10 January 2008 Edition
Shell to Sea: The struggle continues
THE year 2007 started with the Shell to Sea campaign on a very uneven footing. The brutal attacks on protesters at the end of the previous year and Shell’s complete intransigence and refusal to even examine alternatives to their scheme to pump raw gas from the bottom of the sea to a huge refinery miles inland had left many people uncertain of the future.
Local people in Mayo were genuinely shocked to see the gardaí attack them and the media vilify them. The cancellation of large-scale protests at the refinery site, as well as an emphasis on activities related to the upcoming general election, was distracting people from opposing Shell on the ground and offered the false hope that somehow a change of players in Leinster House would make a difference. Local Fine Gael activists toured Erris, telling people that a Mayo Taoiseach would be their saviour and all they needed to do was wait until after the May poll and the situation would be resolved.
However, many people in Mayo and around the country realised that the nature of Shell’s scheme for a huge refinery and high-pressure pipeline was the same as it had been when the Rossport Five were sent to prison: the refinery was just as bad as when Bord Pleanála had first refused planning permission and the deal giving away the country’s natural resources to Shell and the other big energy companies would be just as bad for the people, no matter who was in power in Dublin. So the protests continued, as did the brutal state response.
Sinn Féin was to the forefront of supporting effective protests on the ground and party members were among the worst injured. In February, a Sinn Féin activist from Dublin had his wrist broken after entering the Shell site but he was only one of a number of republicans who were injured over the course of the year.
News came in April that one of the Rossport Five had won the Goldman Prize, an environmental award seen by many as the equivalent of the Nobel. The prize sculpture was brought along when local people and supporters from around the country attended the Environment Planning Agency’s oral hearing on the pollution licence for the refinery. There was a litany of objections from farmers, environmentalists, fishermen and even the local parish priest. Others, though, reflected that there was little hope that the scheme, supported by the business community and their friends in the political establishment, could ever be stopped in the courts.
In May, the presidential-style general election campaign saw small parties and independents caught in the crossfire between what seemed to be rival factions of ‘the big business party’ and although candidates who opposed the scheme did well in Erris, cheerleaders for Shell were quick to try and depict the election result as a victory for the project.
The Green Party leadership, which in opposition had supported the campaign, exposed themselves as liars when they entered government with Fianna Fáil and switched over to fully supporting Shell. At Bellinaboy, many people who had previously stood back from the protests and placed their faith in the Dáil and Seanad elections now reappeared at the daily pickets. Blockades against the refinery became more frequent and were better supported. Activists from Dublin, Belfast, Cork and beyond were welcomed and supported by local people when they were beaten or arrested by the gardaí. In June, a group of protesters chained themselves together at the gates of the site where Shell were dumping peat stripped from Bellinaboy. Operations were stopped for hours and when the Shell contractors’ trucks tried to use alternative routes, local people gathered in large numbers to block the side roads.
A few weeks later, Shell tried to access the inlet between Rossport and Pollatomais, which they are exploring as a possible route from the sea to the refinery, but the landowner refused them permission. The elderly man, a local publican, tried to reason with the Garda superintendent but, rather than listen, the irate police officer instructed a large JCB-style digger to force local people off the roadway, resulting in injuries to protesters and his own men. In a pattern which is becoming familiar, Shell first claimed that they had a right to use the land and then, a few days later, backed down and removed a temporary structure they had erected. Sadly, the Garda response to the incident was to try and intimidate people by visiting them in their homes and questioning them on video about what had happened. Garda tactics resulted in one elderly man having such severe nervous trouble he had to be hospitalised.
The fact that the state’s police force are being used by Shell to force the scheme on the local people and end all attempts at peaceful protest was evident again the next month when Belmullet District Court was the scene of the sentencing of three fishermen from Porturlin who had been arrested at a protest earlier in the year. Since the resumption of work at the refinery in late 2006, dozens of protesters have been attacked and injured, but the court that day heard only the case of a garda whose thumb had been broken when he fell into a ditch. He could not recall details of the incident, saying it could have been a car or one of his colleagues that pushed him. No video of the event was produced, although the gardaí claim they record everything that happens at protests. Nevertheless, on the evidence of police witnesses, the three men were found guilty of assault and given prison sentences. Protests around the country ensued as well as more blockades of the ‘Shell Highway’ by people prepared to risk prison or injury to draw attention to what was happening.
Protests continue around the country. Just before Christmas, a group of Shell to Sea activists managed to occupy the office of Eamon Ryan, the Green Party Minister for Natural Resources (not easy as it’s on the sixth floor of a very well-protected Government building in Dublin). They unfurled a banner reading “Protect Ireland’s Natural Resource”.
The campaign wore on, wearing away at the spirit of local community and having a detrimental effect on marriages, jobs, friendships and the ordinary lives of the people. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Shell was ready with offers of help with farm improvements, vehicles, equipment or simply cash if people would support the project.
As the autumn arrived with more court cases and protests, injuries and site invasions, newspaper articles and prison sentences, the campaign found itself in a stronger than ever position. Although it seems likely that some supporters, overcome by the daily grind of the struggle, will waver and fall away, others will come forward and make their contribution. The Shell to Sea campaign, having no centralised structure and not being personality-led, is strong enough to withstand attacks on individuals. Shell and the government seemingly have no intention of changing the nature of the scheme, putting the demands for Shell and Statoil shareholders’ returns much higher than safety concerns of the local people or the idea of a fair return for the people of Ireland from their own natural resources.
2008 promises to be a demanding year for the campaign with work on the refinery site continuing and Shell attempting to find a route for the pipeline from the seabed. Hopes of a legal settlement or a rescue from the Green Party have vanished, and many more people in the country are aware of the crazy deal whereby Irish gas and oil reserves are simply handed over to foreign companies with no long-term benefit for Ireland and no share for the Irish people. While the concerns of many people in Mayo are mainly to do with the safety aspects of the scheme, Shell’s greed has provided an excellent platform for those who criticise the rip-off that is the government’s natural resources policy. Protests will continue in Mayo and around the country in 2008.