Risteard Ó Domhnaill is the director of the award-winning documentary ‘The Pipe’, which memorably captured the nature of the local resistance to the Corrib gas project in north Mayo.
His latest venture is ‘On the Horizon’, which looks at the unusual legislative twists and turns that created the conditions for both the Corrib gas controversy and the (to put it mildly) generous terms enjoyed by the oil industry in Ireland. He’s opted to use Fund:it to sort finance, here he chats about the projects background and the need for radical routes to funding.
What was the inspiration for ‘On the Horizon’?
While filming ‘The Pipe’ I became interested in the reasons why the oil companies had been given such good terms on their licences and why the Irish government was willing to go so far in the support of oil companies even when their activities appeared to directly threaten the reasonable interests of their citizens. I also began to delve into the history of oil and amp; gas in Ireland and found, to my great surprise, that it was not always the case that Irish politicians acceded so easily to the demands of the oil companies. I managed to track down and interview former Minister for Energy Justin Keating, who in 1975, along with his Department Secretary Joe Holloway, managed to outmaneuver the oil companies and put in place a responsible oil & gas licensing regime that followed the spirit of the much-admired Norwegian system. I was struck by the logic of Keating’s arguments on the need for state participation and for responsible use of the resource, even if it meant leaving it in the ground until the next or following generations could benefit adequately from it.
What really had a lasting effect on me, and I interviewed him in 2006 while the Celtic Tiger was in full swing and it was not fashionable to be critical of business-friendly politics, was how the complete dismantling by Ray Burke and Bertie Ahern of his 1975 terms affected him personally. Coming away from that interview, which proved to be his last interview before his death, I resolved to make myself understand why he felt so deeply about something which, it appeared to me, was of little significance to the country. Over the next few years I came to realise that Keating’s judgement was incredibly far-sighted. I dedicated ‘The Pipe’ to his memory but always knew that there was a bigger story to be told. As we stand on the verge of massive oil & gas development off our coasts and underneath our land, it is vitally important that the Irish people know the facts surrounding how a potentially massive resource is being managed and the consequences of mismanagement for us as citizens.
Would it be fair to say that Ireland has gone from having one of the most progressive and far-seeing licensing regime to one of the most backward and focused on the short-term?
Definitely. Keating saw how far-sighted Norwegian politicians in the late 60s had put in place proper independent systems to manage the resource properly while guaranteeing a long and prosperous future for the Norwegian people. He had also seen how Norway’s neighbours on the other side of the North Sea – Britain – had squandered theirs by allowing ‘the market’, i.e. private interests, control the resource, and he was acutely aware of the devastating effects that the supposed ‘blessing’ of oil had on many oil-rich countries like Nigeria whose political systems were much weaker than in Scandinavia. Keating and Holloway were the only people in government, up to then or since, to take the time to understand the oil industry and see the’long game’. However, their efforts proved to be in vain, as short-term politics and a desire to let the free market reign came to dominate the thinking behind Ireland’s resource management, to the point where we have one of the most pro- oil company licensing regimes in the world. History has proved Keating right.
It’s obvious from ‘The Pipe’ that opposition from residents was strongly focused on defending their community and local environment, but do you believe it rankled that the people of Kilcommon were being asked to tolerate the project on the grounds of national interest when the evidence contradicts that so strongly?
The problems that arose from Corrib were a result of a lack of political foresight and courage, and complete submission to the demands of powerful private interests. These were the exact same reasons for the changing of the oil & gas terms under Ray Burke and Bertie Ahern. Putting vested private interests ahead of the public interest resulted not only in very low tax on oil companies, but also an arrogance by these same companies which resulted in them feeling that they could railroad through a flawed project on a vulnerable community and delicate environment. The current oil & gas terms and the Corrib gas controversy are both a result of our deeply flawed political system, and it is to the credit of a great many people in Kilcommon that they saw through the shiny tinsel of the Celtic Tiger and recognised deep flaws well before it became apparent to the rest of the country. I do hope that they recognise that through their local struggle they succeeded in putting the national resources issue back on the agenda.
What groups helped you fund ‘The Pipe’ and how important was that help?
I filmed pretty much all of ‘The Pipe’ on my own without funding, and that is down to the way I approached the story. The funding, from TG4 and the Irish Film Board, did not kick in until the post-production process, and support during shooting was more of the form of my uncle tolerating me coming and going at all hours and people feeding me wherever I turned up to film! When Willie (Corduff) would see me coming across the yard with the camera he’d shout over to Mary “Quick, put the lock on the fridge, Richie’s coming!” In retrospect, if I had the proper funding to afford a full film crew and not have to depend on people’s goodwill so much, it would have been a far more different, and less intimate, portrayal of the story.
Why wasn’t funding forthcoming this time around?
That would be more a question for RTE and the Irish Film Board. I am concentrating on the positives and the opportunity that the Fundit campaign is offering me as a film-maker, and while I am dismayed that ‘On the Horizon’ was not commissioned by the usual funding bodies, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise!
What obstacles do you see to a return to the licensing regime we enjoyed under Keating?
Political will is the only obstacle I see. We have a flawed democracy, and this doesn’t just apply to oil and gas but also the fisheries, same with thebanks and anytime a conflict emerges between business and public interest: most Irish politicians have neither the courage nor the foresight to stand up for ordinary people. A way has to be found around this and that’s why I reckon hoping for politicians to sort this out is putting the cart before thehorse. They don’t lead, they follow. The people will have to lead on this.
What advice would you give film-makers interested in the ground you’ve covered in ‘The Pipe’ and now in ‘On the Horizon’?
As regards funding, I’d recommend not relying on traditional sources which are very vulnerable to pressure from PR companies. These companies have lots of lobbyists for making threats, especially regarding the loss of advertising revenue. It’s important to look at alternatives.