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Shell gets it badly wrong in the 'arse end of nowhere'

Michael Clifford in Rossport, Co Mayo Sunday TribuneMARY CORDUFF won't let the mobile out of her sight.

Willie hasn't rung yet, and he only gets one chance. He rings every day, one call, but he can't give her an exact time. It depends on the queue for the prison phone.
When he does call, they have six minutes. There is a lot she would like to talk about, the routine stuff, decisions about the farm and the kids. It all builds up. Telling one of the kids to ''go and ask your father'' is not an option at the moment.
She has to do all the thinking.
When they get their chance, the six minutes fly. Then they say goodbye and she goes back to her half-life, and he returns to his cell.
''It's gone like a shot, '' says Aggie Philbin of her six minutes with her husband Brendan.
''Today, me and the two girls were talking and then it was just gone before we knew it.''
The spouses of the men known as the Rossport Five treasure the phonecalls. Visits are infrequent. Their homes are a 400-mile round trip to Cloverhill Prison in Dublin.
The phonecall is the only contact the men have had with their wives and 16 children for most of the last 33 days. For a close-knit community, the plucking of five men from their midst is nothing short of a trauma.
The five were jailed on 29 June for breaking an injunction which ordered them to allow Shell E&P onto their lands to lay a pipe designed to carry unrefined gas. The gas is to be fed from the offshore Corrib field nine kilometres inland to a refinery at Bellenaboy Bridge.
The men fear for their families' safety. Whether those fears are justified is a matter of dispute, but there is no doubt that the jailings have opened a can of worms that Shell and the government would have preferred to keep the lid on.
North Mayo, around the outpost of Belmullet, is the kind of place where nothing much happens. Flat bogland provides the landscape, with a smattering of homes and the odd village. Life passes slowly.
The frantic pulse of urban Ireland has not reached north Mayo. Right now, though, it's all happening.
Telephone poles across the grey land are decorated with posters and, here and there, tricolours. On Thursday evening, a squad car packed with officers sped back and forth between Belmullet and the Shell sites at Bellenaboy and Rossport. Work at the sites, and at a third site at Glengad, has been suspended on foot of a blockade by locals, initiated the week after the jailings.
At Bellenaboy, six locals man the gate, determined to block any entry. They mull around a horsebox used as a makeshift kitchen. T-shirts and CDs for the Rossport Five are on sale.
The gardai come and go, but a security guard is omnipresent.
The protesters are on a rota.
They arrive each morning and if it looks like any trouble might brew, the call goes out and dozens of locals appear to ensure the blockade isn't broken.
Maura Harrington, dubbed Erin Brockovich by some local wags, is one of the original organisers of the Shell to Sea campaign, which wants the refinery located offshore. She is principal of a local primary school and would put the Duracell bunny to shame. She says the campaign now has up to 200 activists. By her account, the jailings healed a rift in the wider community over whether or not to welcome Shell.
''Until the men went to jail, there was a divide but the message has now got through that there is no benefit here. Local people have seen how Shell operate before they even got a foot properly in the door. And nobody likes what they see.''
At the Rossport site, it's a lot quieter. A single garda is on duty. A few hundred yards down the road, a makeshift tent has been erected. Inside, half a dozen environmentalists sit around. They arrived a month ago to show solidarity and they get on well with locals.
Across the road is the home of one of the men, Philip McGrath. On the front door there is a large photograph of Philip, reminiscent of an image of somebody deceased or missing. The symbolism might appear exaggerated, but emotions are running high.
A hint as to Shell's place in the Erris community can be seen at the company's local office in the village of Bangor, 15 miles from Rossport. The office is a converted purple premises in the centre of the village. The company flags it as a ''public information office'', but the doors are locked. A CCTV camera is at the front door. The buzzer is answered by a security guard who takes details and returns back inside the locked door to process the query.
This is rural Ireland, where doors are left open, where motorists park their vehicles halfway into the street, where a sense of community is still intact. If the Shell people are attempting to blend in, they're making a royal hames of it.
Mark Carrigy is the operations manager. He is from Donegal, worked abroad with Shell and now is delighted to be back in Ireland.
''There's a reason for that, '' he says darkly about the security arrangements, but doesn't elaborate. Any suggestion that the citadel might be stormed would appear ludicrous.
Carrigy makes a good case for his company. ''This is a benign gas, '' he says of the unrefined product, claiming Bord Gais would allow it in its pipes but for some relatively harmless liquids. The main bone of contention is the 345bar high pressure at which the pipe is capable of operating.
''We will only carry the gas at 110 bar, '' he says. ''The terminal could only take it at a maximum of 120 bar. The 345 is just a design feature.''
He says Shell wants the men out of jail so they can sit down and explain everything to them. ''They have been fed misinformation and halftruths, '' Carrigy says.
As for the recent news that Shell breached permission by welding sections of the pipe, Carrigy puts it down to breaking one of hundreds of conditions attached to the planning permission. His analysis, however, is largely based on trust and, according to an array of local opinion, that is something Shell is beyond at this stage.
One source in Belmullet, who remains broadly unopposed to the project, says Shell's handling of local opinion has been a disaster.
''They thought they were coming into the arse end of nowhere and all they had to do was give the peasants a smell of the pound and they would roll over and do what they were told. They really hadn't a clue.
They thought those men would spend a week in jail and give up. Since the jailings, opposition round here has gone from something like 1% to 95%.''
He declined to be identified in print because of the emotionally-charged atmosphere.
His theme is constant. Shell, like all big corporations, spends a fortune on public relations, but invested no thought into how to relate to the public of north Mayo.
Opposition is now also growing among the 30 or so landowners who did give permission for the pipe to run through their properties.
Anthony Gannon was manning the Bellenaboy picket on Friday. His parents signed up but are now regretting it.
''I was in favour of this at first, '' he says. ''I thought it might stop some of the emigration from these parts but we realise now there's no real benefit once it's built. Let them process it at sea where there's no danger.''
A resolution is difficult to envisage. The men's wives say they won't purge their contempt until Shell agrees to refine at sea. For the moment, the men remain behind bars, connected to home by sixminute phonecalls.
For Shell, it was never meant to be like this. Transglobal corporate power is supposed to be supreme in the world of today. Nobody told them how to deal with uppity locals from the west of Ireland who refused to yield to that power.
THE economic benefits the 900m Shell project would bring to Erris are largely confined to the construction phase. Over 300 jobs were to be created, some of which would be recruited locally, where jobs are at a premium.
During the last two years, up to 200 workers from as far away as Italy and Holland were brought in, giving a flllip to the economy around Belmullet.
Most have now left because of the suspension of work. When the project is built, there will be just 27 jobs, most of them requiring specialist skills.
Contrary to myth, the landowners who signed up to allow the 10km pipe through their lands were not given big compensation. Each was paid 35 per linear metre. There was no compensation for the area around the pipe route.
According to Anthony Gannon, whose parents signed up, the process was high-handed.
''They came to poor people and said, 'sign up now and you get 4,000. Otherwise we get a compulsory acquisition order and you get half that amount'.''

Posted Date: 
21 August 2006 - 1:08am