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Raising the ’tones
The definitive sound of summer from Derry. And how Peter Sutherland waltzed away from a potential PR disaster.
Eamonn McCann, 14 May 2003
This is what you are going to be singing all the sundrenched summer, so you might as well get it right now.
I never thought you loved me, I had to leave the world behind. Like the open sky above me, You thrill me all the time.
The unmistakable poetical elusoriness of John O’Neill is back. The first Undertones’ single in 20 years is out. All edgy apprehensiveness can be sloughed off. It’s not tired pastiche nor yet mere retread, but fresh as a morning exultation, McLoon vocals on the right side of Sharkeyness, a chorus that you’ll be singing along aloud to before your first hearing’s finished, all swathed in a thresh of sound beautiful enough to swoon to. Plus, at 2’ 56”, by Undertones standards, it’s an epic of Dostoyevskian dimension. “Thrill me”. The sound of Hatmore Og, ‘03. In the shops now.
One thing I’ve learned in this business is that schadenfreude can bounce back and bite you. It’s at your own peril you take pleasure in other people’s discomfiture. So, when I read perhaps the most abject apology in the history of Irish journalism on the front page of the Sunday Independent (April 27), I didn’t chortle with glee or mutter, Hell rub it into them. No. But I did wish they’d improve their targetting.
The apology was to Peter Sutherland for a front-page story the previous week claiming that the plump plutocrat had been involved in selling nuclear reactors to North Korea, thereby, possibly, so it was hinted, hastening the end of the world. The apology acknowledged one or two minor inexactitudes. Like, that it was to South Korea and not North Korea that the reactors had been sold and that Sutherland had had nothing to do with the transaction anyway. As we say in the trade... whoops!
So Sutherland waddles off, a “substantial sum” paid to an unnamed charity, the blamelessness of his character publicly affirmed.
Sutherland, a product of the Jesuits’ posh forcing-house Gonzaga, was variously Attorney General under Garret FitzGerald in the early 1980s, a European Commissioner, director of British Petroleum, chairman of Allied Irish Banks, chairman and managing director of Goldman Sachs International, director of Delta Air Lines and Ericsson, director-general of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), founder-director of the World Trade Organization, etc. and so forth. A major player in global capitalism, then.
What’s relevant here is that four days after the publication of the Indo’s piece of badly-researched libel and three days before its humiliating apology, Sutherland chaired the annual general meeting of BP-Amoco – the merged Anglo-US group, now the third biggest oil company in the world – at the Royal Festival Hall, London.
Along the South Bank outside the hall, a group of a couple of hundred, mobilised by the Colombia Solidarity Campaign, performed terrific, colourful street-theatre and applauded lawyer Marta Hinestroza as she called on the company to compensate farming communities in Colombia displaced by BP. Ms. Hinestroza is now living in Britain, granted refugee status on account of death threats against her back home.
Alongside Marta was Samuel Morales, in Britain as a guest of Amnesty International, representing both the Colombian trade union federation CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores) and a coalition of social organisations in the east of the country, where BP is involved in major projects.
Three days before the London gathering, at a meeting in Derry called by the local trades council, Samuel gave a vivid account of the difficulties of organising in parts of Colombia. “The BP areas have been turned into zones of paramilitary control. In three new oil fields that BP is opening up in Casanare, peasant leaders have been disappeared. There have been 35 such disappearances there altogether.”
Kidnappings and murders, he recounted, were carried out with seeming impunity by right-wing paramilitaries. The victims were typically union activists or leaders of communities resisting displacement and/or fighting for compensation for having been displaced.
He couldn’t say that BP sanctioned the atrocities. It could be that local surrogates of the company were organising kidnap and murder without BP’s knowledge. But there was no doubt BP was a major beneficiary.
One specific case raised by the protestors outside the Festival Hall was the assassination of Carlos Vargas in 1998. Vargas was the elected director of the environmental regulator, Corporinoquia, in an oil-rich area of south-east Colombia. He awarded environmental licences, monitored compliance and, when necessary, imposed fines and shut down oil wells.
The human rights unit of the Colombian Attorney General’s office identified his killers and linked them to a local army brigade set up specifically to protect BP’s installations. BP has declined to cooperate with the unit’s investigation, refusing, for example, to reveal the names of their security personnel in the area at the time of the murder.
Court documents opened after his death revealed that Vargas was about to go public with a dossier alleging corruption involving local officials and oil companies, including BP, over the awarding of exploration and operating licences.
The Colombian army’s 5000-strong 16th Brigade in Casanare is indirectly funded by BP and its consortium partners in the area, Total of France, US company Triton and the Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol.
At last year’s BP agm, Peter Sutherland assured shareholders that the company had offered the Attorney General “full co-operation” in investigating the Vargas murder. Puzzled investigators concluded that Sutherland may not have been fully or properly briefed.
A year ago, a Sunday Times investigation challenged Sutherland’s version of events and concluded that, “The links between the death squad that killed Vargas and the 16th Brigade... undermine BP’s belief it can have military protection ‘free of human rights violations.’”
Last year in Colombia, 184 trade unionists were murdered for their union activitiy. On average, there are 20 political killings a day. The involvement of the left-wing Farc organisation in murder and extortion has been widely publicised, not least in Ireland. It’s less well known that independent observers, including officials of mainstream aid and human rights organisations such as War on Want, Save the Children and Human Rights Watch hold right-wing groups associated with the regime of Álvaro Uribe Velez responsible for 80 percent of these human rights violations.
The Colombia Solidarity Campaign did everything it could think of to persuade media outlets to cover the complaints against BP being highlighted by Marta Hinestroza and Samuel Morales, but with very limited success. Irish newspapers, including the Sunday Independent, were informed in advance of Samuel’s visit to Derry and Belfast. The Irish angle arising from Sutherland’s role at the head of BP was drawn to their attention. As far as I am aware, no national newspaper thought the matter worth a word.
The real story of the way capitalism is despoiling the world, and of the involvement of the Irish elite in the despoliation, isn’t sensational in the newspaper sense of the word, isn’t suitable for once-off shock-horror personalised pieces which might help sell a few thousand extra units on a Sunday morning. It’s day-to-day stuff. The basic information is freely available. But to print it on a day-to-day basis would be to describe the reality of the capitalist system. And that’s not the business the mainstream media are in.
The end result of the Indo’s spectacularly inaccurate piece was that Sutherland was able to waltz away unscathed from a week which he might have anticipated as a PR disaster for himself personally and for the ruthless multinational which he presides over. Marta Hinestroza and Samuel Morales might reflect ruefully on the strange ways of the free press.