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Hunger strike hero celebrates victory over Shell pipeline

School principal who missed her birthday and retirement parties says she’s happy it’s over

  • The Observer, 
  • Sunday September 21 2008
Maura Harrington hunger strike

Maura Harrington goes on hunger strike in protest at Shell building a gas pipeline through the village of Rossport, County Mayo in Ireland

Maura Harrington missed both her birthday party and her retirement party during her 10-day struggle to force a ship belonging to Shell to leave Irish waters. The 400m-long Solitaire was to be involved in the laying of an underwater pipeline from Broadhaven Bay in Co Mayo to a gas field 60 miles off the coast.

When she began her hunger strike, the retired school principal weighed just six stone, nine pounds. After ending her fast 10 days later, following the departure of the Solitaire from Ireland’s western seaboard, Harrington admitted feeling a lot lighter.

She had vowed to eat nothing until Shell pulled the ship out, as part of her campaign against the controversial Corrib gas pipeline. Solitaire sailed to the UK at the end of last week, following damage to equipment on board.

Speaking this weekend to The Observer after ending her fast, Harrington said: ‘I always said this would end in one of two ways. I’m happy to say that it ended the way I wanted it to, thank God.’

The Mayo-born environmental campaigner said the Solitaire’s departure to a port in Scotland at the end of last week was a victory for herself and fellow campaigners. ‘This has been a battle won, although we are engaged in a long war with Shell about this pipeline. It isn’t over but, yes, this was a victory,’ said Harrington, who carried out the fast at Glenagad beach, by the headquarters of the pipeline project.

She added: ‘The fast was the culmination of eight years of campaigning. It reached the point where I had to engage in the ultimate form of peaceful protest. That is how strongly we all feel.’

For a frail woman even before her fast, how did she cope with 10 days without food? ‘Strangely enough, the hardest days were when the weather was fine. I felt much weaker when the sun was shining and the heat was up. It was then I felt dehydrated the most. The days of cold, rain and wind made it easier to cope.

‘I missed two big parties: my retirement from the school and my 55th birthday. When I build up my strength I will celebrate them again.’

Harrington said she was slightly embarrassed that she has become an ecological icon in Ireland. As a result she plans to adopt a lower profile. ‘It’s time for me to just go away quietly for a while.’

However, she said she would continue to campaign. ‘We are still here and our message is that this part of Ireland is the wrong place for this pipeline.’

The retired school principal said the most shocking experience was the presence of many gardai deployed to protect the headquarters of the pipeline project. Last weekend her son was arrested along with three others during a Shell to Sea protest at Glenagad beach. During protests last weekend in solidarity with Harrington’s fast, the Irish government deployed the navy to the area to protect the Solitaire.

‘During my 10 days out in front of the pipeline site I was surrounded by gardai even though my protest was entirely peaceful. This kind of heavy-handed security shouldn’t be happening in a democracy.’

Harrington paid tribute to other anti-Corrib protesters such as Pat O’Donnell, the Donegal fisherman who kept a close watch on the Solitaire from his fishing boat while the Shell-owned ship was in Killybegs.

‘Pat and his son fought the battle on the high seas and it was as important as our battle here on the ground in Mayo. This victory was as much about them as it was to do with my protest,’ she said.

A number of fishermen were preparing to take legal action to bring the pipe-line’s construction to a halt.

Shell refused to comment on the campaigners’ claim that their protest had forced out the Solitaire from Irish waters.

A spokeswoman for the oil giant simply confirmed that the Solitaire had left Killybegs for an undisclosed location in the UK.

‘The vessel will remain in port while a further assessment of factors including operational, technical and weather issues will be completed. Once this is done, a further statement about the 2008 offshore development programme will be made,’ she said.

‘This programme still requires a suitable weather window for successful completion.

‘Separately, a special diving support vessel has been deployed to Broadhaven Bay to assist in the salvage of the 12-metre long, 80-tonne section of the Solitaire’s pipe-laying equipment. This piece of equipment, which became detached from the vessel on 10 September, is currently lying on the seabed in Broadhaven Bay, Co Mayo and will be removed and disposed of for safety and environmental reasons.’ The spokeswoman refused to confirm or deny if the Solitaire would return to Irish waters. Nor would the company comment on Harrington’s hunger strike. At the start of her fast she had vowed to fight ‘to the death if necessary’ to ensure the Solitaire, which would play a vital role in laying the pipeline, left Ireland.

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