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A story of state and corporate corruption

St.John Ó Donnabháin - Left Curve 'forthcoming'

As part of the recent storm around the release by Wikileaks of thousands upon thousands of US diplomatic cables, a report from the US ambassador to Nigeria has been prominent. The cable concerned the oil industry in that country, and specifically referred to discussions with Ann Pickard of Shell, the dominant player in the Nigerian oil industry. Pickard, then Shell’s vice-president for sub-Saharan Africa, where she ‘sought to share intelligence with the US government on militant activity and business competition in the contested Niger Delta’. Shell was attempting to retain their wide-scale control of natural resources in the face of potential competition from Russia and China. The ambassador further reported that Pickard ‘said the GON [Government Of Nigeria] had forgotten that Shell had seconded people to all the relevant ministries and that Shell consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries’. This has lead to huge criticism of Shell’s operations in Nigeria, where they are said to have a ‘vice-like grip’ on the country’s oil wealth, and lead the oil watchdog Platform to point out that Shell claim to act completely apart from Nigerian politics, when in fact they work deep within that system, and have long used channels in the notoriously corrupt Nigerian political system to its own advantage1. Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth Nigeria said: ‘Shell has become a pseudo-political organisation bent on taking political power and undermining our national interest, national security, and our sovereignty’2.

Shell arrived in the North-West of Ireland almost 10 years ago, taking over Enterprise Oil. Impropriety and dodgy dealings with a corrupt political elite have followed them around during their time here too. They have sought to push through the development of a massive refinery in a residential area, which would be connected to the offshore gas field by a high-pressure pipeline running through local peoples’ lands, against their consent. Shell wanted to start production by 2003, but the earliest it will now begin in end 2012/2013. This is due to the determined and powerful resistance of the local community, and many friends and supporters from around the country and the world. The opposition has included civil disobedience, legal actions, protests, planning objections, and lots more besides. They have faced a powerful opponent in the corporate behemoth of Shell, one of the largest companies in the world. But they have faced more than just Shell, as the Irish State and political elite have been complicit at every turn with the attempts to force the project through.

This is a story of corruption on a massive scale, and of a State which has placed the interests of a foreign company above that of its own citizens, both on a local and a national level.

Background – The Story so far...

As you approach Glengad and Pullathomas, alongside Sruwaddacon Bay, the heart of the decade-plus long struggle for the integrity of the local area, a beautiful light plays between Dooncarton mountain, the bay, the farm and the bogland, and the vast ever-changing skies around, it’s easy to see how this conflict has often been romanticised as tradition versus ‘progress’. And while that forms part of the issue, with debate around costs and benefits arising from development, and older wisdoms versus hired ‘experts’, there is also so much more. It is also a thoroughly modern, contemporary story of massive business attempting to sweep all before it, of the battleground as to whether the State’s role is to participate and regulate industry (and if it can be forced to do so), or whether it is simply to facilitate development at all costs, effectively fusing with business in a corporatist worldview which sees many of the responsibilities of States as simply burdens upon the operation of the free market.

Gas was discovered off the North West coast of Ireland in 1996. Initially this was welcomed by the communities of North Mayo, but this attitude didn’t last as serious questions quickly arose about the project. This area is an unspoiled, environmentally protected area, but first Enterprise Oil, and then Shell after their takeover of Enterprise, proposed to lay an experimental high-pressure pipeline filled with untreated gas through the residential areas of Glengad and Rossport. This pipe was initially proposed to run 40 metres from people’s homes, at pressures of up to 345 bar – a multiple of the pressure of an ordinary gas transmission pipeline, which would have a maximum of up to 70 bar. Even at this lower pressure, there have been fatal explosions all over the world, from Belgium to New Mexico, US, to mention just two recent examples. As the gas within the pipe would not be treated until it reached the refinery, there would be no safety odour to aid detection of any possible leak, and the gas would contain a cocktail of impurities which would add to its likelihood of corrosion or explosion. As the industry standard would be to locate refining facilities offshore or at coastal (beachhead) locations, the need for this kind of pipeline to go through a residential area never arose before – Shell’s team finally admitted under questioning that it was ‘unique’ at the An Bord Pleanála (ABP – The Irish Planning Board) oral hearing in 2009. This would connec