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Irish Times: Compromise in Corrib gas dispute: “There is no doubt that Shell miscalculated badly if its management thought to intimidate other likely protesters by making an example of these men.”: “Shell's public image has been seriously damaged.”: Thursday Aug 04, 2005


It is now days since five men went to jail for refusing to give an undertaking that they would not obstruct work on the construction of the Corrib gas pipeline in North Mayo. They have been in court on a number of occasions since that time. And, in spite of an invitation from High Court president, Mr Justice Finnegan, to purge their contempt and his observation that there was no sense in their remaining in jail, they have continued to opt for incarceration.


High stakes are being played for here. When the protests began some months ago, the great majority of local people had come to accept - after years of controversy and public debate - that the processing of natural gas from the Corrib field would take place on shore. The jailing of the men, following legal action by Shell E&P Ireland, has changed that situation.


Public opinion in the locality has become inflamed and there is now strong support for the protesters. A statement from the Erris Inshore Fishermen's Association, last Tuesday, said its members would fish in Broadhaven Bay and would not co-operate with Shell in the laying of a necessary off-shore pipeline while the men remained in jail.


There is no doubt that Shell miscalculated badly if its management thought to intimidate other likely protesters by making an example of these men. Multinational companies in the oil and gas industry are accustomed to flexing their muscles and getting their way with governments. In its anxiety to develop the gas field, Shell overstepped its authority and undertook work that was not specifically sanctioned by Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources Noel Dempsey. It has since been directed to undo that work. And a special safety review of the project is being commissioned in order to reassure the local community.


None of this has satisfied the five men and their closest supporters. They have rejected the promised safety review. They have been successful in lobbying local politicians and in politicising the issue. And they have accused Mr Dempsey of favouring the Shell development. Having attracted public sympathy through their incarceration, the men are using that sentiment in their campaign against on-shore processing and the construction of a high-pressure pipeline.


A land-based terminal is favoured by Shell and by its partners, Marathon and Statoil, because of cost considerations. The Government accepted that approach. And as world energy prices soar, it is anxious to exploit the 2 billion gas field in the national interest.


Mr Dempsey has attempted to cool the situation by commissioning a new safety review. But, while the men remain in jail, emotion - rather than cool objectivity - is likely to remain the driving force behind local opinion. Shell's public image has been seriously damaged. But it has economic might in its favour. Both sides will have to compromise if a satisfactory solution is to be found. 


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