Fear and Loathing on the Emerald Isle

The ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom of recent years has led to a number of disputes involving infrastructural projects around the green fields and valleys of rural Ireland. This article examines the critical issues surrounding one such dispute; the ‘Shell to Sea’ campaign in County Mayo on the island’s rugged western shores. This campaign has pitted the Irish state and its multinational partners Shell and Statoil at odds over the transgression of human and environmental rights within the Irish speaking Gaeltacht farming and fishing community and their once-pristine hinterland in the Erris peninsula. Here, the community has opposed plans for onshore processing through a gas pipeline due to the environmental, health and safety concerns of the local community. The campaign gained national recognition when five local farmers were jailed for their resistance to the project. The issue has yet be resolved, and a legacy of mistrust of both multinationals and the state by communities has emerged as locals excluded from local input to development issues due to corporatist ‘Partnership’ sweetheart deals are compelled to defend their traditional way of life.

The debate about natural resources ignited with a vengeance in the aftermath of the announcement that Shell were to build a gas pipeline from the Corrib field 80 kilometres offshore through the townlands of County Mayo in 2000. Five local men were imprisoned for 94 days as a result of their campaign against the onshore pipeline which widened the extent of support for the men and their families from around the nation and beyond. However, to fully explore this campaign we must first examine the sell-off of the natural resources which occurred over the previous forty years as successive governments attempted to lure in multinationals through a series of contentious deals. These deals were highlighted in a rousing speech given by Labour Party President Michael D. Higgins to a ‘Shell to Sea’ rally in August 2005:

I was involved in the Resource Protection Campaign in 1973. At that time, Energy Minister Justin Keating, signed away the licences for bounty-payment. There is now an absence of moral courage well the people of the left said that our resources shouldn’t be taken from us.

These five men in jail are a reflection on law and morality because they wanted to protect their families. The injunction is flawed because the state hadn’t given permission for the pipeline. These men have contempt for an injunction that is based on a lie. The government should ask for the injunction to be lifted. There is a need for a change of consciousness. We must show solidarity for the men and their magnificent families. They have but one small demand–that the gas is cleaned at sea.

I support these men and their families. I demand their release and this entire story must go before a Tribunal and I’m speaking as President of the Labour party.

In 1996 the Corrib gas field was discovered off the Mayo coast. It was the second largest in the country after the Kinsale field which was the subject of some controversy in the 1970s. In 2001 primary applicants Enterprise Oil in conjunction with Statoil and Marathon applied to the Department of Marine and Natural Resources for a lease to develop the Corrib Field at an estimated cost of $400 million. Planning permission for a processing plant at a 400 acre site in Erris County Mayo, was sought in August 2001 while a petroleum line was agreed in November of that year. At the same time the government announced new compulsory purchase orders for inland pipelines that allowed private land to be occupied over the objections of the owners. Clearly, the Irish state had hoped that local opposition could be stymied when faced with the law making capacity of the state. In March 2002 an amendment to the Gas Act allowed commercial industries entry to private lands under the new compulsory acquisition rights (ibid).

Having put their case to the oral hearing the objectors made the decision to extend their campaign. Plans were made to make a submission to a second oral hearing in November when An Bord Pleanála reviewed EEI’s re-appraisal of the safety and suitability concerns raised previously. The Rossport objectors had already opened up a network of political networks which embraced local farming and fishing groups as well as local political figures. The campaign also found support from Sinn Fein who criticised the Irish Prime Minister for meeting the President of Shell Oil in October querying as to whether the meeting had any bearing on the proposed Critical Infrastructure Bill particularly in light of Shell’s ‘special treatment’ on royalties.

On the 27th of November the English television station Channel 4 ran a news item which questioned the plans for an onshore pipeline and terminal in County Mayo. The report claimed that locals had faced pressure to sign over their property and that the deal with the Royal Dutch Shell company was ‘unprecedented in Europe’ (The Irish Examiner November 27 2002). Records were produced in the report which raised allegations of political interference and pressure being brought to bear on Mayo County Council’s planning committee while it was also revealed that Fianna Fáil received donations from two of the companies involved in the Corrib Field operation. The Channel 4 report was critical of the manner in which Ireland’s national resources were being given away without any revenue making its way back to the Irish taxpayer, with the Corrib deal giving a poorer return than similar deals signed in Nigeria (ibid). In December the connection between Ireland and Nigeria was strengthened by the appearance of Dr. Owens Wiwa, brother of the murdered author and anti-oil industry activist Ken Saro Wiwa, who backed the campaign against Shell when he came to Ireland. The campaign now had a transnational context, stretching from Norway to Nigeria.

The High Court Action taken against the Rossport residents restrained the named defendants from refusing to allow pipe-laying on their lands. The landowners had been summoned to the High Court on four separate occasions at great personal cost. They had sought evidence of the CAOs before they would allow entry to their lands. This evidence was held back for up to two and a half years. A further attempt to gain entry to the lands at Eriss was followed by the summoning of five local men to the High Court. The men, Will Corduff, Micheál O’Seighin, Phillip McGrath, Brendan Philbin and Vincent McGrath were all charged with breaching the interim order of the court after the men confirmed that they could not abide by the terms of the Court Order. In a statement to the court Micheál O’Seighin summed up the men’s position:

‘The farms form the basis of the identity of the people. Monetary compensation cannot compensate for undermining the social identity of the people’.

The five were jailed for contempt of court despite, as Ó Seighin stated from prison, the fact that under Articles 40 and 43 of the Irish constitution demand that the State protect the fundamental rights and property of every citizen. With their incarceration the ‘Rossport 5’, as they became known, would become the news story of the summer of 2005. The national press held daily updates of the campaign and the men and their families took on celebrity status. As they were taken away to prison local supporters surrounded the men’s land to prevent Shell from gaining access. The campaign took on a new momentum as trade unionists, anti-globalization activists and environmentalists began to support the campaign.

The imprisoning of the ‘Rossport 5’, changed the minds of many locals who had previously favoured the terminal due to the promise of economic spin-offs. The Shell to Sea campaign began to mobilise on a wider level as picketing, rallies and placarding were extensively stepped up. Another strategy of the campaign following the men’s imprisonment was the placing of pickets on Shell or Statoil gas stations around the country. In addition, a series of rallies were held nationwide that drew thousands of ordinary people who wished to express their concern about the imprisoning of the five men. Shell’s terminals were also the target of organised blockades by students and eco- activists across Ireland and even in London. The fulcrum of this was, undoubtedly, the sense of injustice felt by many due to the imprisonment of the five men. However, while similar fates have been meted out to protestors in recent years it must be said that the Rossport 5’s eloquent statements in defence of their actions during their 94 days in jail won a great deal of public support for their cause. Even though the men were fully committed to their cause they were shocked at their treatment claiming that they were only seeking justice:

We were put in prison for protecting ourselves. They said we broke the law but we only broke an injunction that shouldn’t have been there. We never did any harm. We were just trying to protect our families and rather than listen to us they put us into prison for 94 days.

A further extension of the campaign’s international frame was the links created with the Nigerian resource activists including the brother of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Dr. Owens Wiwa, who joined the march to the Dail in support of the Rossport 5. The march coincided with the men’s appearance at the High Court as they approached 94 days in prison.

On the 30th of September 2005 High Court freed the Rossport 5 amid scenes of jubilation from their families and supporters. The court’s ruling stated that the injunction ‘no longer served any useful purpose’. The campaigner’s legal team asked the court to also remove the order of committal claiming it to be ‘coercive’ and that the men should not face further sanction in the future. However, while the men offered an apology for breaking the court order they refused to give an undertaking on any future activities.

As the men walked free with their supporters onto the streets of Dublin they vowed that their campaign would go on. The issue was set to continue the following month as Shell stated its intention to pursue the matter of a permanent injunction against the men and any other objectors to the pipeline. The men made a triumphant appearance at the Shell to Sea rally in Dublin alongside supportive politicians and Dr. Wiwa. As they returned to County Mayo traditional bonfires lit the way along their route back to Erris. According to the men, their campaign showed that ‘Irish people expect a higher state of democracy and they expect more of their Government in relation to people’s safety and welfare’ (ibid). The men also indicated their willingness to return to prison if necessary.

November 2005 also saw the release of a report on the Corrib gas issue by the Centre for Public Inquiry (CPI). The report claimed that the National Planning Board was subjected to ‘external pressure’ on the issue, a claim the Bord denied (Irish Times Nov 24 2005). The report’s executive summary put forward a number of findings. These included criticism of the state’s handling of resources and royalties, its regulatory framework surrounding the introduction of the Compulsory Acquisition Orders (CAOs) and the gas pipeline, the location of the pipeline and terminal and the supervision of work carried out at the site. The report was also critical of the access provided for Shell executives to senior politicians, including the Taoiseach (Connolly and Lynch CPI 2005). The Centre for Public Inquiry (CPI) would also become embroiled in a political row due to accusations made by then Justice Minister Michael McDowell about the political connections of the Centre’s Executive Director, Frank Connolly. An independent report released in conjunction with the CPI’s findings claimed that the onshore pipeline could rupture causing ‘high fatalities’ (Kuprewicz 2005 p. 6). The Corrib pipeline was irregular ‘due to its operational pressure, lack of historical data in the system evaluation, proximity to people and dwellings and deficiencies in the demonstration of maximum pipeline pressure’ (ibid). While Shell to Sea welcomed the CPI report the subsequent politically motivated closure of the Centre threw a cloud over its findings, further demonstrating the degree of complexity and political intrigue which surrounded this issue.

Throughout the winter of 2007 a series of clashes between police and protestors who wanted to prevent further work on the pipeline and terminal at Erris made national news. However this once localised campaign has caught the imagination of the Irish public and with networks extending from Norway to Nigeria. In 2008 the campaign continues, and the Shell to Sea campaign was awarded the Goldman environmental prize in recognition of their campaign. The twists and turns of this dispute have challenged the thinking of those involved, while shaping the wider understandings of the issues involved. Ultimately, the success of ‘Shell to Sea’s protest may be measured through these outcomes, as the cultural discourse of a changing Ireland comes to embrace the concerns of this small West of Ireland community.

LIAM LEONARD is Editor of Ecopolitics Online Journal and teaches in the Dept. Sociology & Politics, National University of Ireland. He can be reached at: liam_leonard@yahoo.com