The campaign against Shell’s inland refinery and high-pressure pipeline near Rossport in Co Mayo has been long and extraordinary, inspiring communities everywhere. Local residents began their campaign in 2000, adopting the name Shell to Sea in early 2005. Tactics have ranged from High Court actions, planning objections and lobbying politicians to grassroots campaigning and civil disobedience.
Gas was discovered in the Corrib field, 80km west of Co Mayo, in 1996. An experimental, cost-saving method for bringing this gas ashore was proposed: instead of processing gas at sea, as is standard practice worldwide, the plan was to lay an extremely high-pressure pipeline to carry raw, odourless gas through the village of Rossport to a refinery built on a shifting bog.
Despite local opposition, Mayo Co Council granted planning permission for the refinery in 2001. Residents appealed to An Bord Pleanála, which agreed with residents’ concerns and overturned the permission in 2002, describing the proposed location as “the wrong site”. However, following meetings between Shell executives, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and An Bord Pleanála, Shell re-applied and were granted permission for the same location.
In June 2005, six residents refused Shell access to their land to work on the pipeline route. Shell responded by asking the High Court to jail five of them, which it did – for 94 days. People across Ireland were outraged by the jailings, leading to major protests and the release of the ‘Rossport Five’.
Shell pressed on with construction. After years of fighting through the planning process and getting nothing but jail sentences in return, in 2005 residents began engaging in civil disobedience. They halted construction of the refinery for more than a year by peacefully blocking the site entrance. In autumn 2006, Gardaí began breaking up these peaceful protests, throwing residents into ditches, beating them, verbally abusing and threatening them.
Shocked at the Garda violence, people from all over Ireland came to Erris to stand alongside the residents. Human rights groups around the world condemned the policing of the protests. The San Francisco-based Global Community Monitor published a report stating: “that the behaviour of the gardai in Mayo is endangering the safety of people participating in non-violent protests as well as consistently infringing on their civil rights.”
In 2007, one of the Rossport Five, Willie Corduff, was awarded the Goldman Prize, the world’s biggest environmental prize given to an individual. The prize founder said of that year’s winners: “Their commitment in the face of great personal risk inspires us all to think more critically about what ordinary people can do to make a difference.”
In the summer of 2008, Shell made its first attempt to bring the pipeline ashore, and Gardaí started making large-scale arrests of campaigners. Fisherman Pat O’Donnell, who continued to fish in Broadhaven Bay during the visit of the pipe-laying ship, The Solitaire, was arrested twice while working at sea. The Solitaire became damaged and was forced to withdraw before the winter storms.
Shell and the Irish State used the winter to prepare a new attempt to get the pipeline ashore. Local school principal Maura Harrington was jailed twice. In April 2009, Willie Corduff was beaten by masked men inside Shell’s compound and required hospitalisation. And in June Pat O’Donnell’s boat was boarded and sunk by four masked and armed men.
Many more have been arrested while protesting at the landfall site on Glengad Beach. When the Solitaire returned in June 2009, 300 gardaí were deployed, along with 200 private security staff, two Irish Navy gunboats and an Air Force plane. Despite this huge show of force by the State, protests continued and construction work was halted several times. Now the most difficult stage of the experimental gas pipeline lies ahead for Shell, when they try to force it through the village of Rossport itself.
This is the final version of a text I wrote for the Dublin Shell to Sea 'All the Facts' leaflet. We are producing 120,000 of these so a whole lot of editing has been done be a team of people since my original draft. If you want copies to distribute (this was produced Autumn 2009) details are on the All the Facts page.