Territorial waters

Harry Browne

Harry Browne

Speaking in October, the general-president of the trade union SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, made a connection between Shell’s pipeline in Mayo and Irish Ferries’ attempts to shed its Irish workers. It was, O’Connor said, a matter of big companies trampling on little people, and it was time that ‘all the small people stood together in this country against the big people who are going to bury us all’.

It’s an irresistible rhetorical point, and hard on the face of it to dispute. However, when one gazes out from tiny Rossport pier at the beautiful mouth of a western estuary with the improbable and rather Swiftian name of Sruwaddacon Bay, or looks over some of the recent history of Irish Ferries, it appears that there is more to these corporate Gullivers than mere cruel indifference to the fate of the Lilliputians. In an Irish political autumn that featured numerous tales of state incompetence, we were prone to forget about the capacity for sheer institutional idiocy in the private sector. The stories of Shell and Irish Ferries should have been a reminder, because they are rife with what appears to be bumbling corporate folly hiding meekly behind a little slick PR and the news media’s relative indifference.

Shell’s stupidity is not lost on the activists who regularly cluster at the Kilcommon parish hall in Glenamoy, Co. Mayo. In lively, well-informed discussions, dotted with incongruous engineering jargon, among dozens of lifelong locals and a handful of blow-ins, strength is drawn from the multinational travails of Shell: its share price, its legal battles with its own investors who accused the company of fraud, its difficulties in Nigeria (including kidnapping of its staff), in Russia (including a $10 billion cost overrun), in China. The activists seem to believe that the increasingly unpopular project in their community is in trouble, not only because of their own activity, but because Shell’s plan is inherently unsustainable: 9km of pipeline across boggy farmland and forestry, leading to a processing plant at Bellanaboy, from where half-a-million tonnes of peat have to be removed and much of the rest mixed with cement before the terminal can be built on more stable bedrock. Yes, as has been well publicized, they fear the explosive effects of a pipeline rupture, and the more insidious effect of the Bellanaboy plant on neighbouring Carrowmore Lake, just over a mile away, which supplies water to north-west Mayo. Yes, they resent the callous and occasionally illegal way the project has proceeded. But they are also prepared, given the chance, to save Shell from itself.

‘Shell’ is a label of convenience for the Corrib Onshore Gas Pipeline, which has a complex corporate provenance. The Shell subsidiary responsible for the development was called Enterprise Energy Ireland for most of the last decade, changing recently to Shell E&P Ireland. Norway’s state-owned Statoil is a partner in the project – despite adverse publicity at home – as is Texas-based Marathon Oil. Shell, however, is the largest shareholder at 45 per cent and has been calling the shots for the nine years since recoverable natural gas was found in the Corrib field, some 70km offshore and 3km below the seabed. Estimates of its worth range from €3 billion to €20 billion.

In the course of the controversy that erupted into national consciousness in 2005, the 1992 deal by which the state gets precisely none of the assets of offshore exploration in the Corrib field – some ‘royalty’ percentage would be common in such arrangements, even in notoriously corrupt countries – has come into focus, with the name of the energy minister who brokered much of the deal, Fianna Fáil’s Ray Burke, bandied about significantly. It seems that after meeting with oil-company representatives Burke concluded that certain changes were necessary to attract investment: no state role and no royalties, as well as a reduction of the tax on income from such fields to 25 per cent, among the lowest rates in the world, and a full write-off for exploration costs. (By contrast, regulations established in 1975 by Justin Keating, the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, established that the state would be a 50 per cent shareholder in any commercially viable finds, would tax the income from the energy resource at 50 per cent and would also claim 6 to 7 per cent royalties.)

The 1992 deal would hardly have been noticed were it not for the more colossally strange 2000 deal (not actually announced until March 2001) that eventually drew Rossport and its resisters into the picture: Shell’s acquisition of the land at Bellanaboy for a terminal where the gas could be processed. In a rather piquant irony, this later deal on the location of the plant was itself, in part, the culmination of a local campaign, in which Mayo’s politicians were enlisted, to ensure that the Corrib gas came ashore in Mayo, ensuring some benefit to the little-developed region that lies closest to the gassy spot under the seabed. For most locals, as anti-pipeline campaigners acknowledge, the greatest ‘danger’ in the late 1990s was the possibility that Sligo would get the gas.

Opinion shifted in 2005, as the way was cleared for Shell to begin work in earnest. The work, and the direct campaign against it, made it clear that Shell had made some troubling choices. The technology exists to process the gas on the seabed, sending it back to land with the reduced pressure and added ‘gas’ smell that would ease protesters’ minds; they could have done this processing on a platform adjacent to the well; on a platform nearer the shore; on an uninhabited island or offshore rock; right on the shoreline; or, finally, inland, running what is essentially a production pipeline half a metre in diameter full of ‘raw’ gas across the sea-floor and the Mayo landscape. (This approach also requires a smaller pipe carrying waste material from the processing plant back across the land and out to sea in the opposite direction.) Shell’s decision to adopt this last option is often described as a simple matter of cost-saving. It is indeed the cheapest choice in the long run, removing some of the logistical expense involved in offshore extraction. The infrastructure for the new processing terminal would include the decent regional road it sits upon – a road that was recently improved with the company’s money. (All in all, it appears the project has cost Shell about €400 million so far.) Such a facility and such infrastructure would come in all the more handy if, as many suspect, there turns out to be oil as well as gas in the Corrib field: there is plenty of room in Shell’s 400 acres at Bellanaboy for an oil refinery to add its permanent bonfires to those from the gas plant.

Nonetheless, just a few hours nosing around Bellanaboy and the route from there to the sea would make anyone wonder if Shell could possibly have chosen this site as a result of a rational process of exploration and elimination, or if the decision was made, essentially, for its political convenience. The 400 acres belonged to the state forestry company, Coillte. There was no public consultation about the sale of the land, and no public tender (as called for in Coillte’s own non-binding guidelines). Shell applied for planning permission for a terminal on the site in late 2000, five months before Coillte announced it had transferred the land.

Did Shell even consider another site? The most thorough investigation of the project, a 377-page report for An Bord Pleanála in 2002 by inspector Kevin Moore, concluded: ‘There is no evidence in the totality of the documentation now before the Board that specific alternative terminal sites were seriously investigated.’

This must have looked like a convenient marriage between state assets and power and those of a private company, but local opponents suspect it operated on the Liam Lawlor model of partnership. In any case, Bellanaboy is simply not as convenient as it looks on a map, where it appears to sit little more than two miles from the shore of Sruwaddacon Bay, near where the Glenamoy River runs into it. In reality the relationships among river, bay and sea are more fluid: this is a tidal estuary, with expanses of shifting sand exposed and hidden four times a day, and powerful currents winding their way through it. It’s a great spot for wintering wildfowl, but not a good place to lay a pipeline.

In addition to making available the Coillte land, in 2002 the government empowered the project to compulsorily acquire the pipeline route, the first time a private operator has got such power in Ireland. The company didn’t have to buy whole plots of land: it got legalized access, paying a modest price per linear metre, to lay the pipe across land that otherwise remained the property of its owners. It was Shell’s attempt to enforce this access that led to the imprisonment of the resisting landowners who became known as the Rossport Five.

Whether or not Shell was aware from the start of the Bellanaboy site’s complications, all of its subsequent problems flow from this choice of location. Those problems go beyond the handful of men who are prepared to go to jail to keep the pipeline off their land. Contrary to some media reports (including an Irish Times editorial in October stating that ‘Shell’s proposals went through the full gamut of the planning process during which those who objected were given full rights to make known their views’), the pipeline itself, unlike the terminal, was never directly subject to any planning process, and it’s hard to imagine it would have survived such an enquiry. (It has proceeded instead with a series of quiet ministerial permissions outside the planning process.) The plan is for it to approach the shore through Broad Haven bay, then touch land near the remains of ancient promontory forts at Dooncarton, on the south side of the entrance of Sruwaddacon Bay, out beyond the tiny village of Pollatomish. From there the route quickly crosses the mouth of Sruwaddacon Bay to its north bank, running 1.2 metres under the surface of the farmland that rises from the water to the tiny one-lane road that skirts what little there is of the village of Rossport. If you drive along that road the intended pipeline route is clearly visible perhaps 30 metres away. A few houses sit a similar distance away on the other side of the road: this is the heartland of the Rossport conflict, where nearly half the land-distance the pipeline must traverse crosses the property of the resisting men and their families. At a small intersection of roads is the Rossport ‘compound’ for the project, where digging equipment and bits of pipe lie around and a fleet of Italian jeeps from the Parma-based pipeline specialists Sicim are parked. (Few local people have been employed by Shell, but the Italians at least inspire some affection. ‘That Claudio is a nice fella,’ one of the Rossport Five remarked casually in my presence.)

All around there are roadside signs, Irish tricolours, banners, graffiti, even a slogan etched in the bog. ‘Enda where are you?’; ‘RTÉ tell the truth’; ‘You can jail the resisters but you cannot jail the resistance’. From this hostile territory the route goes back across the bay/river to cut through Coillte forestry en route to Bellanaboy. It’s on this last stretch, across the water from the Rossport resistance, that Shell illegally welded a stretch of pipeline in mid-2005, anticipating another phase of ministerial permission that had not yet come.

Even to eyes accustomed to the charms of the west of Ireland, this is stunning and largely unspoiled countryside. Some of it offers a plausible first impression of emptiness. Much of it is deep blanket bog, covered with grasses that change colour as the weather shifts, which of course it does constantly. Some of the argument against the pipeline arises from the nature of the land, if not precisely its beauty: there was a major bogslide in September 2003 from the heights of Dooncarton and into Pollatomish, just across the narrow bay from the pipe route. Locals point to the reconstructed cemetery wall, and tell of buried bodies that were washed into the water.

The planning process for the terminal at Bellanaboy was by no means a formality for Shell, which was knocked back a bit between its initial application to Mayo County Council in November 2000 and the eventual granting of permission by An Bord Pleanála in October 2004. Planning officials worried about the pipeline, even though it was outside their remit, but gave most of their attention to the unsuitability of the site itself. An Bord Pleanála rejected it outright in April 2003, on the foot of Kevin Moore’s devastating inspector’s report. Moore concluded, among other things, that Ireland’s interests would be better served by waiting some years for the Corrib gas, when it could meet domestic shortfalls; that the plan wasn’t aiding the local area, where infrastructure was not in place to distribute the gas, but bypassing it entirely; that a shallow-water terminal near the shore ‘appears a better option from an environmental perspective’; and that the developer’s ‘narrow assessment of alternatives is seriously deficient’.

Moore severely criticized the developers for failing to address questions about whether and how they’d examined alternatives to the Bellanaboy site. In part he blamed the Minister for the Marine for granting ‘premature’ approval to the overall plan and the laying of pipeline, thus creating a ‘perception to some degree that the granting of planning permission for the processing terminal … is a fait accompli’.

Moore’s concerns about a fait accompli appeared well founded when, in 2004, amid local allegations of political pressure, An Bord Pleanála approved a revised plan that incorporated 75 conditions set by the county council, including the extraordinary transfer of much of the surface peat at Bellanaboy to another bog 11km away at Bangor. This work was halted by protests after about 100,000 tons, or roughly a fifth of the required total, had been removed. A fleet of giant lorries remains parked inside the gates, awaiting peace and dry weather to continue with this messy work, which has required a traffic management plan to cope with the perhaps 25,000 trips needed to complete the transfer. Local protesters have been allowing environmental work to go on at the terminal site – it might be more accurate to say they have been waiting for such work to take place – fearing the consequences for their water supply of the already-begun chemical ‘hardening’ of some of the remaining bog.

Campaigners’ fears about the pipeline itself have attracted more publicity, partly because their capacity to interfere with Shell’s proceedings at Rossport is greater than at Bellanaboy, where the road is good and the entrance wide. The campaign claims it can round up 200 blockaders at a couple of hours’ notice, but at Rossport nothing like that number is needed, with long single-lane roads across the bog being all that connects the pipeline route to the wider world. It is this little-remarked-upon strategic advantage that makes it impossible to imagine a settlement here without the Rossport landowners’ consent. And without a radical change in Shell’s plans that consent is virtually impossible to envisage, especially after the government’s autumn safety hearing was told by a US navy expert that a pipeline rupture would have a ‘kill radius’ of one mile. Shell quibbles about the gas pressures required to reach such a figure, but at no conceivable pressure can the pipeline be considered safe for Rossport in the event that it breaks. Opponents call this placing of a production pipeline (i.e. one carrying untreated high-pressure gas) so far inland ‘experimental’, and while Shell can in fact point to similar lines in other parts of the world, none appears to pass so near to human habitation.

However, it is important to understand that today the argument transcends these few miles of Rossport. Even if Shell were to do a deal with the landowners, it seems unlikely that the growing wider community of opposition in the area – they now call themselves the Bogoni, after the Ogoni people who have resisted Shell’s activities in Nigeria – will tolerate the project as it stands under any circumstances, and they probably have the capacity and tactical know-how to stop it.

A phoney peace of sorts prevailed in autumn 2005. The Rossport Five had been released from prison. Shell’s patience was scarcely being tried unduly, given that the asset they were sitting on had skyrocketed in value as energy prices rose. In October, parent company Royal Dutch Shell reported record net income of $9 billion. Mayo locals noted hopefully that no work had been done on the offshore section of the pipeline, even though clear ministerial permission had been in place for that since August. Whispers in the corporate world, audible to some business journalists, suggested that Shell was preparing to pull out of Rossport and go back to the drawing board; having said that winter weather would prevent any work before 2006, the company had bought itself thinking time.

The national media got over its brief flurry of ‘Rossport heroes’ stories, and editorial writers who hadn’t been near the place returned to the lines they had been fed all summer by Shell’s PR people – even when they conflicted with what reporters had seen on the ground – or their papers simply went back to neglecting the issue between court appearances. Little notice was paid to the corporate missteps (almost certainly led by state players) that had landed Shell precisely where it wasn’t wanted. And the same went for Irish Ferries, even as its exploits threatened to bring down the long-standing system of ‘social partnership’ in the Republic.

On the face of it, it’s hard to imagine circumstances more different from those in Mayo than the dispute at Irish Ferries. In Rossport, when a man on a protest blockade mutters about ‘strangers’, he could be talking about a haulage contractor from Galway, or a security man from Ballina, or a welder from Bologna, or a corporate executive from London. The word conjures up Cromwell and the Royal Irish Constabulary. No number of Nigerian festivals in the parish hall to remember Ken Saro-Wiwa can lift the sense of insularity, of territoriality, that hovers over the remote region like the fog hovers on the hills.

The high seas, by contrast, are the height of cosmopolitanism, where strangers meet on every voyage and in every port, and where capital and labour alike have long seen the benefits of forging international links. Yet when Irish Ferries announced plans to sack 543 employees and ‘outsource’ their jobs to non-unionized east-Europeans, while reflagging vessels to the Bahamas, a conflict emerged to endanger not only ‘social partnership’, but also the consensus about the desirability of immigrant labour that has united the egalitarian left and the free-enterprise right.

As in Rossport, a contest that seems elemental and based in fundamental principles for both sides actually developed out of highly specific and contingent events. Irish Ferries finds itself in some financial difficulties – the extent is a matter of some dispute in business circles – not simply because Michael O’Leary has lured passengers off the sea and into the air but because of management cock-ups that its workers are now being asked to pay for. (In this last respect Irish Ferries differs from Shell, which can conceal most of its cock-ups beneath an enormous pile of money.) The company that runs Irish Ferries, Irish Continental Group (ICG), has invested well over €100 million in the last six years in upgrading and increasing its ferrying capacity, including the introduction of a high-end, high-speed car ferry, the MV Jonathan Swift, and the purchase of the largest, most expensive car ferry in the world, the MV Ulysses. Classy boats with literary associations may be good for the vanity of bosses mixing at the top of Dublin’s corporate high society, but neither Swift nor Joyce will increase the number of trucks driving on and off the ferries, the essential carriers of the goods that prosperous Ireland makes and demands. Moreover, the very serviceable boat being pushed out of the ICG fleet, the MV Isle of Innisfree (built in Rotterdam as recently as 1995), went into costly dry-dock for fifteen months before ICG managed to charter it to P&O for the latter company’s Portsmouth–Cherbourg route. The Jonathan Swift, in particular, looks like a folly, since its speed is supposed to make it attractive to tourists but its destination is grim Holyhead – and its sailings all-too-often succumb to nasty weather. In short, Irish Ferries wasted resources, modernized its appearance and increased its passenger capacity when it should have concentrated on consolidating reliable service for freight carriers.

While operating profits at ICG tumbled, remuneration for top executives climbed, with chief executive Éamonn Rothwell earning more than €600,000 including bonuses in each of the past two years. The Irish Times reported:

ICTU general secretary David Begg told a … rally it would take a worker on €3.60 an hour two and a half weeks to earn what Irish Ferries chief executive Éamonn Rothwell earned in an hour. An Irish Ferries spokesman said Mr Rothwell’s income was ‘quite modest’ compared to that of other people running companies of the same size.

There is some suspicion among both business and labour observers that the crisis at Irish Ferries has been partly manufactured, or at least exaggerated, to bring about precisely this showdown over ‘outsourcing’, which makes both sides all the more determined to win. (In mid November the company rejected a call from the Labour Court to set aside its plan.) In these circumstances, the acceptance of this terminology to describe what is happening at Irish Ferries should be marked down as a crucial early ideological victory for the company. Traditionally, after all, companies ‘outsource’ work by having it done elsewhere, in a lower-wage environment. ICG, however, is not seeking to move the work, but to move out the workers and bring in new ones to do the same jobs on the same boats plying the same sea routes. True, because the ships don’t operate all the time within the jurisdiction, ICG is in the unusual position of being able declare Irish Ferries extraterritorial, as it were, an advantage long exploited by global shipping firms that hoist the flags of low-wage, low-tax havens. The company can thus effectively exempt itself from the national minimum wage. Despite Bertie Ahern’s characterization of the Irish Ferries plan as ‘sharp practice’, the government has been hesitant to state it will act to prevent it because it doesn’t want to declare war on mobile capital. The ships, at any rate, can effectively become a whole new workplace in terms of worker protection, and in that sense perhaps the language of ‘outsourcing’ is eerily appropriate.

On the other hand, Irish Ferries can’t stay extraterritorial all the time: it has just four vessels, which must dock in Ireland to do their business, and there are just two places where they do so: Dublin and Rosslare. (Unlike Stena, Irish Ferries does not serve Dun Laoghaire.) Despite its weakening over the past two decades, the Irish trade-union movement is still strong enough to block a pair of seaports if it chooses to do so: tactically, it would be little harder for trade unions to stop ships docking and unloading in Rosslare than it is for five men to block the road to Rossport. It remains to be seen whether the trade-union leadership would take legal risks to enforce such a blockade, especially if ICG can show a high take-up of a redundancy offer among its Irish soon-to-be-ex-workers: some 97 per cent of ICG seafarers who are members of the Seamen’s Union of Ireland, and a somewhat lower percentage in SIPTU, are apparently interested in leaving the company, though this is partly a product of the ‘one-time-only’ nature of the offer, with ‘adjusted terms’ (i.e. pay cuts) for those who choose to stay aboard.

There has been a sense from both sides that this dispute is not about potentially immobilized boats or soon-to-be-blockaded ports, but rather about laws and directives, labour courts and parliaments. As Jack O’Connor has put it, ‘Irish Ferries is a harbinger of the workplace of the future,’ and the trade-union movement has focused attention on the European Commission’s proposed Services Directive – despite the fact that (after arousing considerable controversy in 2004) it has not yet been issued and is of little apparent direct relevance to the case in question. The directive aims to bring about a single market for services in the EU, partly by eliminating much national regulation of most service industries.

In some sense the Irish Ferries situation has been adopted less as a cause than as a metaphor: the directive, it is argued, would allow other employers, not just those that sail in international waters, to ‘re-flag’. Companies providing most services would only have to comply with regulations in their country of origin, not in all the countries in which they operate. So companies would have an incentive to make their headquarters in low-wage, low-regulation states, and ‘send out’ workers to undercut those in countries with traditionally higher standards. (The workers could of course already be based in the countries in which they would work.) The fear is that this would lead to ‘letterbox’ contractors, and the unions say that fear is already being realized even without the directive: in November SIPTU showed reporters an email from a Polish employment agency, Kontakt International, which boasted that it could offer ‘workers with a variety of skills and qualifications and with different levels of competency in English. We can employ them and send to you as our employee (leasing workers). We pay taxes and insurance in Poland. They can work for about €4 to €7 an hour.’ The national minimum wage in Ireland is €7.65.

Moreover, in this era of privatization, there is concern that the services affected by the Services Directive will include those we traditionally regard as ‘public’, up to and including health and education, not to mention the media. Its proponents portray it as part of an inevitable freeing of markets in goods, capital and (to some degree) people. But the momentum of such thinking has stalled in the wake of the Dutch and French EU referenda. There is no longer such inevitability about it; instead, there is a Europe-wide debate, and the Irish government knows that this is the context for whatever action it chooses to take, if any, over Irish Ferries.

The political sensitivity is heightened by the appearance of ‘sharp practice’ in a shipping company that carries the shamrock in its logo and the word ‘Irish’ in its trading and corporate name. Irish Ferries is not of course ‘national’ in the sense that Aer Lingus (still) is, but the company’s own insistence that it is just another international shipping company rings somewhat hollow when it conspicuously flaunts its association with the attractive Brand Ireland: that logo is mighty big on a ferry’s stack.

The company claims, e.g. in the full-page ad it bought in national newspapers in November, that ‘95 per cent of all ships using Republic of Ireland ports are manned by outsourced crews’, an arrangement ‘commonplace within the shipping industry internationally’. It is of course commonplace in the cargo industry and in long-haul shipping. But the fact is that the only directly comparable ferry company, Stena, does not operate with ‘outsourced’ labour.

The advert goes on to boast that all the new workers ‘will live on-board with accommodation, food, travel and other living expenses paid for, coupled with favourable income tax treatment’ (i.e. they won’t be liable to any national income tax). To which an Irish cynic might reply: Sure isn’t it a wonder you’re paying them at all? Galley slaves never had it so good.

Behind the company’s dubious rhetoric, however, is the reality that it would have little difficult employing people on the terms it proposes. This debate has the capacity to pit worker against worker. How does the bitter argument about ‘foreign workers’ sit in a labour movement that arguably owes its origins partly to the great, sweeping Marxian assertion that ‘the working men have no country’?

It remains to be seen whether the deterioration in relations between the ‘social partners’ will also signal a change in the discourse about immigration to this state. For the past decade there has been a consensus about its benefits: conservative voices concerned about the social and cultural impact of rapid change in the ethnic make-up of the population have been drowned out not simply by liberal or left-wing ‘political correctness’, but by a neo-liberal axis that views immigrants as a means of servicing and maintaining a productive economy without conceding entirely to the inflationary wage pressures that a solely native workforce would bring. The political left and right have often been seen to join hands over the joys of multiculturalism, even if Michael McDowell has sometimes made that embrace a little less comfortable in recent years.

To the credit of the left and the trade-union movement, as they find themselves moving out of the neo-liberal clutches on this issue they have done so without obvious xenophobia, tending to speak on behalf of the ‘exploited’ outsiders rather than in resentment of them. The Turkish Gama workers, for example, became beloved martyrs rather than being seen as a dangerous imported scab workforce, undercutting Irish wages. If unemployment in Ireland continues to be so low as to be largely irrelevant, this view may continue to prevail. If that changes, however, the way could be cleared for a new kind of populist xenophobia, and more pointed muttering about ‘strangers’.

15 November 2005

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 21 Winter 2005-6