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Irish grass roots clog Shell oil pipeline

John Murray Brown - Financial Times

As the road approaches the Shell gas terminal at Ballinaboy on Ireland's Atlantic west coast, only the posters pinned to the telegraph poles give any hint of the country's longest-running environmental protest.

The uninterrupted view of green fields running down to the ocean could be a screen-grab from an advertisement for the Irish Tourist Board.

But for the past four years this remote but beautiful corner of north Mayo has been the setting for a bitter industrial dispute. At times, hundreds of police have been deployed to break up pickets. And this summer, the tiny hamlets of Glengad and Rossport looked on as two Irish navy frigates moored in Broadhaven Bay, apparently there to stop the protesters' dinghies interfering with the Solitaire, Shell's vast pipe-laying ship.

Exactly how a grass-roots campaign led by a retired schoolteacher and a handful of hill farmers and lobster pot fishermen has frustrated Ireland's most important energy project perplexes industry experts.

"By now Corrib should be contributing hundreds of millions in revenue to the country, at a time when the money is badly needed. Ireland is just not equipped to deal with major industrial projects," says Brian O'Cathain, who ran the Irish operations of Enterprise Oil when it discovered the Corrib field in 1996. Enterprise was acquired by Shell in 2002.

Last week An Bord Pleanála, Ireland's planning authority, dealt another blow to the timetable, ruling that Shell would have to reroute part of its proposed seven-mile section of pipeline from the beach to the terminal because it runs too close to local homes.

The ruling was welcomed by Maura Harrington, the schoolteacher and representative for Shell To Sea, but she argued: "Ireland's real strategic interest would be in regaining control of our natural resources."

The planners indicated they would approve the project with the necessary modifications. But many local businesspeople fear this will goad the protesters into more extreme action. "This is going to flare up. This will be seen by the protesters as their chance for a last stand," says Paddy Cosgrove, former councillor for Fianna Fáil, Ireland's ruling party, and representative of a group called Pro Gas Mayo, which supports the project.

Pipeline safety and threats to the local ecology have remained central concerns. But Father Kevin Hegarty, a local Roman Catholic priest, says the attitudes of some protesters are "reminiscent of those who campaigned against rural electrification in the 1950s and 1960s . . . they resist any change to traditional rural life".

For all that, this tiny group, with its headquarters in a huddle of tents in a field overlooking Broadhaven Bay, has consistently outwitted Shell's vast public relations apparatus. Despite little local support, and an almost hostile attitude from the Irish media, the campaign has won several environmental awards, attracted foreign documentary film-makers and even secured celebrity endorsements from the likes of Bishop Desmond Tutu, the South African human rights activist, and Erin Brockovich, the American environmental campaigner.

Shell, by contrast, has been flat-footed. Its decision in 2005 to resort to the courts is now seen, even by company officials, as counter-productive. Three farmers and two retired schoolteachers, quickly dubbed the Rossport Five, were sent to prison for defying a court order to let Shell on to their fields and became overnight celebrities in a country that loves a rebel.

"Shell took the local people for idiots," says Pat O'Donnell, a local fisherman. In June this year, his boat mysteriously sank in the bay after he repeatedly defied orders to remove his lobster pots ahead of the arrival of the Solitaire. Whether some of Shell's security guards sank her, as he suggests, or he scuttled the boat himself, the incident is a measure of the worsening atmosphere.

For Shell, regaining the initiative and ultimately the trust of locals will not be easy. In appointing John Egan, a retired Irish television journalist and Mayo native, as their communications manager, Shell should at least have a better understanding of local thinking.

In particular, many observers point out that the land the Shell pipeline is set to traverse is seen to have a special value as the fields would have been reclaimed from the sea by earlier generations.

"Land in the west of Ireland is very emotive. It goes back to the famine," says Fergus Cahill, president of the Irish Offshore Operators' Association.

He is also quick to point out it was in Mayo in British colonial times that a certain Captain Charles Boycott found himself ostracised by his native Irish tenants - giving his name to a new term of political protest. That was during the agrarian wars of the 1880s. But Mr Cahill says the Irish, particularly in the far west, have long memories. "To some of these protesters I think they see Shell as another Boycott."


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