The phrase ‘thanks a million, big fella’ became synonymous with the endemic corruption of the Irish political and business elite in the 1990s.
“Thanks a million, big fella” was Charles Haughey’s grateful response to the ‘big fella’ Ben Dunne, who had slipped banks drafts totalling £210,000 into Haughey’s pocket. It encapsulated the cosy and corrupt relationship between politics and business – two of the most prominent and powerful figures in both spheres casually signing off on business.
There is no doubt that the shocking phrase ‘Give me your name or I will rape you’ will be one to define the corrupt relationship between the Twenty-Six County state and corporate interests in the early years of this century.
Given the extensive media coverage over the last number of days, most will know by now, that this particularly shameful phrase was uttered by a Garda sergeant as he travelled with two colleagues to Belmullet garda station where two young women, arrested during a Shell to Sea protest, were being held in Garda custody.
Shocking as the conversation between the Gardaí was; involving, as it did, casual references to sexual violence against women, for many involved in the Shell to Sea campaign it came as no surprise that both threats and actual violence are the modus operandi of the Gardaí in north Mayo.
For almost a decade, simple acts of resistance by the community in Erris have met with bullying, threats, intimidation, vilification and casual violence at the hands of both Gardaí and Shell’s private army IRMS.
There have been countless incidents of protests being violently broken up by Gardaí, of campaigners being assaulted and thrown down ditches, of women being threatened with rape, of elderly people being flung into fences, of young people being beaten and constantly harassed and of high profile campaigners being charged and imprisoned on trumped up charges.
That this community continues to struggle and refuses to bow down is testimony to their bravery and determination and to the justness of their cause. Threats of sexual violence against women, while absolutely shocking and reprehensible, have unfortunately been a feature of the policing of protests in Erris.
At a press conference last Thursday [April 7], it was publicly revealed that similar threats were made to Erris woman Bríd Ní Sheighin back in 2006. During an early morning protest, a local sergeant was recorded making threats of sexual violence against Ní Sheighin to her husband.
It is clear that Gardaí view threats of sexual violence as a legitimate form of intimidation in an attempt to discourage women from getting involved in the Shell to Sea campaign. Those threats have failed and women continue to play an active and leading role in the campaign, both locally and around the country. The day after the ‘rape tape’ was publicly revealed, a young woman was punched in the stomach by Gardaí while involved in a protest at the Shell compound in Aughoose and required medical attention.
Following days of blanket press coverage and as public anger mounted, senior Gardaí were eventually forced to issue a limp apology for the rape comments. However, their instincts, like those of the Catholic Church, were to place the interests of the institution first and to protect its members.
So, in a similar vein to the Catholic bishops who transferred paedophile priests to another parish, the Garda superintendent charged with investigating this matter transferred the Gardaí involved from Belmullet to desk duties in Castlebar. Given the attitude of the newly transferred guards, the women of Castlebar will have little confidence that reports of sexual violence will be treated sensitively. Moving the problem to another ‘parish’, does not deal with the problem. Gardaí have been consistently violent to campaigners in Mayo and have displayed appalling attitudes towards women.
Throughout last week, the Garda press office attempted to downplay the significance of the recordings and to minimise what was said. It appears that sustained pressure was exerted on RTÉ not to play the recordings or to even mention the word rape, at one point the broadcaster downplayed the rape comments by making vague references to “derogatory” comments made by Gardaí about two women in their custody.
In typically servile fashion, RTÉ played ball with the Gardaí until they were forced by the weight of public opinion, combined with the fact that the comments had gone viral, to air the recordings. In a further effort to intimidate the two women concerned, the Garda press office leaked their personal details to certain gutter journalists.
While the Shell to Sea campaign has regularly highlighted the human rights abuses against campaigners, last week’s events brought unprecedented public focus on the nature of policing in Corrib.
For a decade, the Twenty-Six County state has facilitated Shell’s dangerous gas project and its expropriation of €10 billion of gas from the Corrib field. At times, it has mobilised unprecedented levels of state force in support of this. For example, during the autumn of 2008, the picturesque Broadhaven Bay resembled a heavily militarised zone as the Solitaire, the world’s largest pipe laying ship arrived to lay the offshore section of the Corrib gas pipeline.
The Dublin government summoned two navy ships, the LE Orla and LE Aisling, to the area where they joined the Garda Water Unit. On shore, the Garda Emergency Response Unit and Public Order Unit were in position, backed up by hundreds of uniformed Gardaí. In addition, Shell employed several hundred security guards hired from a private security firm I-RMS, run by a former Free State army ranger, complete with its own water unit.
éirígí has consistently highlighted the mistreatment of Pat O’Donnell, one of a minority of local fishermen who refused to accept Shell’s bribes. Several weeks after refusing a payment from Shell to surrender his fishing rights in Broadhaven Bay, Gardaí arrested him on two separate occasions while fishing in the bay. In June 2009, one of his fishing vessels, the Iona Isle, was sunk by armed and masked men who boarded his vessel. Several weeks after this incident, Gardaí impounded Pat’s other vessel. Last year, the Chief spent six months in prison on trumped up charges.
Shell to Sea has not been alone in highlighting human rights abuses against those opposed to Shell’s dangerous project and the giveaway of Irish natural resources. Human rights defenders Frontline commissioned an independent review into the policing of protests in Corrib.
The purpose of the report was to examine whether those engaged in protests against Shell’s dangerous gas project could be considered human rights defenders and to consider any related human rights issues, particularly with regard to the right to defend human rights. It examined a number of specific incidents, including the impounding of Pat O’Donnell’s fishing boat in 2008, the serious assault on Willie Corduff in 2009 and the violent Garda attack on campaigners at Pollathomas pier in 2007.
Frontline’s findings were published last year and it found that the impounding of Pat O’Donnell’s boat was unlawful and the motive was to “to prevent Mr O’Donnell going to sea and disrupting the laying of the pipeline”.
The Gardaí were acting in the interests of a private corporation by denying Pat O’Donnell his right to fish the waters of Broadhaven Bay and his right to protest by illegally impounding his boat.
At Pollathomas pier in 2007, Shell contractors attempted to illegally gain access to land owned by local resident Paddy McGrath, Gardaí violently forced through the Shell digger and, in the process, 20 protestors were injured. Subsequently, 18 separate complaints were made to the Garda Ombudsman and, while the commission recommended that disciplinary action be taken against Superintendent Larkin who was in charge of policing on the day, the Gardaí found “no breach of discipline” on the part of Larkin. The Garda Ombudsman sought an explanation of this decision from the Gardaí; none was forthcoming.
In relation to the attack on Willie Corduff by IRMS goons in 2009, Frontline challenged the IRMS claim that he was not assaulted and concluded that Willie Corduff was set upon and kicked and that his medical records demonstrated that he suffered bruising as a result of kicking.
The report also pointed to a level of collusion between senior Gardaí and IRMS, with Superintendent Michael Larkin issuing a statement to the media claiming that Willie Corduff “was escorted from the site and spoke to Gardaí and it was decided in the best interests that he be transferred to a hospital that that he complained of feeling unwell”.
Frontline found that he was not ‘escorted from the site’ as suggested by Larkin, rather that he was taken away by ambulance on a spinal board and cervical collar on a stretcher and that two Gardaí were present when he was taken away.
Of a total of 111 complaints made to the Garda Ombudsman Commission relating to the policing of protests in Corrib, Frontline reported that just seven files were compiled for the DPP and that none of these files have led to any prosecutions.
An application from the Garda Ombudsman to investigate the policing of protest in Corrib was refused by former Twenty-Six County minister for justice Brian Lenihan in 2007. Frontline has called for a human rights lawyer to be appointed to Corrib to review policing and for the Garda Ombudsman to examine the entire policing operation.
The events of last week have genuinely shocked public opinion.
A range of organisations, including Amnesty International, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, National Women’s Council, Rape Crisis Network, Afri, Unite the Union and numerous political parties and representatives have issued statements in support of the two women, condemning Garda trivialisation of rape and calling for independent investigations into policing in Corrib. Both Amnesty International and Frontline have agreed to deploy human rights monitors to Corrib within the next few weeks.
Last Friday [April 8], several hundred people, the vast majority of them women, gathered outside Leinster House in solidarity with the two women and in support of the right of all women to protest without fear of rape or violence. Calls were made for a fully independent international investigation into policing in Corrib.
éirígí supports calls for an independent international investigation and extends its continued support and solidarity to the community in Erris, who continue to resist state and corporate power. The May Day bank holiday offers an opportunity for people from around Ireland to mobilise in support of the Erris community and the demands of the Shell to Sea campaign.
éirígí encourages all those who support the right to protest, who support the right of communities to live free from state and corporate harassment, and the right of the people of Ireland to ownership of their natural resources to mobilise to Mayo on May Day. Shell’s work in Corrib must be stopped and the deal which secured the private corporate ownership of Irish oil and gas must be scrapped.
The stakes are getting higher and a strong and defiant message must be sent to the state and Shell: “We defy you! Do your worst!”
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“If you strike at, imprison, or kill us, out of our prisons or graves we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and perhaps, raise a force that will destroy you! We defy you! Do your worst!”
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