5 March 1998 Edition

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How community opposition beat international capital

By Robert Allen

TEN years ago a whisper went around east Cork. The American chemical company that had made Agent Orange for the US military wanted to build a drugs factory on the rich pastures outside Killeagh.

Local communities were galvanised into confrontation against corporate America.

Merrell Dow, a pharmaceutical subsidiary of Dow Chemicals, were all about power and money. But Cork's modern peasants were undaunted. As Adrian Peace puts it, ``not least because it evoked parallels with the distanced, imperialist authority exercised over previous centuries.''

The conflict was about the power the 26 County state and Merrell Dow believed they held over the communities in east Cork; the effluent which would destroy the livelihoods of the families who raised dairy cattle and tilled the land. Poisoned air, water and land were no good to them.

So in order to show Dublin and Merrell Dow that they had no rights over the people of east Cork, the campaign shifted into what Peace (quoting EP Thompson) has described as ``a theatre of control.''

Adrian Peace's book `A Time of Reckoning: the Politics of Discourse in Rural Ireland' tells how the people of east Cork came to totally dominate this particular theatre of control, how, in the end, Merrell Dow returned home with its tail between its legs and how the 26 County State returned to its industrial development draft, and how the mechanisms of the 26 County State were shown to be a sham.

Peace, a senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide, is no ordinary social anthropologist. Born in Huddersfield in northern England, he is one of the few academic visitors to Ireland who had a profound understanding of its people.

Peace was in the coastal village of Ballycotton when Merrell Dow arrived on the scene.

``I focused on the economics and politics of farming, kinship and community relations; the drawing of domestic and communal boundaries; local party politics, and the social organisation of coastal fishing. I was thus situated just by good fortune to focus close up on the Merrell Dow business. My family and I were profoundly attached to our community and many of its residents were fine neighbours and friends.

``By contrast, I had no such relation with the major proponents of the development. Neither Merrell Dow's managers nor senior representatives of the Irish State resided locally; they were not engaged in the area's social life, and most of their information derived from flying visits in which they had minimal contact with residents.

``The Merrell Dow management remained conspicuously aloof from the unfolding wave of opposition, with interviews seemingly granted only to conversative newspapers and business journals. Similarly in 1988, leading proponents with Cork County Council proved difficult to access, as did members of the regional political elite.''

It could be argued that the Merrell Dow conflict would not happen today, because Dublin has learned its lesson. The IDA certainly learned a lesson. When Sandoz (now Novartis) decided to come to Ringaskiddy in Cork Harbour, the 26 County State made sure there would be no repeat. Despite even greater opposition, Sandoz got to build their factory.

The lessons of Killeagh had been learned alright, but they had been learned by the state, not the people. The Sandoz campaign was characterised by domination, authority and vanguardism. There was no domination or authority or vanguardism in the Merrell Dow campaign. There was instead solidarity.

When conflicts of interest and focus arose, people split into smaller groups and got on with the task of stopping Merrell Dow.

Much of the social and ecological protest that now takes place in the 32 Counties is driven by the same single issue focus as the Merrell Dow conflict but it differs because there is little real understanding of the mechanisms of power wielded by state and industry. There is no acknowledgement about why ``the politics of discourse'' are crucial to this understanding - about power and about money.

Peace's book, more than any other book written about community opposition to undesirable development, is essential. This is the story of how successful campaigns can be run.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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