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17 April 2008 Edition

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Erris community takes gas concerns to Norway

Noel Campbell

Noel Campbell

By Noel Campbell
Mayo Sinn Féin Councillor

LIFE has been breathed into attempts to end the impasse surrounding the Corrib Gas controversy that has blighted the people of Mayo for almost a decade with a visit to Norway by residents from Erris.
A community delegation of concerned residents from the Erris region of the county travelled to Norway between 9 and 11 April to raise awareness of the concerns that exist about the Corrib Gas project and to deliver an alternative that they hope will move the situation forward.
The group consisted of farmers, fishermen, members of the Rossport Five and their wives as well as myself, Councillor Noel Campbell of Sinn Féin, Michael D Higgins of the Labour Party and Councillor Niall Ó Brolcháin of the Green Party.
The aim of the three-day visit was to bring the reality of the damaging effects the project has forced on the now highly-charged rural community to the Norwegian public.
The Norwegian state has over 60 per cent control of Statoil which in turn has a 36.5 per cent interest in the Corrib project. The delegation also hoped to gain support for an alternative site suggestion for the unprecedented refinery which they see as a particular sticking point.
The delegation’s first engagement in Oslo was with Heidi Lundeberg, the vice-president of ATTAC Norway, a global organisation that fights on issues about globalisation. ATTAC has taken an even keener interest in the Mayo story due to the Norwegian state’s involvement.
A strong awareness of the Corrib project has grown among European left-wing activist groups and NGOs. Influencing government policy in relation to Statoil was an important goal for the Irish group and so it was a major plus that four MPs agreed to hold talks in the Storting building, the Norwegian parliament, on behalf of their political parties. The parliamentarians – two from Sinn Féin’s sister party in the European Parliament, the Socialist Left, and two from the Centre Party – represent two of the parties in the three-party coalition in Norway. The third and largest party, the Labour Party, did not attend for reasons not explained. The Socialist Left holds the important Ministry of Environment while the Minister of Petroleum and Energy hails from the Centre Party.
The elected representatives appeared genuinely sickened when shown footage of the Garda brutality experienced by local protestors. Bríd Uí Sheighin and Mary Corduff, wives of Rossport Five men Micheál Ó Seighin and Willie Corduff, gave first-hand accounts of the treatment meted out to those who peacefully protest at the refinery site. The parliamentarians assured the delegation that they would take its message back to their parliament’s Environment and Energy Committee and to the ministers with direct responsibility. It is hoped that Centre Party members will visit the Bellinaboy site when they travel to Ireland at the end of this month.
Trade union support for the people of Erris in Norway is hugely influential. Meetings with representatives of the trade union SAFE, including its leader Terje Nustad, proved very useful. SAFE is the main confederation of oil and gas industry workers in Norway and represents 7,000 industry personnel. Nustad has already visited Mayo to demonstrate his union’s support for the local protests. Also as productive was the delegation’s meeting with a main NGO forum that represents numerous environment, aid and solidarity groups. The forum helped secure interviews with Norway’s national broadcaster and the print media which was essential in getting the message out. Through the forum, the Erris delegation intends extending its contacts to the Human Rights Centre in Oslo University, the European Coalition for Corporate Justice and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Watch to further scrutinise the actions of the ‘Corrib Gas Partners’ in Mayo.
A planned meeting with Statoil representatives was threatened by interference from the company’s offices in Dublin. The oil giant’s Irish headquarters still deem dialogue with Mayo farmers, fishermen and wives as a threat. After much negotiating and phone calls, a welcome turn of events occurred. The Oslo office agreed to meet the delegation but not before Statoil’s Chief of European Production and Development, Helge Hatlestad, was flown in from London to chair proceedings.
His position was expected. He believes the delegation’s problem lay with Shell as they were the operators of the project. Refusing to accept that Statoil, with 38 per cent interest in the Corrib project, could simply wipe its hands of the situation, delegate Vincent McGrath used the opportunity to deliver a letter from three priests from the parish of Kilcommon. The letter contained a suggested alternative to the controversial site for the proposed refinery which Vincent McGrath asked the representatives to take to the Corrib Gas Partners management meeting where Shell, Statoil and the third partner, Marathon Oil meet to discuss the project.
Whatever the result of the meeting, Hatlestad, a senior employee of Statoil was given an uncensored image of life on the ground for the people of Erris and, importantly, admitted that mistakes had been made in choosing a site for the refinery.
Statoil were invited to send a fact-finding team to Mayo to witness conditions for themselves.
Many deliberate factors have attempted to drag the Corrib Gas controversy to a halt. The Irish media and Government pretend no problem exists in Erris while Mayo TDs choose not to speak of it. Against this flow stands the section of the Erris community that believes health and safety issues have not been satisfactorily dealt with. Silence from some quarters, coupled with admissions of wrongdoing from others, point to a situation that is far from favourable. The journey of local men and women from Erris to push their case and attempt to seek a resolution in Norway has again breathed life into the entire Corrib Gas debate. No one can accuse them of allowing this situation to stagnate.

An Phoblacht Magazine

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