention that the commission has dealt with over 110 complaints against the police and deemed most of them vexatious or without foundation. A recommendation relating to a single garda, albeit a senior officer, is manipulated to convey a sense of police jackboots trampling all over sensitive souls worried about the fate of sand martins on the beaches of north Mayo.
The truth is that there has been suppression of the popular will in north Mayo and the agents of that suppression have been the Shell to Sea campaigners, not the Garda. But the only acceptable narrative to The Irish Times is that the bad guys (ie Fianna Fáil, hand in glove with a foreign multinational) are despoiling the land and seas and trampling on the people’s rights and dreams.
The reality, as we learned from the evidence produced in the Circuit Court, is very different and much more sinister. The verdict on the rights and wrongs of the issue was spelt out passionately by Judge Groarke, who stuck to the facts of the case and tore up the dog-eared script fashioned by O’Toole. A vicious minority of self-styled militants have browbeaten a community into abject, sullen submission, forced hundreds of workers to earn a living under the shadow of Garda protection and threatened to derail a development that will benefit north Mayo and provide a much-needed source of energy for the rest of the country for the next 20 years.
The State has subjected the Shell project to intense scrutiny and its designated agencies have yet to adjudicate finally on the route of the pipeline, but the bottom line is the gas will flow. That’s the democratic way in a Republic.
Unlike Fintan O’Toole, I stand with the Republic and not the distortions and lies at the heart of the Corrib story.