"The Government have clearly sent the message to Shell, ‘you can do whatever you want’. Fortunately due to protest, the refinery remains unconnected to the gas field. If, as Shell planned, gas had been flowing by now, we would potentially all be dealing with a gas leak and explosion.”
“Gardai said Mr Corduff had complained of head and chest pains necessitating an ambulance and two paramedics to travel out from Castlebar. They examined and found no injuries, according to gardai. There is no CCTV footage of an assault and no assault is being investigated by gardai. Mr Corduff had also made no complaint to gardai by yesterday. He spent much of Wednesday under the trailer and was eventually removed at around 4am.” (Jim Cusack, Security Correspondent, Sunday Independent, 26/4/09)
“He had been kicked all over the body and had LOC (Loss Of Consciousness). He had headaches, nausea and vomiting.” (Discharge report for Willie Corduff, Castlebar Hospital, 24/4/09)
On the morning before he was beaten and left for dead Willie Corduff found a holy medal in his pocket. “I never used to wear them,” he recalled, sounding surprised at the find. In the course of the day Willie changed his clothes and left the medal behind. Corduff was once a regular at mass, even though he doesn’t think of himself as particularly religious. “If a prayer was to be said it was more likely to happen in the fields after a good day’s work”. Weekly mass came to an abrupt end some years ago when the parish priest blessed the rig that heralded the arrival of oil and gas companies into the area. Sitting in his kitchen, watching an orange glow sunset on the horizon, Willie Corduff can still hear the exact words spoken from the altar; “It is the best thing since sliced bread”, the priest said, “Kilcommon will never be in want for anything again”. No one knew anything at all about the gas but they understood that their remote Mayo parish was finally going to have its place in the sun. ‘If that was now’ said Willie, “I’d be up on the altar and I’d catch him by the neck’.
Willie and Mary Corduff have six children, all but one grown, with thirty years of marriage behind them. They live on a small farm in Rossport where they raise cattle and cut turf, grow food and enjoy the company of their grand-children. However they have also been in a permanent state of alert for the past six years, watching and waiting as Shell trample through their land and gardai mount surveillance operations, allegedly threatening their children with harm. It is hard to believe that this remote bogland area is the object of such attentions but for the Irish state and oil giant Shell, the Corrib gas project is a blueprint and test case for the future of foreign investment in this sector. The gas should have been flowing since 2003 but a determined community campaign has pushed that date back to at least 2011.
Willie is a powerfully built man in his mid fifties with a gentle but firm manner who does not take easily to being pushed around. Once Willie understood the dangers of the gas project and experienced first hand the arrogance of the developer, he began turning up for everything, a solid, reassuring presence. He offered few words but no one doubted his commitment to the cause. He has often said that he expects to die protecting his land from the high pressure gas pipeline scheduled to traverse Rossport. In June 2005 Willie and four other farmers were jailed for 94 days for refusing to allow Shell access to their lands. The term Compulsory Acquisition Order (CAO) has no place in the Corduff vocabulary and he had no hesitation in telling the Judge at that time that he would continue to resist the project, regardless of how long he was kept in jail. The ensuing national outcry halted the project and forced Shell to beg the courts to release the men, who had become national heroes. Since then Willie has won the prestigious Goldman award, (2007) a US-based environmental prize regarded as an alternative Nobel. The prizes, the spotlight, the media, none of that seems to have changed Willie who remains one more member of the community, a reluctant spokesman and protagonist. It is notable that whether he is talking to the Norwegian Ambassador in Dublin (last month) or a packed cinema audience in Galway (last weekend) he makes the same points in the same language. “Shell wouldn’t have enough money to buy me” says Corduff, “and anyway, I’m not for sale.” It is this consistency which has left Shell negotiators with empty hands and irritated his own lawyers, who, in their heart of hearts, initially suspected that Corduff’s objection to the project was a matter of fixing the right price.
On 22 April 2009 Shell announced the restarting of work at the compound above Glengad beach, a pristine landscape carved open by diggers to connect the offshore and proposed onshore sections of the pipeline. (Shell’s preferred pipeline route has yet to secure planning permission) That morning Willie and Mary left home at 7am and drove to Glengad, where they joined a group of local people who refused to allow work to proceed until they saw written proof that Shell had the permission it needed to start work. Shell workers rebuilt a steel fence that sealed off the beach from the public while nets were cast over the dunes to prevent seabirds from nesting. As the protestors talked to security officials, Willie, in a spontaneous gesture, crawled underneath a truck, squeezing himself into a narrow space between the vehicle’s wheels. Work came to a halt. The Gardai made three attempts to drag him out. They managed to remove his shoes and socks, they twisted his toes but couldn’t get a grip on his body. Then they threatened to cut his legs off. ‘You might get a part of me’, said Willie, ‘but you won’t get all of me out.’ After three failed attempts they gave up. However Sgt Doherty, before abandoning the effort, beat on Willie’s ankle with a rock, inflicting severe pain and leaving him with a notable gash. At the time of writing, 84 days later, Willie’s wound is clearly visible, his ankle remains sore and is prone to swelling. The notion of a grown man in a Garda uniform stooping down with a rock to grind it into the ankle of another grown man, appears far-fetched and vaguely ridiculous. It is only after one has spent time in the Glengad-Rossport area and observed unfolding events that one can set aside preconceived notions of normal behaviour and come to terms with absurdities like this one.
Daily life has drifted beyond the edge of sanity, allowing the mainstream media to dismiss certain events as beyond belief. And yet they keep happening. The only issue at stake was Shell’s permission to proceed with work at Glengad compound. Shell has already breached environmental legislation several times in the course of this project, so it seemed reasonable to seek proof that they had consent for the work being undertaken. The gardai however view this type of vigilance as evidence of radical subversion. Ms Corduff had already phoned the station twice that morning, looking for Chief Supt Larkin, to warn him that the situation was growing serious and that someone might be injured. ‘He’s on a call”, was the response from garda Terence Devers, who was on duty at the time. Two hours passed and Ms Corduff called again. ‘He’s out’ repeated the garda on duty.
Mary Corduff persisted and spoke with Larkin who assured her she had nothing to worry about in relation to Shell’s work at the compound. “I’m quite sure they (Shell) have permission to do what they are doing”, Larkin told her, revealing, in a single phrase, the manner in which the gardai see their role as support actors to the headline act in this performance. However Larkin promised to furnish written proof within the hour. When she got to the station, at about 2.30pm, a ban (woman) garda awaited her, with the news that Larkin had left the building. She handed Mary Corduff a brown envelope which contained ‘proof ‘of permission for the works. All it contained was a standard print out from Shell describing the works underway. Ms Corduff asked for a receipt to prove the Gardai had given her this sheet of paper. After a 10-minute wait Larkin appeared from an office behind the desk. When Ms Corduff expressed surprise at Larkin’s presence, he replied brusquely; ‘I’m not going to get into a Question and Answer session with you.”
Larkin was clearly annoyed at Willie Corduff’s truck protest and slammed the door on Mary Corduff. ‘Go down and tell your husband to have a bit of sense,” was Larkin’s parting shot. “He is down there now because he has a bit of sense”, responded Corduff. During the afternoon an unidentified caller requested an ambulance for Willie Corduff who was allegedly suffering from ‘chest pains’ at the Glengad compound. An ambulance took off from Belmullet and visited the scene. Dr Swannick, a local man, known to Mr Corduff, asked him if he needed assistance. Corduff declined, saying he felt fine but complained that he had been abused by Gardai when they attempted to remove him from under the truck. At this point ambulance records note that the crew returned to base. Swannick was called once more in the evening, where he again spoke to Corduff. In the informal manner typical of this tight knit community, Swannick subsequently spoke to Mary Corduff’s parents and assured them that Willie was in good health; “Don’t worry about him (Willie), he’s fine”, affirmed the doctor.
The standoff continued into the night until just a handful of people remained at the compound. Willie took occasional breaks from under the truck to stretch his legs while well wishers came and went, leaving him hot water bottles, food and blankets. In the early hours of the morning only his brother in law was still there. The night was calm and the compound silent. Willie crawled out to stretch his legs once more, as cramps had set in. He spoke to Pete, his brother-in-law. He thought he heard a sound and headed back to retake his position under the truck. Before he could get back under the truck he was grabbed and immobilized by a number of men. Then came the first blow, delivered from what felt like a leather baton. He sank to his knees, dizzy, caught unawares by the blow to the side of his head. The men pinned him to the ground and punched him before turning him on his side. One man then pressed his knees into the dazed man’s back and forced Willie’s hands up behind his back and toward his neck in a stress grip. Willie felt his breathing contract as knees were pressed between his ears before his head was banged off the ground. The pain grew more intense and breathing became difficult.
‘I put up no defence whatsoever,’ recalled Willie, ‘there was no point.’ After a few minutes Willie believed he was going to die. ‘I could picture all my kids and my grandkids in front of me’ he said.
One of the men slowly released his grip on Willie’s hands, as if checking to see how weak he had become. Willie allowed his hands to flop down, deliberately drooled out of his mouth and stuck his tongue to one side, playing dead. ‘Leave him alone now, he’s nearly gone’ said one of the men and they released the pressure on him. A paramedic working with the security guards then bent down beside him and asked him if he needed help. ‘I’m here to help you’ he said. He smelled of alcohol, according to Willie. ‘I want help,’ whispered Willie, in pain and in shock.
At that point in time another unidentified caller requested an ambulance for the compound “for a gentleman feeling unwell.” An ambulance came from Belmullet and took Willie to Castlebar Hospital where nurses cut his jumper, shirt and underclothes off as the pain was too great for him to undress. The medical staff noted ‘pain in right legs (sic)’ and ‘bruising to body’. Dr Ruiz, who saw Corduff in the morning, noted headache and tinnitus, a ringing in his ear and pain in the left jaw, left ankle, right thigh and right shoulder. Bubbles of sweat had opened up on Corduff’s forehead, followed by a dry retch, probably the after effects of shock and the relief at being out of danger. After a day in hospital Corduff was discharged and the hospital sent the following letter to his own doctor; “Dear Mr Molloy, this patient was admitted following an alleged assault by security guards. He had been kicked all over the body and had LOC. He had headaches, nausea and vomiting.” The report outlined the X-rays and other tests undergone on the patient who was recovering in a satisfactory manner.
When he arrived home, Corduff was barely able to stand. He did only the lightest of work for several weeks, walking with the help of a stick.
When this reporter called out to see him a fortnight after the incident, Corduff was pale and his voice sounded cracked and distant. He had the air of a man who still feared for his life. “I haven’t slept much”, he admitted, ‘Mary wakes up in a lather of sweat, screaming at some nightmare in her head.” Willie tried to reassure her that the nightmare was over. The hospital returned Willie’s clothes which were beyond use. By force of habit Mary emptied the pockets of his torn jacket. There was a clink of copper on the floor as a holy medal rolled under a chair. ‘It sounds strange,’ reflected Willie, ‘but I think there’s someone out there protecting me.’
The Gardai have refused to investigate the Corduff beating and refuse to acknowledge that it even occurred. Willie Corduff has yet to file a complaint, as he has no faith in the gardai -all complaints relating to the Corrib Gas project are routinely rejected as lacking in merit. The Garda Ombudsman’s office is currently investigating the behaviour of named gardai who have been the subject of repeated complaints by the community but no one is holding their breath over the outcome. Jim Farrell, Director of IRMS, Shell’s private security force, personally coordinated the operation in the compound that night, with the full cooperation of gardai. Farrell claims he himself removed Corduff from the compound. “It was a trouble-free exercise”, he said.
The role of the gardai, Shell security and the public health service in the assault on Corduff requires further investigation. Someone, from inside the compound, requested medical attention for a healthy man on the grounds that he was suffering ‘chest pains’. The local doctor who arrived on the scene subsequently phoned Mary Corduff’s parents and confirmed that Willie appeared to be in fine health. The pain he had suffered until then (7pm) had been inflicted exclusively by members of the gardai and involved only his ankle. Several hours later a serious assault occurred during which Corduff was pinned down and pulled into a stress position which can, if applied with rigour, provoke heart failure. The absence of knife wounds tattooed into Corduff’s arms and legs is not grounds for dismissing his claims of serious injury with intent to kill.
Ciaran O Murchu, spokesman for Pobal Le Cheile, a local business group, said “gardai have shown they are not independent enough” to investigate the Corduff incident. Few local people would disagree with this assertion.
15th July 2009