By Miriam Cotton
In April 2006, life-long native of Erris, Co Mayo, Willie Corduff was honoured to go to California to accept the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize – awarded to him for his efforts to protect his community from environmental and other threats it faces from the proposed Shell/ Statoil/ Marathon Consortium’s Corrib Gas project. The Goldman is awarded annually to just six people from around the world. Here was a big story: a source of national pride, with international significance and full of human and social interest. Yet there was only a relatively low-key murmur about it in the Irish national media.
Three years later almost to the day Corduff allegedly found himself attacked and viciously beaten by a number of men in balaclavas.
By the early hours of April 23rd, 2009, Corduff had spent much of the previous day trying to prevent the erection with dubious permission of fencing for a Shell compound above Glengad Beach in Broadhaven Bay, by sitting under a Shell works truck and so rendering it inoperative. The sandy beach cliff at Glengad is home to a much-loved population of sand martins but it is also the proposed landfall site for the 92km, globally unprecedented, pipeline of highly volatile raw gas – from seven well heads out in the Corrib field. Having hit the landfall at Glengad, Shell say the pressure will, if the project goes ahead, be reduced from the extremely high 345-bar pressure to 144-bar via a ‘reduction valve’ and then travel a further 9 kilometers inland, criss-crossing the exquisitely beautiful Broadhaven Bay, to a proposed refinery at Ballinaboy.
Following the alleged assault on Corduff, again, the national media have been strangely reticent in key respects. Most reports, at first, relied on Garda statements which focused on a separate allegation that earlier the same night ‘an armed gang’ had frightened off two Shell security men and taken down the fencing – ‘with paramilitary precision’– but omitting mention of any attack on Corduff or of the beating sustained by his brother-in-law, Pete Lavelle, who says he had tried to help Corduff when he was attacked. As other accounts of the incident began to surface from alternative sources, further Garda statements mentioned that an ambulance had been called for Corduff to take him to Mayo General Hospital because he had been ‘feeling unwell’.
An RTE report on the 23rd April is typical. Brian Dobson in Dublin and Teresa Mannion in Mayo emphasised at every turn the removal of the fencing while noticeably understating what Corduff believes was a serious attempt on his life. His wife, Mary Corduff, has expressed her dismay at how her interview with Mannion was presented – most of her testimony edited out and chopped to imply that her husband had been happily sitting under the truck until, as then qualified by Dobson, he was ‘led by gardai’ to an ambulance.
According to Corduff, unable to stand or walk, he was carried by paramedics on a stretcher. Corduff says of his attackers ‘they knelt on the side of my head and neck and on the side of my chest, my airways were constricted and I couldn’t breathe. One of them jumped repeatedly on the inside of one leg. Eventually, my tongue fell out of my mouth and when they saw that, they stopped. I think they thought I was gone.’ Corduff says he heard one of them say “ ‘Stop now lads, he’s nearly finished’. I could see two gardai mingling with the people who attacked me who were still wearing the balaclavas but none were arrested.’”
For the first five or six years of the ten-year-old dispute in north-west Mayo the media reaction was mainly one of indifference. That all changed when, in 2005, four farmers and a retired school principal – ‘The Rossport Five’ – including Willie Corduff, were jailed for refusing to comply with an injunction by Shell requiring them to allow access to their land for works on the project. The story was iconic: five Davids were taking on three colossal Goliaths on points of safety, environmental, social and national economic principle. Support for the men poured in from all over the country. After toughing out the negative media onslaught for 94 days, Shell, the majority shareholder in the project, was effectively forced to concede the public relations disaster their injunction had generated – though a face-saving explanation was found for lifting it – a course of action they had been adamant they could not and would not take.
Shell is to go on trial in the US on the 26th of May for its activities in the Niger Delta where Ken Saro Wiwa, was hanged with eight other men by the Nigerian government following his determined opposition to Shell activities there. In his book about Corrib “The Price of our Souls: Gas, Shell and Ireland”, Michael McCaughan, who often writes for the Irish Times, though not about Rossport, quotes the observations of Kevin O’ Hara, the founder of the Centre for Social and Corporate Responsibility in Port Harcourt, Nigeria about what he saw in Mayo:
“I pulled up in my car and people jumped out at me and were taking photographs of me and my car and my number plate…I realized, oh boy, here we go again, Shell in Ireland…I was very saddened to see all of the same mistakes, a repeat of what I saw in Nigeria and it was happening in County Mayo, Ireland”.
Was there a planned, behind–the-scenes campaign to smear the reputation of the community in response to the popularity of The Rossport Five? In October 2006, almost exactly a year after their release, a large force of gardai was sent to Ballinaboy where they began to physically engage with local people participating in the ongoing, non violent direct action to prevent the construction of an onshore gas refinery. A baton charge ensued and many people were injured. Since then, the victims have, in the media narrative, become the aggressors. Community campaigners, outraged by the perceived inversion of truth which the national media mostly repeat without question, can scarcely get their experiences heard, let alone reported. The media now frequently send crime correspondents to cover the story and the Irish Times and Sunday Independent now deploy their “Security correspondents”. These reporters are invariably obliged to work closely with the Garda as the primary source of their information.
The community’s protest campaign is said by some to be functioning as a ‘recruiting ground’ for dissident IRA terrorists. The protest in Erris includes people with political views from left to right. Willie Corduff says ‘this would have been a Fianna Fail area mostly’. The presence of Sinn Fein supporters among the campaigners is nevertheless frequently used to imply unspecified ‘sinister’ motives. Not to be outdone for invective by Kevin Myers at the Independent, Peter Murtagh at the Irish Times has made a habit of weighing in with tendentious opinion columns on this subject. Here is his attempt to link the Erris protest to the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll.
“Asked if the campaign against Shell welcomed the support it gets from Republican Sinn Féin, thought by the PSNI and Garda to be the political wing of the Continuity IRA which murdered Const Stephen Carroll, Ó Mongáin [a protestor] said: “We welcome support from everyone and every quarter, we won’t deny support from anyone.” (Irish Times 16th March 2009).
Peter Murtagh, the opinion-column editor of the Irish Times has now written two opinion pieceds of Myersesque vituperation about Rossport, the second of which finishes, “Willie Corduff ‘very badly beaten up’ by Shell’s mercenary thugs? I don’t know because I wasn’t there and I’ve yet to see supporting evidence. But that won’t deter some people pronouncing it as fact”. It is an extraordinary journalistic that he combines such venom with such factual unawareness. The fact is Mr Corduff says he was beaten up. Village has ascertained without difficulty the fact that the hospital verifies the injuries that Mr Murtagh questions. He says, “ I asked Shell to Sea last Wednesday whether Corduff would detail his injuries and publish his hospital records to confirm his medical condition on admission. The request was acknowledged but I have yet to obtain the information”. Maybe his venom was premature in the absence of the facts and in the absence of an attempt to talk to Mr Corduff himself or his family or the hospital. Why does such a reputable journalist, one who enjoyed a stellar career in the Guardian and was editor of the Sunday Tribune before takin g his position in the Irish Times, take such an extraordinarily partisan approach for Goliath on this David v Goliath issue?
The irony is that when it comes to violence and sinister behaviour, it is the government and Shell who have a case to answer according to many Erris people who say they have suffered at the hands of both the Gardai and IRMS the security firm employed by Shell. There is a lot of publicly-available video evidence which appears to support that contention. A former employee of IRMS in Co Mayo, Limerick man Michael Dwyer, was recently shot dead in Bolivia suspected by the Bolivian government of being involved in a mercenary plot to assassinate the country’s president, Evo Morales. Though there does not seem to be a link, it is notable that Bolivia is yet another sovereign, democratic country where private oil and gas interests are are doing their utmost to prise ownership of energy resources out of public hands.
It is scarcely reported in the mainstream media that two of the four local groups opposing the present configuration of the project, Pobal Chill Chomain and Pobal Le Cheile (Shell to Sea and The Rossport Solidarity Camp being the other two), have put forward a considered, practical and viable alternative that would permit Shell to bring the gas ashore at Glinsk – away from homes and from the seriously endangered drinking water supply at Carrowmore Lake and from the special areas of conservation threatened with destruction by the current plan. Shell has rejected this compromise claiming that cliff faces at the alternative site are an insuperable obstacle. This is an industry that can extract oil from 20K feet below the sea bed in the Shenzi field off the coast of Louisiana so boring through the cliff face would not be a technical problem. Nevertheless, it is still the community who are depicted by Shell and their many media supporters of being difficult and uncompromising because they decline ‘discussions’ which require them to accept much of the Consortium’s plan as a foregone conclusion before those ‘discussions’ can even begin.
On hearing of the attack on Corduff, officers of the Goldman Environmental Prize in California were seriously alarmed. Recipients of the prize from all over the world have in recent days written to President Mary MacAleese and Taoiseach Brian Cowen protesting the treatment of Corduff and urging the Irish government to reconsider the foreign-owned consortium’s plans for Corrib Gas. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has also issued a statement in support of Corduff and called for an independent international inquiry into the events of 23rd April and the project as a whole. And Seamus Heaney has expressed serious concern. The results of a Google search on the internet show that at the time of writing, aside from regional reports from the Irish Times’ Western Correspondent, Lorna Siggins – who has been consistently balanced in her reporting throughout this saga – there has been no other mention of these significant international developments in our national media. Why are our national media typically so reticent about the Community’s agenda in this issue?