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Kevin Myers: Oil conjures up every lazy stereotype of the ruthless multinational plundering our assets

I really don't like referring to the opinions of other columnists: they are, after all, just opinions. But in the present mood, with despair so widespread and politicians so discredited, opinion-makers can achieve an undue influence.

This is especially true when the mob is forming amid the ruins of so many hopes, and the appetite for simple, populist solutions is growing insatiable.

On Monday, Fintan O'Toole in 'The Irish Times' wrote of one way out of our crisis: to tax the multinational oil companies operating in Ireland. "The likelihood is that oil prices will reach $100 a barrel this year. This would put the potential value of Ireland's offshore energy resources at a 1,000 billion dollars (sic). This is the only figure one can cite that can make the bank debts look small."

No, it isn't. Since, after some 40 years of oil exploration in Irish waters, and we still haven't found any oil, we might also suggest some other, equally reasonable ways of repaying our debts: the undiscovered diamond mines of Poulaphouca, the unplumbed platinum beds of Solohead Beg, the Underground Library of Ceannanus Mor, of which the 'Book of Kells' is just the promotional brochure, and the yet to be found Great Galtee Gold Ingot. All of these may be promoted as ways of settling our terrifying debt. However, there is one wonderful thing that can be said about oil as a preferred target: it conjures up every intellectually lazy stereotype of the ruthless multinational plundering a country's assets, with little return to the natives.

The truth is that many, many hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent prospecting for oil in Irish waters with, so far, no return. All over the world, off other coastlines and across many deserts, thousands of engineers are looking for oil. The pursuit of black gold is the single most expensive undertaking in mankind's industrial history: and most searches end up with a blunted drill-bit, an abandoned encampment and no oil. All of these failures have to be paid for.

But here in Ireland, apparently we're going to solve our problems by telling oil companies in advance that if they do find oil here we're going to tax the living daylights out of their profits. What profits? The Kinsale gas field aside, looking for gas and oil in Irish waters has so far yielded no profits whatsoever. The Waterford "oil fields" cost at least a billion in failed drilling. And now we have the farce of the Mayo gas field, which has already cost the State far more in garda overtime protecting it against the Green eco-lunatics than it will earn in royalties to the State for years, once, that is, the gas is finally flowing.

It used to be an accepted "truth" that Ireland had absolutely no natural resources. Then this myth was transformed into a countervailing falsehood that we had vast amounts, which nasty, evil multinational companies would soon be depriving us of. The truth probably is closer to the former prediction; we have some, but not much -- and whatever we have won't supply the shovel to get us out of the doo-doo we're in.

Nor will that shovel be put into our hands by such asinine observations as O'Toole's: "It is time for the State to think the unthinkable and ensure that most of the profit goes to those who actually own the resources."

Allow me to decode the undergraduate language here: "those who actually own the resources" refers to the Irish people. But we have "owned" these resources for 5,000 years, with no oil to show for the ownership so far, and relative to the vast capital expenditure, very little gas. The ancient saw holds true: he owneth nothing that doth not possess it.

ONE of the most depressing characteristics of the current crisis is the death of political discourse. Instead, craw-thumping populism triumphs at every corner. In Mayo, anti-Shell protesters have made a mockery of both An Garda Siochana and our democratically endorsed state energy policy. After that fiasco, what oil or gas company will ever prospect in Ireland again? Moreover, it's not enough to denounce the deal with Shell, as O'Toole predictably did, merely because it was negotiated by Burke and Ahern, as if they were Burke and Hare. Do we denounce the Good Friday Agreement on similar grounds?

Beyond the abysmal motley crew of the Dail are the baffled plain people -- and therein lies one danger. For any proposed escape from our catastrophe that is "painless" can enchant the mob, especially if it recites the ancient socialist mantra: that foreign capitalists and their native lackeys -- "compradors", in lefty jargon -- are once again ripping us off. But isn't self-robbery something that we do rather well? Just look at the capers of FAS, the HSE and SIPTU with their worldwide junkets and their budgetary black holes. Naturally, these never got a mention in the great anti-government rally before Christmas, of which, of course, Fintan O'Toole, assistant editor of 'The Irish Times', was master of ceremonies.

Irish Independent