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Environmental Showdown on the Irish Coast

The Nation.


April 13, 2009

Slide Show: The Landscape of Protest. View Andrew Beardsworth’s images of Northwest Ireland.

A seaside community's battle to prevent a gas pipeline from ruining fragile coast and bog lands enters its tenth year. Photo by Andrew Beardsworth Photo by Andrew Beardsworth
A seaside community’s battle to prevent a gas pipeline from ruining fragile coast and bog lands enters its tenth year.

Ballinaboy, Ireland

The sprawling seaside villages around Ballinaboy in County Mayo are as close as you will find these days to the sheep-grazing greenery of postcard Ireland. In a country transformed by more than a decade of rapid and sometimes manic “Celtic Tiger” development, this community of farmers and fishermen in the country’s remote northwest still resembles the Emerald Isle of popular and increasingly wistful imagination. It is a place where herds of sheep overtake cars on narrow roads, and where the “Land of 100,000 Welcomes” is more than a stale tourism slogan. It is one of the last corners of the country where Irish Gaelic is commonly spoken between neighbors.

But Ballinaboy is not the rural idyll that it appears to be. Since 2000, local residents have been fighting a pitched and sometimes bloody battle against Big Oil and the Irish government. Over the course of this conflict–fought in the streets, in the courts, and on the high seas–the township has become unlikely backdrop to scenes of wanton police brutality; barn-side protest murals of martyred Nigerians; and tall steel barrier-fences mounted with surveillance cameras, which protect one of the most controversial industrial development projects in the annals of modern Europe.

At issue is a state-backed plan by Royal Dutch Shell to exploit the deep-sea Corrib gas field, some fifty miles off Ireland’s ruggedly beautiful northwest coast. Shell is now putting the final pieces in place to complete a decade-old plan to pump raw gas along the seabed and onto shore. Once reaching land at Glengad Beach, a high-pressure pipeline would carry the gas under five miles of populated farmland, roads and some of Ireland’s most pristine wilderness. The pipeline would terminate at a (nearly completed) Ballinaboy terminal, built on a once-protected peat bog and forest, under which lies a catchment for Carrowmore Lake, the local water supply. Heavy-metals waste from the refinery would track back along the pipe route to discharge into nearby Broadhaven Bay, frequented by whales and dolphins as well as local surfers and fishermen.

“My ancestors built this farmland out of the wild bog, and my family will protect it with everything we have,” says Willie Corduff, a subsistence farmer who was imprisoned for ninety-four days in 2005 for disobeying a court order to allow Shell engineers onto his land. “Our compromise offer is to let Shell process the gas at an offshore platform. They are wise to take it.”

* * *

The origins of the controversy date to 1996, when the British firm Enterprise Oil, subsumed by Shell in 2002, discovered the Corrib gas field and purchased the development rights. As early as 1999, Ballinaboy was identified as a site for the pipeline and refinery, but residents did not hear of the plans for more than a year. It was then that reports popped up in local newspapers and oil company officials began visiting local pubs and buying rounds of Guinness. The pipeline and refinery, said the oil company reps, would boost the local economy and have negligible environmental impact. They assured concerned locals that the gas pipeline would be just like a water pipe–out of sight, out of mind, and harmless. But the more residents investigated the impact and dangers of the refinery and raw-gas pipeline, the more angry and frightened they became.

Locals were immediately struck by how little the oil company understood the local environment. Much of the land in north County Mayo is comprised of unstable peat bog, which in spots is the consistency of mashed potatoes; the original onshore pipeline route ran past a hillside cemetery prone to landslides. Although the company agreed to alter the route, serious safety and environmental concerns remain: a high-pressure pipeline prone to rupture; the disruption and pollution of delicate marine and land ecosystems, and air pollution from the refinery.

“The original route they had sketched out showed they viewed this community as a blank slate,” says Maura Harrington, a retired local schoolteacher and community activist who went on a ten-day hunger strike last September to protest Shell’s first (and failed) attempt to begin laying the pipeline along the seabed. “The government told the oil companies that we were a bunch of Neanderthals who’d swallow anything we were told, grateful for any kind of development. This corner of Ireland has been neglected for centuries, and they thought they’d dump this monstrosity on us. They received a shock when we fought back.”

On March 11, Harrington was sentenced to twenty-eight days in prison for slapping a police officer after a tense day of protest. In a Stalinist touch, the county judge ordered Harrington to undergo a state psychiatric assessment.

But if Harrington is insane, so may be most of Ireland. According to an admittedly unscientific Irish Times online poll, 84 percent of respondents were critical of the project. Among them is Betty Schult, owner of the Kilcommon Lodge, a local bed and breakfast. “Our greatest asset is the natural beauty of this place,” she says. “The area is known for having the cleanest air and water in Ireland. They are putting everything at risk. And for what?”

Few outside northwestern Ireland had heard of the Corrib gas project before the summer of 2005. It was then that a high court judge in Dublin sentenced five farmers from the seaside village of Rossport, under which the pipeline would pass, to prison, where they spent ninety-four days. Their crime was refusing a court order to allow Shell engineers onto their land. As the news and details of their arrest spread, the men quickly became a cause celèbre throughout Ireland and Europe. Thousands marched through Dublin in support of the Rossport 5, who returned to a welcome of bonfires and cheering hordes of activists who had descended on the newly opened Rossport Solidarity Camp. Overnight, the Ballinaboy area went from being Ireland’s most forgotten corner to being “Ireland’s Chiapas.” A Shell spokesperson interviewed for this story, who declined to be identified by name, admits that sending the Rossport 5 to prison was a major setback. “If it wasn’t for that decision, we’d be pumping the gas already,” said the spokesperson bitterly.

Along with making martyrs of five soft-spoken family farmers, the imprisonments took the mask off of Shell’s already clumsy public relations effort. “If we had been living in a country that allowed hanging, would Shell have asked for them to be hanged?” asks the wife of one of the Rossport 5. It’s a question that many here have pondered as clashes with police have grown increasingly violent.

Members of the Shell to Sea movement, which has led opposition to the project, assume police brutality charges will be thrown out of court. “The government has made it clear they view the project as a national security issue, and thus approve any means necessary to remove obstacles,” says Terence Conway, a fifth-generation resident and carpenter who is completing a study of aluminium contamination of the water supply caused by the refinery.

“It’s the old Irish mentality here,” says Pat O’Connell, a fisherman who said he was held down and beaten by two cops, breaking his nose and chipping a bone in his neck. “?’Kick your ass and keep you in the corner.’ The courts and the police are all in Shell’s pocket.” When the national police ombudsman recommended last year that the justice minister review police action in the Corrib gas project protests, he declined. Frontline, a Dublin-based human rights organization, is looking into the situation. Meanwhile, electronic surveillance of opposition gatherings and state-sponsored forums has become routine.

The last major confrontation took place in September 2008, when Shell attempted to lay the first stretch of pipe in local fishing waters. Several fishermen used their small boats to block the Solitaire, Shell’s gargantuan pipelaying ship. Accompanying the ship were three Irish naval vessels–nearly half of the country’s fleet. Residents are now bracing for the ships to return.

“The pipeline would discharge metals into the bay, which is our livelihood,” says Pat O’Donnell, who led the fishermen’s protest flotilla. “If I accepted their buyout I’d be putting the livelihoods of future fishermen at risk. I’m not a protester; I’m a protector. I was prepared to die on my boat obstructing them in September and am prepared to die when they come back.”

* * *

The Shell-state alliance has been deeply disillusioning for local people. It has radicalized much of this traditional Irish community. “We always told our children to respect the law,” says Willie Corduff. “Now we feel like we’ve been telling them lies. My kids cannot stand to be around the cops or clergy.”

The Catholic Church was brought in early to support the project. During the initial publicity push, a local priest and bishop were flown out to sea by helicopter to bless the gas field and the deep-sea rig, after which, people say they gave Sunday sermons on the benefits of pumping the gas through the area. Initially, this swayed much of the community, especially the older members. “They did their research on us,” says Maura Harrington. “They figured if they got the Church on their side, we’d go along with them.”

Other institutions have been tainted as well. Shell has hired the editor of the local newspaper, theMayo News, as its spokesperson.

Belief that Shell has the national government in its pocket runs deep. The agencies and ministers in Dublin have repeatedly eased the path for the oil company, often ignoring or changing national law to move the process forward. In 2001, as opposition to the project coalesced, Frank Fahey, then minister for Ireland’s marine and natural resources, introduced a measure to allow his department to seize land on behalf of private companies. Within weeks, oil company representatives went door to door demanding that residents accept meager compensation offers or have their land seized. “They came around with the cops and pressured us to sign, saying that our neighbors had already signed, that we had no choice,” says Willie Corduff, one of the Rossport 5 who was awarded the 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism. “I told [Shell] I wouldn’t take their money if they offered me a million euros. So the state sent me to prison, where I spent the first night of my life away from my family.”

What was once a local environmental struggle has become a national concern. This is due to the uniquely favorable terms of Shell’s contact. The Irish government holds no stake in the gas field, has lowered the corporate tax rate to 25 percent and has allowed it to write off all development costs against future taxes for up to twenty-five years. Now, as Ireland grapples with the worldwide economic meltdown, mounting deficits and is contemplating cuts to social services, there are growing calls to renegotiate Shell’s contract.

* * *

“No country is as stupid or corrupt as Ireland,” says Majella McCarren, a missionary who worked for thirty years in Nigeria before returning to northwest Ireland in the mid-90s. “Even Chad borrows money to buy stakes in their national resources. We own nothing and will receive nothing from this project.”

McCarren does not reference Africa lightly. The retired missionary spent years bearing witness to the Ogoni struggle against Shell in the Niger delta. After retiring to Ireland she established Ogoni Solidarity Ireland, which sponsors an annual Ken Saro-Wiwa Memorial seminar, named after the Ogoni leader who was executed in 1995. It was at one of these lectures that McCarren first met members of Shell to Sea. In 2005, McCarren organized the first of several Ogoni solidarity visits to the area. Friendships were formed, and soon the Irish activists swere calling themselves “Bogoni,” after County Mayo’s emblematic peat bogs. When Shell executives stand trial this April in a New York courtroom for crimes committed in the Niger delta during the 90s, a delegation of Irish residents will be in attendance.

“There is a tremendous affinity between the Ogoni and the people of Kilcommon,” says McCarren, referring to the local parish. “Both are indigenous communities with their backs to the sea. Both have very unique eco-systems, strong community bonds, and resilience.”

As they await the return of the pipelaying ship, some activists cling to the hope that help may yet arrive from European Union headquarters in Brussels, where complaints have been lodged against Shell and the Irish government.

Barring rescue from Brussels or an unlikely Shell stand down, there will likely be further rounds of clashes and arrests. “We don’t want to see anybody hurt on either side of the police lines,” says Niall Harnett, who conducts speaking tours around Europe on the project and runs the Rossport Solidarity Camp. “But the state should know that it does not always have a monopoly on the use of force. We are prepared to defend this land.”

The confrontation, if it comes, will make a strange but not a lonely last stand for the residents of this remote coastal community. “Before this all started, I didn’t know people like the European eco-warriors or the Ogoni even existed,” says Willie Corduff. “Now they are the only people that we can depend on besides ourselves.”

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