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Why a ‘Breakdown in Trust’? A brief look at the Frontline Human Rights Report

By: 
Living in Rossport

Last week Frontline, a prominent Human Rights organisation released a report entitled ‘Breakdown in Trust: A Report on the Corrib gas dispute’. The report, compiled by barrister Brian Barrington, is a damning indictment of human rights abuses that have been suffered by campaigners against Shell over the last four years, and outlines a comprehensive list of recommendations to attempt to improve the situation. The strongest theme which struck this observer upon reading the report was that of the overzealous use of force against protesters by the Gardai and IRMS (security for Shell), and then a very conscious and systematic process of attempting to cover this up through false statements to the media and the compiler of the report. Does this sound like an exaggeration in the over-active imagination of a protester? Read the following, or indeed the original report, and make up your mind then.

The beating of Willie Corduff, April 22/23 2009 (p.51-57)

Shell returned to Glengad on April 22 2009, to set up their compound, sparking protests from local people and their supporters. These were due to concerns at the fact that this compound did not have planning permission, and wider concerns about Shell’s dangerous project. As part of these protests, Willie Corduff and another man went under a truck on the site, stopping it from moving. The other man was removed some time later, but Corduff managed to stay under the truck despite attempts by the Gardai to remove him. He stayed there all day, and into the night. At around midnight, fences were damaged at the other end of the compound, a few hundred yards from where Willie Corduff was. A few hours later, Corduff was out stretching his legs, when he was set upon by IRMS security guards. He alleges that they beat him; IRMS state the ‘not a finger was placed on’ Corduff. The letter sent to Willie Corduff’s GP from the Registrar of Castlebar hospital bears extensive quotation:

“ 1. Alleged assault with ? LOC

2. Bruising on body from kicks.

3. Headaches.

4. Nausea and vomiting.”

? LOC means possible loss of consciousness. The letter goes on:

“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…”

An independent expert, Dr John Good, reviewed the medical and ambulance reports, and concluded that ‘hospital reports may be reasonably regarded as factual findings, and the observations in the reports and clinical notes are “totally consistent with a history of assault”.

IRMS and the Gardai lie and sow confusion

Mr Barrington found that a number of statements made by IRMS and Gardai were not true:

  • He found that Willie Corduff was semi-conscious, not conscious – consistent with being assaulted. “IRMS were not accurate when they stated that Mr Corduff was conscious, raising questions about the accuracy of their account more generally.”
  • An Irish Times article written by Peter Murtagh, which was generally very critical of protesters, stated that Shell sources said that Corduff was ‘grabbed by security men, [and] restrained’ – this contradicts the statement that ‘not a finger was laid on him’.
  • Supt Larkin of Belmullet Gardai made a number of flawed statements: he stated the day after the incident that Willie Corduff had been ‘escorted from the site’ – the Frontline report says that this is ‘clearly misleading’, as he was taken away in an ambulance on a spinal board with a neck brace on. Months later, when spoken to by Brian Barrington, Larkin said that he, even at that stage, ‘didn’t know’ if Corduff had been taken away on a stretcher, even with his investigation ‘at an advanced stage’. If this is true, he shouldn’t have said so on radio, or defended it to Frontline. He should have apologised and retracted it.
  • Furthermore, Larkin stated that Corduff had made no complaint to the Gardai about his treatment by them on the day in question – this is untrue, a detailed section on the complaint made relates to Gardai. IRMS also said that no complaints about them had been made to the Gardai – just over a week before Larkin stated that the investigation was well advanced, and IRMS had been asked to give statements.

A number of recommendations arose from the compilation of the report as a whole, but specifically relating to this incident, the report had this damning verdict: “The Corduffs have written to the Garda Siochana expressing no confidence in the investigation. In view of the above, it is understandable that this should be the case. In order to ensure confidence in the Garda Siochana, it is recommended that Mr Corduff’s complaint be reinvestigated by personnel outside Mayo.

Here is another excellent article on the beating of Willie Corduff entitled ‘The Curious Incident of the Farmer in the Compound at Nighttime’.

Pat O’Donnell, and abuse of Garda powers at sea (p.45-51)

Pat O’Donnell has opposed the destruction of the marine environment that is his workplace and his livelihood since Shell started trying to impose the Corrib gas project on this area. In 2008 and 2009, the Solitaire pipe-laying vessel arrived in Broadhaven Bay to lay pipe for Shell through O’Donnell’s fishing grounds, and without his consent. While the report criticises the government for failing to resolve the competing property rights of Shell and O’Donnell, the Gardai very clearly made their decision, and set out to vindicate those of the former, at the expense of Pat O’Donnell.

On 9 September 2008, Pat O’Donnell, his son Jonathan, and another fisherman were arrested in Broadhaven Bay, while protecting their fishing grounds and equipment. They were held for six hours, then released without charge. The next day, 10 September, O’Donnell was arrested again in similar circumstances. A habeas corpus application was brought to court for his release, and to challenge the legality of his detention. In the normal course of events, these applications are the first thing heard by any court, given their importance – but this one was put off until after lunch. And O’Donnell was conveniently released at 2.03pm that day – the judge was due to sit two minutes later, at 2.05pm. This meant that the inquiry into the legality of his detention could not be heard.

Barrington is particularly scathing about the manner in which O’Donnell’s boat was impounded in June 2009. After a repeat of similar issues to the previous year, with arrest at sea, detention and then release without charge for both Pat and his son Jonathan O’Donnell, Supt Larkin asked the Naval Service to inspect O’Donnell’s boat. They in turn passed it on to Dept of Transport, who agreed, and wrote: “Suggest whoever attends gives the Supt [ie Supt Larkin] a call first and requests that owner attends while we are on board.”. O’Donnell wasn’t permitted by Gardai to attend and address any potential issues. Larkin was empowered to act by legislation two days before the arrival of the Solitaire. No other boat in Broadhaven Bay was surveyed that day; only one other was through the whole summer. All of this together indicates ‘an improper motive’ in the detention of the boat by the Gardai, and that the detention of O’Donnell’s boat was unlawful when he was not permitted to attend.

‘Black Monday’ – Pullathomas Pier (p.35-37)

In June 2007, Shell arrived at McGrath’s Pier, Pullathomas, to install a portacabin to help with their survey work. However, the lane of access to the pier is owned by the McGrath family, who would not consent to Shell using their land. This was made clear to Inspector Gannon, in charge of the Garda operation that day by Paddy McGrath, who told him so, and then proceeded to get his solicitor on the phone to speak to the Garda, who ignored him. Gannon later stated to the Irish Times that he was unaware of all of this, but footage taken on the day, leads to the conclusion that ‘it is very difficult to see how he could not have been aware’.

One woman who tried to get up on the Shell digger to stop it was flung by Gardai towards a ditch – Frontline find this to be ‘disproportionate’, as other Gardai nearby could have helped with her safe removal. The core of this conflict arose from the contested nature of the right to access the pier – these are the findings in relation to Gannon’s role therein: “The Garda in charge warned of, in his own words, the ‘probability of people getting seriously hurt’. That being so, it was all the more important that the Gardai had clarity on this issue [that of entitlement to go on the pier].’ He [Gannon] should have clarified any entitlement, and/or spoken to the solicitor.” They go on to find that parts of the operation were ‘poorly conducted, leading to higher risks to safety than necessary’. The Garda Ombudsman recommended that Gannon have ‘a less serious breach of discipline’ case considered. The Garda Commissioner rejected this, but the Ombudsman have written to them asking for an explanation for this.

Speaking of being flung into ditches, Frontline also reviewed footage of the policing of protests at Bellanaboy refinery in 2006/07 (p.34-35). They found that the manner in which protesters were treated was ‘disproportionate’ – as has so often been the case. Further, the ‘no arrest’ strategy taken by the Gardai was not correct; it doesn’t matter if they didn’t want to help people into martyrdom, people still should have been arrested, as if not ‘force may be unnecessarily used’ particularly as frustration builds – ‘footage supports the view that this is what in fact happened’.

There were a large number of other issues that got significant coverage in the report, such as improper surveillance, wholly inadequate vetting of security personnel, regular breaches of regulations by Shell, supposed intimidation by protesters and republican direction of protests (both dismissed), manhandling of a human rights observer, lack of ID on many public order Gardai and, again and again, a combination of ignorance and wilful failure to observe rights, while misleading protesters and the media.

Recommendations…(p.59-63)

As well as the recommendation that Willie Corduff’s assault being reinvestigated by Gardai from outside the district, a number of other recommendations were made, within a context of an ‘overall pattern of failure to take issues raised by protesters and residents seriously – even when they have the law on their side.’. Some of them were fairly startling:

  • ‘Serious issues have been raised by this report regarding the policing of the project, as well as of the project more generally. Should the pipeline proceed along a contested route, there is a real potential for confrontation. It is therefore recommended that HR NGOs agree to appoint a HR observer in the event that planning permission for the pipeline is given along a contested route.’ The Gardai should cooperate with, and ensure respect for, these observers.
  • In 2007, the Garda Ombudsman requested permission to investigate the policing of the protests up here. They were turned down. Frontline found this decision should be overturned, as ‘this has created the impression that the State does not want the Garda Síochána held properly to account’.
  • Many protesters think the Gardai are biased – ‘this report has certainly highlighted real concerns in this regard’ – the Gardai need to do more to ‘human-rights proof’ their actions, including getting a lawyer with the relevant expertise to advise them.
  • Often with police complaints, it is clear that there was a wrong but it is not clear what police officer was responsible’. The focus within the Garda Ombudsman should be on establishing the truth, rather than just on getting prosecutions. The Ombudsman should publish reports on outcomes of appropriate investigations.
  • Due to the mistrust of the Gardai in the area, it is recommended that Gardai who have been long-serving on the protests be deployed to other duties.
  • ‘It is totally unacceptable for Gardai in public order work not to wear ID and it is recommended that this be addressed as a matter of urgency’.

The response to the report has been swift, and predictable. The Minister for Justice asserted that he had full confidence in the Garda operation in Mayo when the report was still warm from the printers, while IRMS security threatened to sue Frontline for the ‘allegations’ that Willie Corduff was assaulted. This is bluster and empty threats, attempting to intimidate through the legal system. And in this case, I can’t see it working – what proof do Frontline actually have – aside from a number of medical reports, both from the time and since, telephone transcripts where the seriousness of Corduff’s condition is acknowledged by IRMS, conflicting accounts from the Gardai and IRMS (both with each other and with established facts) – I mean, aside from that, what proof do they actually have!?

These recommendations amount to a call for deep-rooted change in the culture and practices of the Gardai in relation to the Corrib dispute, as human rights issues mount up. The findings of the Frontline report fundamentally undermine the assertion that all is fine, that the Gardai are doing their job with a neutrality befitting their role. And it does so in an unarguable fashion, with incidents meticulously documented, and the lies and half-truths of the Gardai clearly exposed as such. The next challenge is to ensure that it doesn’t become just another worthy report gathering dust on a shelf.