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Questions raised over Gardia policing of the controversial Shell Corrib Gas Project

Of Sorcery and Sources-Garda

by Michael McCaughan

“Gardai said Mr Corduff had complained of head and chest pains necessitating an ambulance and two paramedics to travel out from Castlebar…no assault is being investigated by gardai” (Jim Cusack, Security Correspondent, Sunday Independent, 26/4/09)

News reports which focus on the community campaign to bring gas safely ashore in Erris, Co Mayo rely heavily on statements and speculation which, once generated by gardai, are accepted unquestioningly by reporters. Willie Corduff’s hospital records offer another version of events, one which relies on forensic detail rather than partisan speculation; “He had been kicked all over the body and had LOC (Loss Of Consciousness). He had headaches, nausea and vomiting.” (Discharge report for Willie Corduff, Castlebar Hospital, 24/4/09) Corduff took up residence underneath a Shell truck at Glengad compound only after gardai refused to reveal the legal basis on which work was restarting at the site. When Mary Corduff visited Belmullet garda station that afternoon, requesting the same, she was met with derision; ‘tell your husband to have a bit of sense’ said Supt McNamara.

For the past nine years the legal, social and environmental issues raised by the community have been dismissed in similar fashion. When Pat O’Donnell’s boat was sunk by persons unknown in June, garda sources insinuated that O’Donnell sank his own vessel; ‘Individual gardai and Shell allege, privately, that both cases (O’Donnell and Corduff) were concocted by “the movement” in a desperate attempt to garner support for the cause”. (Mark Tighe, Sunday Times, 5/07/09) Within 48 hours of the O’Donnell incident gardai announced unequivocally that “they have found no evidence to support claims by a prominent Shell to Sea protester that armed commandos sank his shellfish boat off the coast of Mayo last week.”

How did Gardai investigators arrive at such a speedy conclusion? The headline on that story, “Gardai: sinking story is fishy” is typical of the official attitude toward the concerns of the Erris people. On the night of the boat episode, Garda failed to send officers to secure nearby ports where O’Donnell’s attackers might have fled.

The role of the gardai as primary media source in the Corrib gas controversy has distracted attention from what human rights organizations are beginning to view as a systematic campaign of harassment against peaceful protestors.

Meanwhile public statements by gardai have been accompanied by petty harassment of less well known campaigners. Seanie McDonnell, a local school bus driver in his mid 60s, was arrested in June by plainclothes police in an unmarked car as he finished off his daily run. McDonnell was taken to Ballina, an hour away, and instructed to watch film footage of protests in which detectives accused him of property damage. “I’ve never done anything like that in my life” McDonnell told Village. The gardai have yet to follow up this arrest with any formal charge. McDonnell’s wife, who asked not to be named, out of fear, suffers from a long term illness. “I’m nervous to say anything, I have to be careful” said McDonnell. “It’s not for my own sake, it’s for my wife, it took a lot out of her.. I wouldn’t like any hassle around the house again.” On another occasion, a member of the Solidarity camp was surprised to hear that his parents, back home in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, had received a ‘friendly’ call from a local garda who expressed concern that their son’s safety might be at risk in County Mayo.

“Gardai sources say the protest has been infiltrated at times by very hard-line republican elements….the same sources said at least two leading members of the Real IRA in Derry have been seen at the protest.” (“Policing costs mount…” Conor Lally, Irish Times 20/09/08)
Garda spokespeople have also led the way in linking activists to subversion. The Sunday Times, (5/7/09) in its ‘Mayo Landing’ feature, relied on garda sources to portray the campaign as a destructive force; “Well known people are in and out of that solidarity camp stirring things up and inciting theses people, which they are naive enough to allow”, added Larkin. “If we didn’t have some of the outside agitators coming in there wouldn’t be a problem with the handful of locals that oppose this.”
Larkin offers no evidence to back up his ‘handful of locals’ theory and the Sunday Times clearly felt that no proof other than his word was required. Larkin then added that a better measure of local support for the project were ‘the many offers of accommodation’ received from people keen to house the 300 extra gardai drafted in to protect the project. This strange belief by Supt Larkin that cash for beds implies a measure of support for a corporate project goes unchallenged by the reporter. If Mark Tighe had consulted accommodation outlets in villages closer to Glengad, he would have discovered that a number of requests for garda beds were politely rejected by locals.
“We have to deploy huge numbers of gardai” explained Supt Larkin, “They are needed to deal with some of the protesters whose stated aim is to cause criminal damage and wreck property.”

Rossport resident Monica Muller has written an open letter to Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy, claiming that gardai have violated several articles of their own operating code (The Garda Siochana Act (2005) in adopting a partisan role in the Corrib gas project. Muller cites Superintendent Larkin’s “serious allegations against members of the public, accusation of intent to cause criminal damage..he has demeaned members of the public who oppose the Corrib Gas Project, as is their Constitutionally guaranteed right to do….He has made unfounded statements about matters outside the remit of the Garda Siochana and expressed his opinion of a commercial development by a private company.”
Monica Muller signed off her complaint to the Garda Commissioner; “While I am not a ‘protester’ I have most certainly taken up my legal rights to take part in the planning process for this commercial development in opposing it until such time as proper procedures, legislation and the rule of law are followed by Shell E & P Ireland”.
There is growing concern that the gardai have overstepped their duties in Mayo and taken on the role of auxiliary spokespeople/PR for a private developer. In the coming months Shell is expected to begin work on the onshore pipeline, bringing the issue right back to june 2005 when five men were jailed for refusing to allow the company access to their lands. The jailing of the Rossport Five triggered a nationwide campaign which left Shell isolated and unpopular. The company responded with a major PR campaign which shifted attention away from the substantive health and safety concerns and onto issues of alleged subversion and criminal behavior.
In the weeks and months ahead a number of legal challenges to Shell’s planned route will be aired while trained human rights monitors will keep a close eye on garda behaviour. Who will keep an eye on the media?
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