Vindication of the protesters has created the opportunity to find a political solution, but the Minister is spurning it, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
YOU MAY have seen or heard reports that an explosion in a natural gas pipeline, so large that people thought it was an earthquake, killed five people in Connecticut the weekend before last. This was an obvious hoax. It could not have happened.
Natural gas pipelines are completely safe, and people who think otherwise are headbangers, cranks and subversives.
Last November, something interesting happened. It turned out that the headbangers of the Erris peninsula, the “extremists” who have been blocking the completion of Shell’s Corrib Gas project, were neither crazy nor extreme. An Bord Pleanála wrote to Shell’s planners, rejecting the proposed route for half of the gas pipeline, in terms that largely vindicated the protesters.
It found that on the stretch between Glengad and Aghoos, there was an “unacceptable” risk to local people in the event of an explosion. The media response to this development was extremely muted, but its implications are profound. If the pipeline poses an unacceptable risk, members of the local community didn’t just have a right to protest. They had a duty to do so. To have sat quietly would have been to recklessly endanger others.
The Corrib saga has become so bitter and divisive, it can be hard to see the obvious. Five things seem to me, however, to be pretty much beyond reasonable dispute:
The safety concerns of the locals were not perverse. They were met by a high-handed and dismissive approach from Shell and the Government. (Shell itself has acknowledged that “we had not handled local concerns around safety in the way we should have”.)
The Garda got sucked into a huge policing operation in which the force was inevitably placed on the side of Shell and against the protesters, some of whom were willing to use the issue for their own purposes. It has been heavy-handed at times: the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission has recommended disciplinary action against at least one senior garda.
This policing operation has been incredibly expensive (it has cost €14 million to date).
The terms under which Shell got ownership of the gas field are unacceptable: this has been tacitly acknowledged by the Government in the way it has altered those terms for the future.
Finally, Corrib is essentially a political issue. As retired chief superintendent Tony McNamara, who policed the protests up to last year, has put it, the problem is rooted in a “fundamental breakdown in trust”. “Eventually, dialogue will have to provide the solution to the Corrib gas dilemma,” he said.
These five conclusions are, I think, shared by reasonable people on both sides. They must, therefore, form the basis for an agreed way forward. If the DUP and Sinn Féin can do a deal, it surely cannot be impossible for Shell, the Government and the local communities to start from scratch and reach a compromise that stops the criminalising of well-grounded objections and unlocks a desperately needed economic and financial resource for the public good.
The person who should be leading this effort is Eamon Ryan, who has been on both sides of this conflict, first as a supporter of the protests and now as Minister for Energy. An Bord Pleanála’s vindication of the protesters should have given him the opportunity to lead here. It creates both a new dynamic and the breathing space within which a political solution can be found.
Astonishingly, however, Ryan seems to be preparing the ground, not for a fresh start, but for yet another Government intervention on the side of Shell.
On January 20th, his department wrote to An Bord Pleanála criticising its decision to refuse permission for much of the pipeline on safety grounds. Ryan’s chief technical adviser objects that the board’s decision was based on the consequences of an accident and not on “the likelihood of occurrence”, the implication being that the consequences are relatively unimportant because the likelihood is small. Instead of accepting that the residents have reasonable grounds for their fears and pushing for a genuine dialogue, the department is yet again lining up entirely with one side in the conflict. Instead of acting as an honest broker, the Green Minister is continuing with the disastrous approach of his Fianna Fáil colleagues.
This is both economic madness and political folly. It is ridiculous for an almost bankrupt State to be throwing away the massive asset represented by the Corrib field, and to be spending millions on a policing operation to facilitate that giveaway.
The political damage, meanwhile, is immense. What Corrib is telling us is that Irish politics, at either a local or a national level, is incapable of generating a decent compromise even when vital economic interests are at stake. The attitude seems to be that, having started down a road of conflict and contempt, there is no choice but to follow it to its conclusion.
If this State contrives to turn a windfall benefit into a social disaster, what chance does it have of coping with misfortunes?