The Pipe: a pantomime in the bogs

A film about local resistance to a Shell gas pipeline off Ireland's west coast invites us to boo at the big, bad corporation.

Rob Lyons

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The faceless might of a multinational corporation, whose will is imposed by the forces of the state that it has bought, against a handful of plucky villagers trying to defend their homes and livelihoods. It’s a familiar tale, and it is brought to us again in The Pipe. But if the people of Rossport, in Ireland’s county Mayo, do have right on their side, the one-sided presentation of events in this film has done little to persuade the neutral viewer like me.

The film follows events around a pipeline being built by Shell from the Corrib gas field about 50 miles from Ireland’s west coast. Shell’s plan was to bring the pipe from the field onshore at Glengad, in the north-west of Mayo, then continue the pipeline inland for a further six miles to a refinery at Bellanaboy.

However, local people were upset by the potential for direct physical danger from the pipeline as the proposed route passed close to their homes meaning that a serious explosion could be devastating. They were also afraid about the possibility of construction work and refinery discharges affecting the local fishing industry. The film starts with matters coming to a head in 2005 when five local men – the ‘Rossport Five’ – were jailed for 94 days for contempt of court for interfering with Shell’s work in the area.

What follows is in some ways an eternal drama of how communities attempt to protest against an outside threat. There is outrage when the Irish police clear the way for work to take place by hitting protesters with truncheons and using physical force to push them away, and footage of this features heavily at the start of the film. This may be mild-mannered stuff in comparison to the headcracking, paramilitary policing of the miners’ strike in Eighties Britain, but it still comes as a shock to those in the area who take pride in being law-abiding and who are often on first-name terms with the local police.

As is often the case with such campaigns, splits and factions emerge along the way. For example, at one stage local priests put forward a compromise solution: that the refinery be built on an uninhabited area that would allow the pipeline to go straight into it, avoiding housing and all the attendant disruption. Some of the community want to support the proposal, while others are implacably opposed to any pipeline. The difference of opinion leads to arguments and walkouts. The row is academic, however: Shell is not interested in building the refinery anywhere else.

Subsequent years see further protests, especially when Shell begins laying underwater pipes using an enormous vessel called Solitaire. Some of the local fishermen park their boats in the way of the ship, preventing it from working, only to be arrested under public-order laws. Others accept an offer of compensation from Shell of €20,000 – an act which creates further division with those who want to carry on the fight.

In the end, Shell’s proposed route has been blocked on safety grounds and the company has been told to come up with an alternative. Ironically, the main alternative is to pass the pipeline through a bay that is a conservation area. Has all this trouble for people been caused because disturbing birds was originally deemed unacceptable?

Unfortunately, while The Pipe provides us with some insights into a few of the community’s leading characters – like farmer and Rossport Five member Willie Corduff, fisherman Pat O’Donnell, and firebrand turned hunger striker Maura Harrington – it fails to make the most of the material to hand. We rarely get to meet those who disagree with these central figures. While we have evidence that the community is at loggerheads at some points, there is an implication that it is generally united. Are we really to believe that no one in the area would welcome new jobs and investment, that everyone wants things to carry on as they are? Indeed, as one local priest told the Guardian recently: ‘It’s a great story and he tells it lovely, but he doesn’t tell the whole story. I’d say the majority of this community supports the project. It’s a way to provide employment and an opening towards the development of sustainable fuels in Ireland.’

Nor do we get any critical assessment of the protesters’ claims. Is having a pipeline over 200 metres from your house really hazardous? Will the construction and refinery operation actually damage the local fisheries? We would never know given the absence of any analysis in the film.

The film fails to give us any indication that Shell has attempted to engage with the local community. This is not helped by Shell’s decision not to take part in the film. However, it is clear from the Shell Ireland website that the company did consult the community. That consultation may have been inadequate, the company may have been uncompromising, and so on. But without giving the viewer a sense of Shell’s side of the story, the result is a film that is partial in both senses of the word.

Nor do we get any sense of what the gas field means to Ireland as a whole. Yet Shell claims that the Corrib field could supply 60 per cent of Ireland’s gas needs at peak production. The film could have explored this problem – the clash between local interests and national interests – in more depth, but failed to do so. If, for example, the gas field would provide both energy security and important tax revenues, why should a small group of people in the immediate area of the refinery hold that back? On the other hand, is money enough to compensate for something that might mean the end of a certain way of life? This tension could have been thought-provoking, but it goes undiscussed.

Instead, we are simply left with the impression of a heartless government that has been bought off by a big corporation. While it would not be surprising to find that the interests of a big business will trump those of relatively small numbers of people in a fairly isolated area of the country, the film is so one-sided that it is hard to judge the truth of the situation.

The film, while helping to raise the profile of those campaigning against the pipeline and exposing the way that the Irish state has perhaps been too accommodating to big business in recent years, would have been better served by presenting a balanced story if only to prove the validity of the protesters’ case. But while it’s black-and-white tale of corporate tyranny might go down well with documentary festival judges and audiences, The Pipe fails to connect.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. The Pipe will be shown in the UK tonight at 10pm on More4.

Watch the trailer for The Pipe:

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