“…It shall be our duty to promote the development of the Nation’s resources…to exploit its mineral resources…for the benefit of the Irish people”
~ Democratic Programme of the First Dáil 1919
The Battle of Corrib
Since the summer of 2006 éirígí activists have played a central role in the Shell to Sea campaign, directly challenging Shell, its partner companies and the Dublin government as they collectively attempt to plunder the Corrib gas field.
On numerous occasions éirígí activists have travelled to Mayo to take part in protests and direct actions designed to halt work on Shell’s controversial project. Standing alongside hundreds of other concerned citizens and local residents, éirígí activists have played their part in a campaign which has successfully delayed Shell’s plans by at least five years.
Like many others who have joined these peaceful protests, éirígí activists have been abused, threatened, attacked, arrested and brought before the courts. But all of these intimidatory tactics have been in vain, only serving to strengthen the determination of those who demand that the Corrib gas field be used for the good of all the people of Ireland and not Shell’s shareholders.
A Timeline of Conflict in Mayo
When Enterprise Oil announced that it had discovered the Corrib gas field in October 1996 the people of Mayo initially welcomed the news, believing that it would deliver a much-needed jobs and infrastructure boost to the county.
However, by the winter of 2000 this joy had turned to apprehension when it was announced that the gas would be processed onshore at Ballinaboy Bridge on the Erris peninsula. Under this proposal the untreated, odourless Corrib gas would be pumped under high pressure through an 80kn long pipeline which would at times pass within 70 metres of homes along its route.
The refinery itself was to be constructed on the site of a 400 acre state-owned forestry. Before construction of this refinery could begin more then 450,000 tonnes of peat would have to be removed from the site. For many living in this area of outstanding natural beauty this proposal represented a bridge too far for both human and environmental safety.
When Micheál O Seighin lodged an objection to the building of the refinery in December of that year few could have foreseen that almost a decade of conflict lay ahead. The battle lines were soon drawn, with the local community on the one side and the Shell*, Statoil and Marathon energy companies in alliance with the Dublin government on the other.
*Shell which purchased Enterprise Oil in 2002.
This first phase of the campaign against the construction of the Ballinaboy refinery and accompanying 80km pipeline was conducted in the arena of the planning process. For four years Mayo County Council, An Bord Pleanála, the energy companies and the local community played a game of cat and mouse – of application and appeal – until April 2004 when Mayo County Council finally approved the project. An Bord Pleanála followed suit in October 2004, giving Shell the green light to start construction both onshore and offshore.
2005 – The Rossport Five
Having largely exhausted the planning permission route, some within the affected community decided on a more direct form of protest – that of civil disobedience. The opportunity for such tactics to be deployed came in April 2005 when Shell went to the High Court in Dublin to seek an injunction against those who were preventing Shell workers from gaining access to private lands along which they intended to lay a controversial high pressure gas pipeline.
By June 2005 Shell’s lawyers applied for the committal to jail of five named men who they alleged were in continual breach of the High Court injunction taken two months previously. By the time the cell doors in Dublin’s Wheatfield prison closed on Micheál O Seighin, Vincent McGrath, Philip McGrath, Willie Corduff and Brendan Philbin people all across Ireland had already begun to mobilise in support of their plight and the cause for which they stood.
Throughout the summer of 2005 as the five men languished in jail at the behest of Shell, organisations and individuals the length and breadth of Ireland took to the streets. Shell service stations became the rallying point for local protests with literally hundreds of individual protests taking place through the months of July, August and September.
In parallel with these country-wide protests against the jailing of those who became known as ‘The Rossport Five’ the people of Mayo took to the streets in their thousands at a number of major demonstrations in Castlebar, Ballina and Belmullet. The community in Ballinaboy, Rossport and the surrounding areas also blockaded the site of Shell’s proposed refinery in Ballinaboy.
All of these activities were organised under the banner of ‘Shell to Sea’ – a loose amorphous network of groups and individuals based all over Ireland and beyond.
By the end of September 2005, amid ever-growing public anger, Shell finally realised that the collective will of the Rossport Five and their supporters wasn’t going to be broken by the threat, or actuality, of imprisonment. The men were finally released on September 30th, allowing them to attend a hastily re-named ‘victory rally’ in Dublin on Oct 1st. The protest had originally been organised to protest at their incarceration.
2006 -2007 Blockade of Ballinaboy
For over a year an uneasy calm was restored to Erris as Shell workers were prevented from entering the site of the proposed refinery by a peaceful blockade made up of members of the local community. Shell, along with their allies in the Dublin government, waited until the twelve month anniversary of the release of the Rossport Five before they made their next move.
On the 3rd October 2006 a force of almost 200 Gardai were deployed to break the peaceful blockade of the Ballinaboy site. With protesters penned into the side of the road Shell personnel began work again for the first time in more then a year. Unprepared and unable to withstand the weight of Gardai deployed against them the Erris Shell to Sea group appealed for people from across the country to join them in resisting Shell.
Over the course of the next eighteen months a number of ‘days of action’ were organised by Shell to Sea at the Ballinaboy site. These mobilisations saw hundreds of people travel to Erris from all across Ireland in solidarity with the attempts of the local community to blockade the Shell site. The Garda responded to this non-violent direct action with brutality and violence. The most notable of these mobilisations saw the Gardai use batons to clear the ‘oil road’ of protesters on November 10th 2006.
The sporadic blockading of the Ballinaboy site, which continued until November 2007 saw dozens of protesters injured, while hundreds were subjected to physical and verbal abuse ranging from shoves and kicks to punches and baton charges.
2008 – Present
By the summer of 2011 Shell had finished works at the offshore well heads, laid 83km of offshore pipeline and largely completed works at the Ballinaboy gas refinery. But it did so at a huge cost in terms of money, time and public relations.
It is a testament to the Shell to Sea campaign, the local community and others that the combined forces of the state and the private energy companies were stalled for five years through a guerrilla campaign of legal objection, protest and direct action.
With all other aspects of the project now complete Shell has once again to face the issue of the onshore section of pipeline, the same issue which led to the Rossport Five being jailed in 2005. Without that section of pipeline Shell cannot begin production at its multi-million euro refinery in Ballinaboy.
In July 2011 Shell finally began preliminary works for the onshore section of pipeline, along the revised route to the Ballinaboy refinery. On July 27 2011 dozens of protesters, including a number of éirígí activists, took part in a ‘day of action’ which saw works stopped for the entire day. Upwards of 200 private ‘security contractors’ and Gardai repeatedly attacked protesters as once again might attempted to overpower right.
The battle for the Corrib gas field can still be won by the people of Ireland. Shell now expects to start pumping the gas in 2014. Until that happens it’s all to play for. For its part éirígí intends to fight Shell along every inch of its hated pipeline.