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I go to sleep not sure if I'll wake up. Frightened is what we are

Sara Burke - The Sunday Tribune

After two years of daily marches against Shell's Corrib gas project inMayo, the crowd gathering each morning is as large as ever.However, now there is a garda presence to match, in a peaceful protest that has all the signs of a storm brewing just below the surface, writes Sara Burke
IT IS 11 years now since gas was found 80km off the coast of Mayo. And for the past seven of those years, since the first onshore terminal application (it is called a terminal but it is where the gas will be refined if all goes ahead), the remote rural community of Bellanaboy has lived through upheaval and conflict. It is a conflict between locals and Shell Ireland, which now owns the gas; conflict between locals and the gardai; conflict between locals for and against Corrib gas.

At the heart of the matter is opposition to the location of the refinery and the pipeline. This opposition is fuelled by fear and distrust . . . fear for the health and safety of people living there; distrust of Shell which is building the refinery and the pipeline; distrust of the gardai, who are policing the protests.

"I go to sleep at night not sure whether I'll wake in the morning, " says one local man. "Frightened is what we are. We are not against gas, but we are against Shell, against the intimidation, the attempt to buy us off, the treatment of us by the gardai. . ."

This man doesn't want to be named.

He is too scared to tell his story on the record and seeks assurances that nothing quoted will lead to his identification. "There's going to be trouble, we don't want it, but the peaceful protests aren't working, we are going to have to do more, " he continues. "We are a community under siege, it's like south Armagh. People from Dublin don't get it; we've been here for hundreds of years, we don't buy land or sell our land. And what they [Shell] are doing is worse than what the English did: they are repossessing our land . . . we won't have that."

His is not a lone voice. Others speak about the need for more direct action to stop the pipeline going through their land. John Monaghan, a spokesperson for the Shell to Sea campaign says, "We will do whatever we can to resolve it [the dispute], but we will do whatever we have to to stop it. We can't afford to fail."

Each weekday morning for two years now, locals have gathered outside the gates of the Bellanaboy refinery site, peacefully protesting against Shell.

Their main concern is the welfare of the local community and the sustainable development of the environment.

The Shell to Sea campaign opposed the original pipeline route proposed by Shell, to bring the gas from the shore along the land owned by the so-called 'Rossport Five'. Their protests resulted in a commitment to modify the pipeline route and to significantly reduce pressure in the pipeline. It has also resulted in consultation by Shell with the local community on matters relating to Corrib gas. But one of the Rossport Five, Micheal O Seighin, says: "The consultation Shell are having with the community now is akin to the consultation you would have with a turkey prior to Christmas dinner."

Shell to Sea has no faith in Shell's consultation. It is not against Corrib gas per se, but it is against it being piped and refined at the risk of the local community.

A protest with support The Rossport Five were imprisoned in June 2005, when they refused to obey a high court order not to interfere with the construction of a pipeline on their land.

The Corrib Gas project is the first to benefit from a change in the law, which allows the Department of the Marine acquire land for private companies without the permission of land owners.

Compulsory Acquisition Orders are customarily used only by public companies. The Rossport campaigners are currently challenging the legality of the use of Compulsory Acquisition Orders in the high court. Peter Cassells, the government-appointed mediator, recommended the route be altered, and Shell has agreed to do so.

At 7am daily, the protestors gather at the refinery gates to walk up and down for two hours. At its busiest, their protest has attracted hundreds of supporters. These are local people, the majority over 40 years of age, many over 60. Older women make tea and coffee in a horse-box that sits outside the terminal gates. People bring sandwiches and cakes to feed the protestors, before they go about their daily business:

going to work, back to the farm, home to mind their children. There are some familiar faces among them: Maura Harrington, the local activist who ended up in hospital last October after conflicts between the gardai and the protestors;

Jerry Cowley, the local GP who lost his seat in the last election; the Rossport Five themselves.

Since last October, the protestors have been matched in numbers by gardai. Three or four paddywagons full of gardai are bussed in to 'police' the protest and local squad cars are out in force.

The protestors are closely escorted along their daily morning walk. Occasionally, protestors move out in front of oncoming trucks in order to obstruct them and when they do so they are pushed out of the way by the gardai.

Burly men and not so robust women alike are shoved aside. Each morning gardai video the action. Some campaigners have ended up in hospital with broken bones, others with bruising.

Away from the frontline, protestors report their cars being tailed, tell of lights flashing into their houses in the middle of the night, of illegal occupation of their land. John Monaghan of the Shell to Sea campaign is one of many locals who has lodged complaints of direct intimidation by An Garda Siochana to the newly established Garda Ombudsman.

The road on which they protest is out of place on the beautiful Erris peninsula. Most roads around here are of poor quality, twisty and old, but 12km of slick, black, well-painted and signposted tarmac, with perfect camber, leads to the Bellanaboy refinery. This road, upgraded by Mayo County Council at a cost 6m, was funded by Shell EP Ireland.

Locals call it the 'oil road' and the 'Shell highway'.

While protestors walk outside each morning, some of their relatives work inside the site, in security, as brickies, carpenters or workmen. Shell is bringing work to this under-populated, highunemployment black spot. Hundreds of jobs have been lost locally in recent years with the closure of the ESB and Bord na Mona works. So new jobs to the area are welcome.

The Bellanaboy refinery is a secure site, surrounded by trees (a reminder that this was, until the year 2000, a state-owned forest) with two fences around the perimeter. It is a clean, highly organised and regulated construction site. There are signs everywhere reminding people that "safety comes first". The actual land where the refinery is being built is the size of 30 soccer pitches. The first structure is up . . . in the centre sits a square electricity switch building . . . dwarfed only by the enormity of the site. Jeeps line the temporary car parks. A temporary water processing plant stands on the edge of the site, cleaning thousands of gallons of water each day.

Last week, nearly 300 people were beavering away on the construction site. The majority were men but about 25 women work on site as engineers and environmental scientists, as well as in administration and catering. When construction work is at its peak, in about three months' time, some 700 staff, 80 cement trucks and dozens of cranes will be working on site. It costs millions each week and all developmental costs incurred can be written off against tax breaks. Completion is due in September 2009. Thereafter, according to Shell, 100 locals will be employed here.

The scene of the billion-euro construction site is like a sci-fi movie, a world apart from the remote, beautiful northwest Mayo countryside which surrounds it. And although Shell does not yet have permission to operate the refinery and the pipeline route is yet to be agreed, let alone approved, it's full steam ahead.

On 28 September next, the Environmental Protection Agency will rule on whether to make available a pollution control licence . . . the last hurdle in the way for the operation of the refinery.

Shell plans to apply for approval of the 'new' route to An Bord Pleanala by the end of this year.

Green eyes in the government Shell to Sea is more hopeful now that the ministers for energy and the environment are Greens.

"Corrib Gas is a 'Green' issue through and through . . . it combines longterm energy policy with huge environmental impact, " says Shell To Sea's John Monaghan. "Eamon Ryan is as much a member of the Shell to Sea campaign as anyone else. We hope to see the Greens live up to their ideal."

A Western People/Red C opinion poll carried out in advance of the general election found that 44% of those surveyed believed the government was responsible for the Corrib gas crisis in Erris. Fifty-five per cent wanted the gas to be processed offshore with a lowpressure pipeline connected to the gas terminal at Bellanaboy. One-third of those surveyed wanted the project to continue in its current format and 7% said they didn't want it to go ahead at all.

What is clear from those findings, and from talking to people locally, is that there is an overwhelming wish to see the controversy resolved and the Corrib gas project reaching a safe completion. But given the money involved on one side, and the depth of commitment on the other, it remains to be seen where it will all end.
August 26, 2007

Posted Date: 
26 August 2007 - 9:07pm