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Now You Are Talking My Language

Michael McCaughan - Submission to An Bord Pleanala Oral hearing

Observations in response to a community request to describe the psychological impact of the project to date.

Now You Are Talking My Language
By Michael McCaughan

As a writer and researcher with 20 years experience living and working in Latin America I have witnessed many situations similar to the Corrib gas dispute where rural communities faced similar projects, similar harassment, similar violence and a similar deaf ear from the authorities…such situations are often referred to as a ‘situacion limite’, a crisis which brings the individual and the community to the very limit of their capacity to stay sane, focused and healthy. This type of campaign might last a week, a month, a year, rarely more, before breaking point and resolution, whether positive or negative. In Erris, this situation, which has men, women and children on the edge of a nervous breakdown, has been going on for 10 years, and there is no end in sight.

…. Panic attacks, sleeplessness, unease, anxiety about the present, fear of the future, disillusionment, disquiet, shattered assumptions, obsessional behavior, excessive personal sacrifice, lack of concentration, paranoia, headaches, backaches, edginess, irritability, endless tasks to be done, unprecedented stress, excessive demands on individuals, overwhelming sense of exhaustion, inability to function as normal, inability to make plans or take decisions, endless waiting, shock, depression, trauma, physical injury, nightmares, daymares, burnout, lack of appetite, stomach pain, nausea, rage, regret, helplessness, hopelessness, feeling numb, inner pain, emotional outbursts, hyper vigilance, muscle tension, flashbacks, fatigue, fear, self doubt, loss of trust in institutions, lack of faith in the future, negative thoughts, inability to focus on your own life and plans..
This is not a matter of guesswork or speculation. Dr Keith Swanick, a Belmullet-based medical professional, observed, ‘half the people I’m seeing now from Glengad are suffering from stress and worry.’ 

None of the symptoms described above feature in Shell’s EIS or EIA or in the government analysis of the project and rarely if ever in the mainstream media’s coverage of the conflict..the community is understandably reluctant to reveal these symptoms, lest they be seized upon as a sign of weakness or exhaustion which might be taken advantage of by their well resourced opponents.

Things have changed dramatically in Kilcommon parish, everyday life has been turned upside down and no one knows what to expect next, whether their life may be in danger or their freedom taken away in defense of a farm, a road, a field, a stretch of sand. Meanwhile, every minute counts with fresh hopes and fresh protests, pushing, shoving, arrest, bail, jail, isolation, then more research, presentation, legal issues, deadlines, submissions and setbacks ebbing and flowing like the high tide at full moon. And the symptoms start all over again..

..A three year old child becomes hysterical at the sound of a hoover being switched on or a tractor starting up.. the panic began after she took fright at a police helicopter hovering low over the home of her grandfather, a prominent participant in the campaign. ..

..A son takes care of his mother but due to court order must take a massive detour to get her to the nearest medical facility for regular checkups..

..Farm work is undone as neighbours monitor commonage in case of trespass and then there is the aggravation of existing symptoms- a stroke in one case, high blood pressure for many others. Someone else described to me how he didn’t sleep for three days after the drilling rig pulled up in front of his home.

The cost and scale of the project is described by the company in a reverential tone, there will be millions, perhaps billions of Euro yet the true cost of the project, before any gas has been piped or bottled, is incalculable, its impact will stretch far into the future.. ”The last ten years feels like two hundred years” I heard a woman say. 

The symptoms described above match those of post traumatic stress disorder, an illness associated with war and earthquakes, particularly common among soldiers returning from the battlefield. For the people of Kilcommon the past ten years has resembled life during wartime. The term ‘disorder’ is misleading as the symptoms are a normal response to an abnormal situation, common reactions to extraordinary experiences. An elderly local told me that ‘jail has become a normal consequence of protecting our families.’

This is the daily diet of despair which marks the experience of hundreds of people in Kilcommon parish, living in proximity to a project which remains unknown, alien, a type of outside occupation imposed and sustained by force. When a traumatic situation occurs in a school or workplace, the phrase ‘a team of counsellors’ is sure to follow.. in Erris, however, people are expected to fend for themselves, falling back on their own resources, their family and friends.. Add in the divisions among the community, in an area where each family is part of a broader network of relatives and friends bound tightly together within their parishes, and you have an emergency which requires an appropriate response.

Now you’re talking my language.. I lost count of the number of times I have heard this expression during this hearing..but whose language are we talking here? Apparently, the language of progress, development and economic growth. The local people speak another language, of respect for nature, of low impact living and of leaving behind an environment fit for future generations. The ABP inspector, Martin Nolan called for emotion to be set aside. ‘I don’t want to see any heated contributions’ he said, recommending instead ‘factual, measured representations.’ It would be great if every human emotion could be put on hold while this hearing and this project are under consideration but there is far too much at stake, people’s livelihoods, their wellbeing, their children’s futures.

This is a community which takes pride in mapping out local place names and restoring gravestones, maintaining connection between past, present and future. One graveyard yielded 333 graves, many of them on the verge of disappearing. This is how many local people feel about their locality as the project advances. A sense of familiar landscapes disappearing. Someone else described a stretch of beach they have always frequented, recalling every thistle plant and cowpat. This is the language of place, the language of identity, the language of home. In the solemn setting of a technical hearing, it sounds like a foreign language.

A sense of internal displacement has already taken root. One parent travels 45 minutes to avoid the beach overlooking his own home, unable to revisit it after aggressive surveillance aimed at his grandchildren. A doctor told one individual, suffering high blood pressure, to go away for a week or two until work near his home was completed. 

On day two of the hearing people were advised that the only relevant topic for discussion was ‘…the performance of the onshore pipeline.’  How does the collective punishment of a community fit neatly into the performance of an onshore pipeline?

Shell representatives can of course put emotion on hold, they have no emotional input, interested only, and no one should be surprised at this, in profit margins. The state however, has a different set of priorities which must be upheld. The reckless disregard for the welfare of local people cannot be permitted.

If this catastrophic situation was beyond fixing or the project was completed then there might be grounds for discussing psychiatric intervention, mass counselling or any of the many therapeutic ways in which people pick up the pieces after traumatic times. But the project is not over, it is barely beginning, 26 months of tunneling lie ahead. Perhaps. Decisions are being made now which will guarantee the deepening of the negative symptoms described above, the damage to individuals and community will continue..

‘I’m willing to take some pain for this’ Willie Corduff has said, ‘I’ll hold the gate of my farm open for them’, with one significant caveat, ‘…it has to be done properly.’ And so far, it has been done anything but properly. What could drive Corduff and hundreds more like him to actively oppose the state, risking their lives and their freedom? The answer is incompetence and corruption, indifference, bribery and brutality. In deference to the developer’s dislike of the term ‘bribery’ I suggest an alternative description, ‘community liaison gift-bearing ambassadors of goodwill’; when a local employer asked one such goodwill ambassador how such an exchange might take place, he was told ‘we have facilitated others by delivering supplies at night.’

The local community has been forced into an intimate, long term relationship with the companies involved in this project. If you added up all the ailments and treated it as a single illness, a doctor would immediately order the patient to leave the abusive home and find refuge.

A temporary reprieve is still an immediate possibility.
Under the licensing terms for offshore oil and gas exploration, development and production, the Minister at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources may “for such period as the Minister deems necessary, require that specified exploration, exploitation, production or processing activities should cease… subject to conditions which the Minister may specify, in any case where the Minister is satisfied that it is desirable to do so in order to reduce the risk of injury to the person…no claim for compensation may be made against the Minister on foot of any such requirement.”

It seems obvious that the urgency of today lies not in approving yet another contentious component of a failed project but in reviewing the entire process so that the people of Kilcommon parish can have their lives back.