Monday 4 October 2010

The Battle for Ballinaboy: 'We never imagined we would see this in rural Ireland'

10 years ago this month Bord Gáis announced the building of the Corrib gas pipeline in Co Mayo. The unfolding controversy has been reported by our Western Correspondent, Lorna Siggins, ever since. In an extract from her new book she recalls how, in late 2006, heightened security and escalating protests caused the situation to boil over

SUPT JOE GANNON was assigned to Belmullet, in Co Mayo, in July 2006. Later that autumn he described a scene that resembled a conflict zone at Ballinaboy, where Shell was trying to build a terminal to bring gas ashore from its Corrib field, 80km offshore. The entrance to the site had been “blocked for a year and a half”, and “local people had a veto on who went in and out”. The Garda’s remit was to ensure there were no arrests and no “martyrs”. At Shell’s compound at Rossport anyone arriving in a jeep, whether or not they were from the oil company, would be “surrounded by these locals and their cars, and questioned for anything up to three- quarters of an hour”, he told Garda Review magazine. “I felt that it was time to take the ground back, as is my responsibility as the district officer . . . People have constitutional rights to go about their lawful business unhindered.”

Decades of the rosary in Irish had drowned his words as he addressed protesters through his loudhailer at Ballinaboy early on the morning of September 26th, 2006. An estimated 100 people were determined to ensure that work did not resume before they were sure that safety issues around the project, some of which dated back to 2000, had been resolved. The superintendent turned the dawn convoys of Shell staff back to cheers, he said, from the group.

Liam Leonard, a lecturer at NUI Galway who published a book that month on the environmental movement in Ireland, Green Nation, forecast that protests would not die down in the absence of proper consultation with the community. And they didn’t, even as it emerged that Shell, which had already said it would compensate landowners on the pipeline route, had offered each owner an additional €10,000 a year, as well as trying to withdraw the legal action that had led to the jailing of the Rossport Five the previous year.

ON OCTOBER 2ND, 114 gardaí of all ranks were transferred to Belmullet, and by October 11th the special policing operation at Ballinaboy had cost €675,639, excluding salaries. The tension grew. Up to 100 people from the community, many of them middle-aged and elderly, joined younger people from the Rossport Solidarity Camp, which had started the summer before, in support of the Rossport Five, and Shell to Sea protesters from other parts of the country in a daily early-morning walk up to the terminal gates, facing up to 200 gardaí, with each side bearing video cameras. The gardaí’s orders were to ensure safe access to and from the terminal for Shell workers and contractors, who were transported in a convoy of buses and jeeps from Bangor Erris before 8am each day.

On October 3rd two people were injured at the terminal gates, as up to 170 gardaí supported an operation that involved members of the Garda public-order unit. One of the two injured required oxygen from Dr Jerry Cowley, the local Independent TD, who had to walk more than a quarter of a mile with three medical bags, as gardaí would not permit his car through.

Supt Gannon told Garda Review that plans had been drawn up at Belmullet Garda Station. A Garda “protest removal group”, which had “expert training to deal with people who are obstructing the roadway”, was called in, along with an additional 150 gardaí from outside the district. At 3am the protesters were asked to move and refused. “They had all of their vehicles locked, in gear with the handbrakes on, and the wheels turned – so we couldn’t lift them with the additional winching gear. We had a powerful tractor with us, so we drove up to the first vehicle. The owner remonstrated with me but refused to remove it. I gave the direction to the tractor to back up; he hooked a chain on to it and pulled it down the road with the wheels locked and everything. I proceeded to do the same with about five more; by that stage we had opened up a channel at the gate, so I lined the gardaí up either side and created a pathway in.”

Protesters at the terminal gate were asked to move behind barriers, where they would “be accommodated in a peaceful and lawful protest. They wouldn’t budge, so I gave the order for the gardaí to move them back behind the barriers. They all dropped – on command from one of them – and sat down and all linked hands and arms”. Supt Gannon described how Sgt Conor O’Reilly’s team – the public-order unit – “unfastened” the protesters while trained “lifters” carried them across to the cordoned area behind barriers. It took about half an hour to remove 80 people. The next step was to remove about 50 vehicles. By 7.15am the road was clear and the protesters were “in the corral flanked by gardaí”.

The press had by now arrived in “large numbers”, and workers were driven into the Shell site at 7.50am, followed by a convoy of lorries to take away peat that needed to be cleared. “There were no arrests,” Supt Gannon said. “That was part of our strategy; we did not want to facilitate anyone down there with a route to martyrdom. That has been the policy ever since.”

He described how succeeding days brought “similar scenes”, and one arrest. “It was fairly rough on days,” he acknowledged. “And as the days passed the tensions and the aggression heightened.”

Gardaí had been filming three or four hours of video footage a day, and had more than 50 hours by the end of October. The footage was evidence, Supt Gannon explained. “The protesters have been recording everything since day one, and then you have the outside influences, the ecowarriors, and it is always part of their operations to have a camera in your face, trying to agitate and get a reaction. They will use it to their advantage, and Indymedia [a collective of volunteer journalists] have been down there from day one.”

AT THIS STAGE an unsubstantiated Sunday newspaper report alleged links between Sinn Féin/IRA and community objectors to the project. The allegations were almost inevitable, a Shell to Sea spokesman, Mark Garavan, noted later. The protests at Ballinaboy and televised clashes with gardaí, which continued through the late autumn of 2006, would be seen as “feeding into an agenda to portray the campaign as dangerous and radical”, said Garavan.

On October 13th Maura Harrington, a local school principal who was one of the protesters, made national newspapers. She was pictured lying on the ground holding a cross bearing the name of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian activist who was hanged in 1995. She said she had been “knocked to the ground” by a garda and had sustained neck injuries. She was taken by ambulance to hospital in Castlebar.

The following week, back in Dublin, the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources confirmed that gardaí were investigating telephone “death threats” that afternoon to Noel Dempsey, the marine minister, who had defended the deployment of gardaí in Erris in an interview on RTÉ Radio’s News at One.

UNIVERSITY STUDENTS in the middle of their first term at college were among those who made the long journey by bus to Erris for a protest on Friday, October 20th. It was now three weeks since the dawn pickets had begun, and this was the largest gathering so far.

When some of the protesters strayed on to the road to delay the convoy of jeeps carrying Shell contract staff, gardái moved them back. Several scuffles broke out. Over the following two or three hours the protesters tried to delay lorries, insults were hurled, gardaí recorded events on video, and one man was arrested for allegedly damaging Garda video equipment.

Jerry Cowley was concerned about the atmosphere. He called on Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy, a Mayo man, to ensure that the force showed respect for protesting locals. After all, this corner of Ireland had one of the lowest crime rates in the country. It appeared that a minority of gardaí were showing signs of “ill discipline” and “undue aggression” at the protests. “We never imagined we would see this in rural Ireland,” said Mary Corduff, wife of Willie Corduff, one of the Rossport Five, of filmed scenes that appeared on YouTube. “Gardaí that we knew on first-name terms using batons against local people, tossing them into ditches. We were seriously concerned about people getting hurt.”

Her husband joined Micheál Ó Seighin, also of the Rossport Five, and Mark Garavan at a Shell to Sea press conference in Castlebar. The group called for an independent and public commission of inquiry to investigate the “optimum development concept” for the Corrib gas project. The Shell to Sea proposal was dismissed by the minister and by Shell just hours after it was proposed. The minister said he “did not see anything new in the initiative”.

Leaflets were prepared, promoting a peaceful protest on November 10th, 2006, but there was a sense of foreboding in the wake of the minister’s speedy rejection of the Shell to Sea compromise. By the end of that morning there were bruised arms and legs, torn clothes and uniforms, and eight people, including four gardaí, had been injured and two had been arrested. It was a day that residents would not forget for a long time. After what Supt Gannon described as more than two hours of negotiations, and several warnings on his loudhailer, batons were drawn on protesters at Ballinaboy. He described the use of truncheons to move them from the road as “slow and methodical”. The altercation was later broadcast on RTÉ and posted on YouTube.

BUSES AND CARS carrying supporters from Dublin, Galway and elsewhere had arrived the night before. The stand-off had begun at about 7am, when roadblocks were erected, preventing protesters from approaching the terminal site. Maura Harrington began driving her van towards a line of gardaí and blowing her horn. Her vehicle was then pushed by supporters through two Garda barriers, and two gardaí used batons to smash her vehicle’s windows and pull her out.

Several protesters drove to a local quarry and builders’ suppliers, both of which were identified as working for the terminal project. Local fisherman Pat O’Donnell was among them. He stressed that the approach was not a picket or protest but an attempt to persuade the businesses to stop helping Shell. The gardaí followed them there, and O’Donnell was pulled aside when he attempted to speak to the owner of the quarry. He sustained three broken ribs, and another man’s nose was broken. The activity was caught on camera by Jim Cahill, an independent film-maker, who described it as very harrowing. A truck had already left the quarry, and O’Donnell was participating in a “thin picket line” when gardaí intervened, Cahill said. O’Donnell said he believed he would have been “left for dead” had it not been for the presence of Cahill and his cameraman and the intervention of another local man.

“I BELIEVE SOMEONE will be killed, given the violence by the State and the low number of trained police,” a distressed Micheál Ó Seighin said afterwards. A Glenamoy farmer and Shell to Sea supporter named PJ Moran appealed for help. “If Bertie Ahern had an ounce of cop-on, he’d come down and see for himself what’s happening. We’re not asking for anything, only for our safety,” he pleaded. It seemed as if the taoiseach had already made up his mind. RTÉ’s northwest correspondent, Eileen Magnier, caught up with him on a tour of Roscommon and Leitrim the same day. “Quite frankly, from the government’s point of view, that’s it,” Ahern told her. “The negotiations are over, the rule of law has to be implemented and the work goes on. And if there are those who try to frustrate that, they’re breaking the law and it’s a matter for the gardaí to enforce it.”

JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS Shell announced it was moving from Bangor Erris to a €1 million office development in Belmullet. The complex was in property leased from Údarás na Gaeltachta, the state agency for Gaeltacht development. The gardaí had also been using part of the complex, rent-free, for deployment of extra members of the force to provide security. Given the Gaeltacht agency’s role in social and economic development in the isolated area, the business arrangement was perceived by some involved in Shell to Sea as yet another betrayal by the State. The business arrangement was defended by the authority’s chief executive, Pádraig Ó hAoláin. It was not clear how many Irish speakers would be working with the company, or whether any such requirements would apply.

The Rossport Five had a reunion in the Imperial Hotel in Castlebar for the publication of their book, Our Story: The Rossport Five , comprising a series of interviews with Mark Garavan. It was a good-humoured gathering on a cold winter’s night, but the low-key attention the media paid it was in sharp contrast to the adulation showered on the five men and their families in Dublin after their release from jail almost 15 months before.

The following morning some of the families would be out before dawn at Ballinaboy again. Between 70 and 80 people, mainly from the locality, were maintaining the morning protest. Three days before Christmas gardaí denied using a truncheon on a protester at Ballinaboy, and denied they were trying to provoke locals with what Mary Corduff described as “personal remarks”. It was a “very sad development coming up to Christmas”, she concluded. “It seems as if the gardaí are getting annoyed with us now, as they haven’t succeeded in doing what Shell wants them to do, which is to frighten us away.”

This is an edited extract from Once Upon a Time in the West: The Corrib Gas Controversy , by Lorna Siggins, published by Transworld Ireland, £14.99

The Corrib gas controversy: A timeline

1996 Corrib gas field discovery, 80km off the Mayo coast, confirmed by Enterprise Energy Ireland

October 2000 Bord Gáis announces a gas pipeline from Mayo to Galway

November 2000 Enterprise Energy Ireland applies for planning permission for a gas processing plant at Ballinaboy

April 2002 Minister for the marine Frank Fahey approves construction of the pipeline, exempt from planning

May 2002 Shell takes over Enterprise Energy Ireland

April 2003 An Bord Pleanála turns down application for onshore terminal at Ballinaboy

October 2004 New planning application for Corrib onshore terminal given final approval by planning board

June 2005 Residents’ concerns over first proposed onshore pipeline route lead to jailing of Rossport Five for 94 days

July 2005 Minister for the marine Noel Dempsey directs Shell to dismantle an illegal 3km-section of onshore pipeline

July 2006 Mediation fails to resolve dispute but report recommends pipeline route be modified to take it away from houses

November 2007 Restoration of special area of conservation ordered at Glengad after unauthorised drilling

February 2009 Shell seeks permission for revised pipeline route, avoiding houses in Rossport

May 2009 Bord Pleanála hearing on pipeline opens. It deems half of the new route unacceptable but gives approval if alterations made

May 2010 Third route under Sruwaddacon estuary applied for by Corrib gas partners

August 2010 Bord Pleanála resumes oral hearing into pipeline. They ended yesterday.

Irish Times

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