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Shell to Sea campaigner convicted for gas pipeline protests

Claire O Brien - Mayo Advertiser

‘No justification for breaking the law’-judge

The Shell to Sea campaign has suffered a blow as one of its leading activists was found guilty of two separate public order offences committed while protesting against the gas pipeline.

During a week long special sitting of Belmullet District Court, Niall Harnett, Barr na Coille, Pollathomas, was given a three-month suspended sentence by Judge Gerard Haughton, who convicted the defendant of two separate offences, saying that there is “no justification for breaking the law”.

Harnett told the court that it was the protesters’ duty to cause problems for Shell because he believed the company began work at the Glengad site without planning permission. The defendant said this was a reasonable excuse for blocking the gate for almost an hour on April 29 2009 as it drew attention to what was happening there. “Where nobody will take responsibility for unlawful acts being carried out to the detriment of the environment — and nobody will — it falls to us to protect the environment,” he said.

Judge Haughton said that no one was in immediate danger when Harnett made his protest, and added that the planning issue was before An Bord Pleanála at the time, therefore the defendant could have made his protest in legal ways.

Harnett was also convicted of obstructing or impeding a garda when he pushed him out of the way and told a driver to pass a checkpoint near Glengad during a day of action on May 9 this year.

Video footage taken by the defendant’s partner showed him argue with a sergeant that the checkpoint was illegal. He was seen shoving a garda to let a car pass and was arrested. The judge said the checkpoint was indeed legal and Mr Harnett had “clearly interfered with a police officer in the lawful execution of his duty.”

Love-hate relationship with the gardaí

Speaking to the court before sentencing Harnett told the judge that he had a love-hate relationship with gardaí. He said he genuinely liked a number of those that he dealt with on a daily basis and had met with Superintendent Larkin when he came to the area and wished him a happy Christmas. “We can’t go on as a community fighting, we have to live together,” he said, but added that protesters are placed in “very awkward positions” when gardaí “behave unlawfully and unfairly”.

The defendant said that there “is a constant source of tension and problems,” and said that protesters make sacrifices and endure personal and financial stress because of the commitment they make.

“If there weren’t problems associated with the project, I wouldn’t have come to the attention of gardaí. I’m not a criminal,” he said. “I don’t deserve to go to jail.” Judge Haughton disagreed. “I accept that the defendant holds his views passionately and is entitled to do so in any democratic state,” the judge said. “And he is entitled to persuade people that those views are correct.

“He comes across as someone who believes everyone is entitled to their own view as long as it’s his,” Judge Haughton added.

He referred to the “road to Damascus” contradiction in Harnett’s behaviour towards gardaí and his comments in court, and said it was clear Hartnett “needs something hanging over his head for a considerable period so he cannot repeat his conduct.” The judge said that he was dissatisfied that Harnett had committed the obstruction offence less than three months after a previous suspended sentence for a similar offence had run out.

The three-month sentence was suspended for 18 months and Harnett was also fined €200 for blocking the compound gate.