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31 January 2008 Edition

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Serious questions have been asked about the way in which exploration licences were issued by Minister Ray Burke in 1992

Serious questions have been asked about the way in which exploration licences were issued by Minister Ray Burke in 1992

The cost of the Corrib

The Price of Our Souls: Gas, Shell and Ireland
By Michael McCaughan
Published by Afri - Action from Ireland (Dublin)
Price €10


Reviewed by
Gerry Murray

SINCE the beginning of the national media’s interest in the scheme to install a production pipeline and gas refinery in a residential district and conservation area in County Mayo, the position of Sinn Féin has been given huge attention. Lurid claims of republicans pulling the strings of the Shell to Sea campaign have been printed in the O’Reilly papers, crediting the party with almost supernatural powers of persuasion and organisation. It’s a mark of respect for the party that, of all the left-wing groups in the country who oppose the project, only we are seen to be capable of delivering an outcome that would be unfavourable to big business and their political allies.
Of course, while Sinn Féin has had a significant input into the protests against the scheme, and especially the Leinster House Government’s appalling decision to give away the state’s natural resources for free (even Equatorial Guinea gets a better deal from its oil and gas than we do), most fair-minded observers would agree that the party has not in any sense been directing the course of the campaign.
It’s interesting to note then, that in Michael McCaughan’s timely new book on the Corrib saga, The Price of our Souls: Gas, Shell and Ireland, Sinn Féin is hardly mentioned at all! McCaughan, an Irish Times journalist who has written widely on Latin America and social justice issues, seems, like a lot of people on the ‘alternative left’, to be largely unaware of Sinn Féin’s existence.
Having made that point, the book provides a welcome overview of the current situation regarding Irish natural resources and the Erris scheme. It could be said that each facet of the campaign against Shell deserves a book of its own, and The Price of our Souls, at only 120 pages, can only gloss over issues like environmental degradation, destruction of fisheries, political pressure, Garda harassment, project splitting and the saga of the water contamination in Carrowmore Lake.
McCaughan can only sketch in the various twists and turns. He does however, provide a clear context for the Government’s attitude to the nation’s natural resource, and perhaps that’s the big picture that is necessary to really understand this project. Ultimately, the Corrib gas dispute is not about Rossport, pipeline pressure, pollution and contamination of water or police brutality. The argument comes down to a dispute about ownership and stewardship of resources.
The author raises the example of Bolivia, where the government there recently brought in sweeping measures to ensure a reasonable return for the people from their oil and gas and tore up agreements made by previous right-wing administrations. In Russia, Venezuela and Ecuador there have been high-profile cases where the state has intervened to take back resources from private hands. And the trend for countries taking control of their energy assets is spreading around the world as the price of energy rockets.
McCaughan points out that while the international financial community ritually issues dire warnings about the future (the Bolivian decision will “jeopardise future investments in the country”, said the Financial Times), there was in fact no negative impact, and Shell and the other energy companies always quickly fall into line with the new arrangements.
Sadly, here in Ireland the state insists on giving away 100 per cent of oil and gas finds, there is no partnership with a state company, and the tax situation is so friendly for the energy companies that many doubt if the state will ever see any return at all.
It is such a pity that this government lacks the backbone to stand up to Norway and Shell and renegotiate this flawed and corrupt deal.
One must contrast their ‘servant boy’ attitude to that of the Democratic Party in America who recently put a Bill through Congress that will effectively repeal a tax break oil and gas companies received in 2004 that effectively lowered their corporate tax rates. The Bill will also bar oil and gas companies from bidding on new federal licences unless they pay a fee on or renegotiate improperly drafted licences that did not require royalty payments on Gulf of Mexico production.
The Bill will take in an estimated $13 billion to $15 billion in revenues over a five-year period for the American exchequer.
One must contrast the actions of the American Congress with that of the sickening subservience of the Dublin Government.
In August 2005, when the Rossport men were in jail and serious questions were being asked in relation to the exploration licences issued by Minister Ray Burke in 1992, Minister Noel Dempsey issued a new batch of those self-same licences. In August 2006, after the Centre for Public Inquiry conclusively proved that the licences were indeed flawed, the response of the Government and Minister Noel Dempsey was to issue another batch of the same flawed licences to the oil and gas industry.
Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil is saying that the Corrib gas deal must stand and that it cannot be broken. As far as Fine Gael is concerned, the ‘rule of law’ must be upheld. But as the American Congress so graphically and courageously illustrated in the last number of months, the rule of law can be changed and amended so that it serves the interests of the people and not the interests of a small and privileged elite.
Michael McCaughan sees no sign of a change in the political culture which allows for the great giveaway of resources but this might be because of a political blindspot he suffers from.
“Can anyone think of a single Irish TD who could stand up in the Dáil and demand... to nationalise oil and gas reserves?” he asks. Any Sinn Féin member could name four and a senator. Sinn Féin is the third biggest party in Mayo and in the country but, sadly, the author of this book, like a lot of people, hasn’t yet noticed that.


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