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Rossport case reveals the reality of the Celtic Tiger

Andrew Johnson

1st December 2005

The recent case of the Rossport Five has shone a spotlight on the political issues involved in oil and gas exploitation off the west coast, with the forces of the state, hand in glove with the energy multinationals, working overtime to put a handful of small farmers behind bars in the name of corporate profits. The five small farmers involved, Micheal O Seighin, Willie Cordruff, Brendan Philbin, Philip McGrath and Vincent McGrath, were jailed for contempt of court after resisting compulsory acquisition orders taken out to run a gas pipeline across their land. The five’s refusal to “purge their contempt” (legal jargon for giving in to the orders) led to their imprisonment for 94 days, only to be released after a popular outcry which gained national and international exposure. But this is only the latest act in a campaign which has sunk deep roots in Mayo over the past five years.

The Corrib field, discovered in 1996 off the Mayo coast, is believed to hold between 5 and 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, with a current worth of 15-21 billion euro. Set against the small size of the Irish state, this is big money. It is no surprise then that the Irish state should have strained every sinew to facilitate the Shell-Statoil-Marathon consortium which has been seeking to develop the field for the past five years. However, the project has run into local opposition on the Erris peninsula since the start. Foremost among local concerns has been the plan for an experimental pipeline carrying unrefined gas at an extremely high pressure for onshore refinement.

The reasons for this are quite straightforwardly to cut costs. The projected onshore refinery will employ a small number of workers – as low as 27 – at a fraction of the cost of running an expensive offshore rig. But the side effects of this corner-cutting are what have stirred up opposition in Mayo. It is foreseen that the gas pressure of the pipeline will initially be 345 Bar, believed to be the highest rate of any gas pipeline running through an inhabited area in the world, with a regular rate of 150-300 Bar, compared to domestic gas pressure of 4 Bar. Local residents quite reasonably believe that this pipeline, plus the enormous gas storage facilities that will be required, pose a threat to the safety of the local population, and have argued for offshore refining and a lower-pressure pipeline, which would be less dangerous to those in the area, although it may cost the energy multinationals a bit more. A further objection has been raised on environmental grounds, with the pipeline running through an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The Dublin government has pulled out all the stops to drive the project through, working hand in glove with the energy companies. For example, in 2003 An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission for the pipeline project after extended hearings. The government then threatened to push through a law waiving the requirement for planning permission for “critical infrastructure” projects. An Bord Pleanála then backed down and gave approval. Shell then got compulsory acquisition orders against 35 local farmers whose land lay on the route – 28 agreed to the orders, but seven resisted, and, after the state had deployed gardai against them on several occasions, five were jailed for contempt. This is how the Rossport Five case arose.

Outrage at the jailings led to serious protests in Mayo, and more sporadically across the country. What was of great significance was the absence of the trade union bureaucracy from the campaign. This is hardly surprising. The trade union leadership had sat at the side of the Government as they greased the path of the multinationals and had formally endorsed the government line through a series of formal partnership agreements designed to reassure finance capital that it would make money in Ireland. So contemptuous were ICTU of the issues behind the farmers’ case that they opened initial negotiations with the government about a new social partnership deal while the farmers languished in jail. 

Although the Mayo farmers are not obvious radicals, observers were quick to draw connections with other cases showing the less savoury side of Irish society – Nicky Kelly and Frank McBrearty, both victims of state frame-ups, were quick to show their support. It was also significant that support came from the family of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, murdered ten years ago by a corrupt government acting as Shell’s enforcer. The Irish government, on the other hand, showed absolutely no embarrassment at its role as handmaiden to the energy companies.

The Irish state’s capitulation to the energy multinationals goes back a long way, as long ago as 1967, when Des O’Malley sold the Texas-based Marathon Oil rights in perpetuity to exploit Irish oil and gas reserves for the princely consideration of £500. Between 1975 and 1987, the tax rate on oil and gas profits was set at 50%, with a guaranteed 50% stake for the state in commercial wells, plus 6% in royalties. Bearing in mind the potential of the Corrib field, the windfall for the state had this regime remained in place would have been considerable. But in 1987, then Fianna Fail energy minister Ray Burke carved up a sweetheart deal with the energy industry, waiving the state’s right to a 50% stake, abolishing royalties and drastically loosening regulation. This was reinforced in 1992 when Bertie Ahern halved the corporation tax rate on oil and gas profits to 25%, amongst the lowest rates in the world, and weakening even that by allowing the energy companies to write off all costs against tax, with the extremely loose definition of costs – covering commercial activity going back 25 years, and not even restricted to activity on Irish territory – meaning that an energy company with enterprising accountants could avoid paying any corporation tax at all.

This is of a piece with the Irish state’s policy of fostering growth through inward investment. It is argued that, in the era of globalisation and outsourcing, corporate taxes have to be set low to attract investment. But, even if that were credible in general, the same logic does not apply to extractive industries. Oil and gas companies have to go where the oil and gas are – the Corrib field can’t be exploited in China. This is how the government of the Faroe Islands, hardly an international superpower, can levy a 55% tax take on oil and gas profits, and Norway 78%, and still have thriving oil and gas industries. This will not of course occur to those, like the Fianna Fail-PD government, who think that extremely low corporate taxes and regulations that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on are good things in themselves. So the wealth of the Corrib field, which could be used to benefit society, will simply be sucked into the coffers of Shell, Statoil and Marathon.

We have here in microcosm some of the essential features of modern Irish politics. There is corruption, in the deals brokered by Burke to give huge breaks to the energy industry. There are the forces of the state working in a nakedly banana republic manner to enforce the will of the multinationals. Laws are bent, broken or rewritten at the drop of a hat to accommodate capital. The trade union leadership sit alongside, ready to police any dissent and marginalise what it can’t control directly.

It is no accident that the Nigerian community were in full support of the Mayo farmers. Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian state for his defence of local people and, although the level of repression in Nigeria is astronomically higher, the bare bones of the situation are similar. Shell’s interests come first.

In part this is because the capitalist classes in both countries have evolved in a comparable way, appealing to the population on a programme of independence, finding themselves incapable of advancing that independence and discovering that their economic interests are in fact on all major issues identical with those of imperialism.

The Rossport campaign shows the existence of a layer of anti-imperialist radicalism within the Irish population and a willingness to take on the Irish state and capitalist class. The fact that the campaign was based on community and direct action indicates that many activists are still oblivious to the dead hand of the union bureaucracy, stifling a broader fightback.


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