Margaret Heffernan is a strong woman, with her fingers in a lot of pies, gifted, with an unbelievable ease in public speaking and a god given gift for getting her message across, a true teacher. Her latest book Wilful Blindness published in 2011 explains in great detail why 85% of people who witness a wrong doing do not or are not willing or are too scared to react, to put their hand up and announce publicly that a wrong has been committed. That is wilful blindness, it is a legal concept and has criminal elements if proven. Here is a link, listen to her talk on the subject in Budapest this year.
We see episodes of wilful blindness all around us with banks lending money on property at sometimes over 100% of its true value and then manipulating interest rates to their own advantage. For years we have seen the Catholic Church cover up the signs of the sexual abuse of young children by particular clerics and their brother clerics standing by and ignoring the wrong and the damage it was doing to these children. These priests either too scared or unwilling to turn their fellow priests in. We saw it with the Iraq war when everybody knew that those two power mad jerks, Bush and Blair, were forcing their will on their own people and the world in general, to wage a war on a weak and troubled country in order to avail of future oil revenues. We all knew it was wrong but so few of us stood up and said so. Most people thought that what was the point, we cannot change an order from above, let’s forget about it and hope the problem goes away. So few politicians stood against this absolutely illegal and unjust war perhaps Robin Cook, the most senior, and he was found suspiciously dead on a Scottish mountain some months later. There was also Clare Short who resigned from Blair’s cabinet in protest and who was later squeezed out of Parliament saying she was ashamed of Blair and was not willing to work under his leadership. So it is understandable that wilful blindness exists and that fear is a big factor in its make-up.
A week ago I was briefed on a disaster of massive proportion. A disaster that must be the largest man-made ecological catastrophe ever to have hit Ireland and only one man has put up his hand and said this is wrong. Only one man has had the bravery to try and tell the country and the rest of the world that what was happening was a tragedy and he has been doing this for 13 years whilst politicians, government agencies and civil servants stood by and for whatever reason ignored or were wilfully blind to the calamity that was being played out before them.
The River Shannon is Ireland’s greatest river, arguably its greatest feature. It more or less splits the country in half and the Shannon corridor 15 years ago was alive with small businesses feeding off the attraction the river had for hundreds of thousands of visitors who each came to fish, sail or holiday on its banks. For years businesses in the tourist industry had thrived on the success of the river. It was known as the finest coarse fishing river in Europe, unspoilt by degeneration from industrial necessity. It was Ireland’s gem. The towns of Dromod, Rooskey, Tarmonbarry and Lanesboro were thriving little enclaves basking in the reflected glow of the river but have now become ghost towns and Loughs Boderg, Bolin, Forbes and the greatest of them all, Lough Ree, have become chemical cess pits. Why, what is it you might ask, what has caused this catastrophe?
Well it is because a company owned by an international conglomerate in America, after years of breaking every environmental law in the book was eventually hounded out of its native state of Texas and in particular Mendocino County after dreadfully contaminating the surrounding land and the Russian River which flowed through it by disposing into the atmosphere and onto the land massive deposits of sodium hydroxide, ethylene dichloride, acrolein, methanol and toluene amongst many other poisons which were a large part of the effluent resulting from its process.
This company hawked its way round Europe in the early 1990s looking for a new location and were refused by every nation until eventually in about 1995 the gullible and probably uninformed Fianna Fail government with the promise of 750 jobs told them to build their new plant on the banks of the beautiful Shannon River on the understanding that they would abide by all environmental laws regarding effluent disposal but like idiots, they allowed this company self-regulation of this critical phase of their process, which meant that the Environmental Protection Agency had no responsibility and only ever made fleeting visits and did not involve themselves in the day to day business of waste disposal. The American company sucked hundreds of thousands of gallons out of the river on a daily basis, put it through their production process and then fed it through their joke of an effluent plant and straight back into the river again.
The factory started production in 1998 and by the following year the fish in the Shannon were dying in their thousands. The promised jobs never materialised, at its peak it employed 350, today it is less than 90. Yet the river was full of dead and dying fish. Anglers wept at the devastation as dead fish by the tonne swept over the weir at Rooskey on a daily basis and the banks on both sides of the river were lined with a white foam about one metre in height until the factory eventually dispersed it with another highly toxic de-foaming agent.
The anglers from all over the world stopped coming, businesses failed for lack of custom and the government lost millions from these small time entrepreneurs. A 100 million euro per year input into the local economy disappeared but the Celtic Tiger in Dublin was roaring and nobody paid one bit of interest to an area the Celtic Tiger never visited. Politicians did not want to know, they were scared of America and its bulging muscles, the Environmental Protection Agency visited the area but hardly ever the complex, preferring lunch in the local hotel and a swift retreat back to Dublin, their suits undoubtedly padded with brown envelopes. Inland Fisheries Ireland looked the other way and directed people to other waterways, too scared or worried about confrontation. Waterways Ireland just pass the problem back to IFI and their website more or less tells you to fish in Lough Allen, upriver of this disaster or go below Lough Ree.
The big reason that this is an ecological disaster of immense proportion is because of its insidiousness and the way it affects not only the fish but the whole flora, fauna and insect life of the river and the slow economic strangulation of companies and small family businesses. From a country abounding with exuberant people, rivers alive with fish, ducks and all avian life, it has become a desert, stippled by a few ghost towns.
The local people themselves have not been unaffected by this dreadful company. The twin smoke stacks rising high over the Shannon and Gortinty Lake, blow out gasses and other undesirable fibres, the prevailing south westerly winds blow this shit over the nearby town of Mohill and funnily enough I have been informed off the record by good medical opinion that incidents of cancer in this little town in Leitrim has risen unaccountably over the last few years. The large town of Longford, which draws its water from Loch Forbes has people increasingly suffering from digestive ailments and bowel complaints, everywhere the nasal passages of folk, the eyes and throats are under continual bombardment.
This is not imagination, this is real, this is suffering of both a high emotional and physical degree. Wilful blindness has to stop. Politicians, government agencies, civil servants have to stop looking the other way, they have to stand up to the plate, become empowered and listen to the lone voice of this man who has been campaigning to no avail for years.