How Police Brutality Brought Gas Flares to a Peaceful Irish Fishing Village
The people of Rossport didn't want gas extraction to start near their homes, but their resistance was met by the swinging batons of the cops.
Photo by William Hedderman
Rossport lies on Ireland's wild Atlantic coast – a beautiful, unassuming fishing village in County Mayo, it has the misfortune of resting next to the country's hidden goldmine: the Corrib Gas Field.
Over more than a decade, the traditional, rural community has become synonymous with protest, as it resists the attempts of Shell to exploit fossil fuels in one of Ireland's environmentally protected areas. The company wants to extract the gas and that has meant building the longest gas pipeline tunnel in Europe and a processing plant in the picture-postcard farming area.
Pat "Chief" O'Donnell, a fisherman from Rossport, was immediately wary of the environmental impacts of such a project on an area famed for its natural beauty. "I was worried from the beginning," he told me. "When I got the environmental impact statement in early 2000, I thought, 'this is colossal'. It seemed like they wanted to build a monster in the middle of a palace. It was going to destroy our home and my livelihood."
But the fisherman could never have imagined the devastating impact the Corrib gas project would have on this once close-knit community. In 2005, five local men, who had been blocking construction, were imprisoned for refusing to obey a court injunction banning them from interfering with Shell's work. The "Rossport Five" made headlines internationally and many saw this as a turning point – finally people were paying attention to Rossport. Shell lifted the injunction and, after three months in prison, the men were free to return to their families. Little did they know that this was just the start of things turning nasty.
Maura Harrington is a retired teacher and a founding member of Shell to Sea – the campaign against the gas extraction. She remembers vividly the day the policing of the protests took a violent turn.
"People in different places have specific dates that symbolise something very meaningful. For me it's the second of October 2006. That's the date our police turned on their own people and a date every Garda (police) that held a baton against us should be ashamed of," she said.
Over several weeks, police moved into the area from the Mayo hinterland and reports of violent clashes between protesters and police trickled into the country's media.
"They used to get psyched up before they came down," said Maura. "It was like the Mississippi police in the civil rights era. They knew they would get away with whatever they wanted. You had 200 to 300 police with batons hitting people. It was deliberately designed to intimidate us and destroy our protest movement. It was vicious and intense – people being beaten down by their neighbours. We were getting support from the larger Shell to Sea movement but some locals got scared. They were worried the protesters might get killed so they called it off. To this day I feel that was our greatest mistake," she said.
Many in Ireland were shocked by scenes of police beating elderly residents with batons. The Gardai – and a private security firm Integrated Risk Management Services (IRMS) – were accused by locals of intimidation and brutality.
Paul Murphy, Socialist TD (MP) for Dublin South-West, was active in the Shell to Sea movement during this period. When I spoke to him he recalled the violence used against the protesters. "Rossport was beyond anything I had ever seen," he said. "It was the most consistent brutality by the Gardai against citizens I've witnessed to date. There was a quote in the Garda Review – the police's industry publication – saying not to arrest the protesters. You could imply it was just a case of kicking the shit out of them instead. This went on for years."
While locals and protesters complained about police brutality, it was reported in 2013 that an oil services company, operating on behalf of Shell, claimed to have delivered €35,000 (£26,000) worth of booze to the local Garda station – something the Gardai and Shell flat out denied. A subsequent investigation by The Garda Ombudsman concluded that there was no evidence of the purchase or delivery of alcohol to Garda stations. Nevertheless, the reports served to reinforce the villagers' underdog mentality.
The David and Goliath story wasn't always told in the media, which came in for criticism for failing to portray the protesters fairly. "We were made out to be criminals, every element of the state was behind Shell. I was so naive I really thought someone would pay attention and see this for what it was – a small community defending itself," Pat said.
Filmmaker Risteard Domhnaill, who filmed the Shell to Sea movement for internationally awarded documentary The Pipe, describes the Garda beatings as "unprecedented". They were so brutal he couldn't even put it all in his film. "I have more violent footage, but I had to pull back. I wanted to highlight the political issues surrounding Rossport and the Shell to Sea campaign and the actions of the Gardai would have overshadowed that. I did submit footage to the Garda Ombudsman but nothing came of it," he said.
For their part, Shell point out that they have created jobs – over 1,000 during the construction and 175 when it's up and running. They say the field could provide 60 percent of the country's gas.
But events at Rossport have left a dark legacy – one that has split the local community and wrecked all confidence in the Irish state. Pat O'Donnell reflected on the innocence of the remote village: "We were so naive. I never imagined that the Gardai would turn on their own people let alone beat the living daylights out of us. And for what? For protecting the land we love? For not wanting huge companies to destroy our home?"
Maura Harrington believes the community's voice has been effectively shut up. "That was the first time Ireland tested out the state – corporate nexus. What they were doing was very simple. They were sorting out their template here in Rossport. The line is: 'go in hard'," she said.
Despite the objections, the project is progressing – although campaigners have taken credit for massively slowing it down and increasing the costs. "I was travelling with my son last night and we saw huge flares in the distance, which shows they're testing flaring now," Pat told me. "Massive flames in the sky, but if we burn a bit of rubber out the back we'd have the Gardai down on us straight away. If they had to kill people to get this through they would. Anything to clear the way," he said.
Shell expect gas to flow through the pipe this summer.
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