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Protesters play shrill noise to make their point
A group of protesters from the north Mayo area disrupted the annual general meeting of Mayo County Council yesterday (Monday) in Aras an Chontae in Castlebar when they stormed into the meeting as tributes were being paid to outgoing Cathaoirleach Cllr Austin Francis O’Malley.
A group in the region of 15 protesters, mainly from the Shell to Sea group, entered the council chamber shortly after 11.30am whereupon one of them played a deafening noise on an iPod which lasted for over 20 minutes.
The protesters said this was a recording of the noise made during Shell’s hydro-testing in Glengad recently and their protest was against the testing performed by Shell.
Signs were unfurled saying, among other things, ‘Mayo County Council can you hear us now’? while leading Shell to Sea protester Maura Harrington said that people in the area of Glengad were ‘driven demented’ by the noise which, she said, lasted for four days over the June Bank Holiday weekend. Protesters claimed the high-pitch noise lasted for 12 hours at a time.
The hydro-testing by Shell was sanctioned by Mayo County Council, which said at the time that noise levels were ‘within set limits’.
The meeting was adjourned within moments of the protest beginning, Gardaí attended at the scene but no action was taken. Most councillors left the chamber with the two exceptions being Erris-based Cllr Rose Conway-Walsh (Sinn Fein) and Independent Ballina Cllr Gerry Ginty.
Cllr Ginty shook hands with each of the protesters and told Ms Harrington: ‘I’m more anti-Shell than I’m pro-ye’.
The meeting was adjourned for 37 minutes with the majority of councillors and officials, together with family and friends of incoming cathaoirleach, Cllr Cyril Burke, waiting outside in the corridor.
When the meeting resumed the loud, shrill noise on the iPod resumed while some protesters stood at the top table as outgoing Cathoirleach Cllr Austin Francis O’Malley and council officials attempted to retake their seats.
County Secretary John Condon addressed the meeting, asking the protesters to ‘behave like civilised people’ saying that members of the public are entitled to attend council meetings but cannot speak there or disrupt the meeting. He was heckled while talking by Maura Harrington before he said that if the disruption continued, he would have to have the chamber cleared.
“It won’t be the first time we were removed from the democratic process,” replied Ms Harrington. The meeting continued with the election of Cllr Cyril Burke as Cathaoirleach, the rapturous cheers and applause for his appointment drowning out the noise of the hydro-testing recording.
The iPod was turned off just as Cllr Burke began his acceptance speech. However Ms Harrington interrupted him on a couple of occasions but the protesters left shortly afterwards.
Speaking later on in the meeting Erris-based Cllr Gerry Coyle said that people had plenty of avenues in the democratic process to make their point.
“People have a right to come into this chamber, they’ve a right to address us here in the Chamber when they ask and if they ask they get that. The Council here is very obliging in that regard. I’d hate the idea to go out here that we try and silence people, we don’t.
“People have a right to go and put their name on a ballot paper. They’ve a right to get elected in here and the people will decide. It is very easy to come in here and throw-out throwaway remarks about a County Manager or about me or about someone else,” he said.
However Cllr Gerry Ginty said that while he couldn’t completely agree with the protesters, he could understand them.
“I don’t approve of what they did but I can quite understand why they did it. It’s borne of frustration and I don’t blame them, I blame Shell for the way they came into this country and tried to walk on the people.
“One request I would make to the people involved - protest as much as you want to but avoid confrontation with the Gardaí and with other Irish people. The last thing I want to see in this country is one Irish man or woman pitted against another because of a foreign company that will take what they want from us and when they’re finished with us they’ll just leave us. I think that there would be no protest today if our wealth and our rights weren’t given away,” said Cllr Ginty.
County Manager Peter Hynes said that the protest might lead to tighter controls on attendance at council meetings.
“Democracy is a very important and very fragile gift, something we need to protect and can’t take for granted. The right of protest is a very important part of democracy but there is a huge difference between protest and disruption.
“We take a very inclusive attitude to the way this chamber operates and that is the will of the members and after a day like today it would be very unfortunate if we had to take a stricter stance from a health and safety and security point of view in the future but it is certainly something we have to look at,” he said.