Rossport's war of attrition

Padraig O'Meschoíl reports from Rossport, Co Mayo where local opposition to oil giant Shell's plans to build a dangerous gas pipeline close to homes has turned into one of Ireland's most high-profile campaigns for justice (This article originally appeared in the October/November print edition of the Irish Democrat but due to technical difficulties has only recently become available for publication on our web edition)

STANDING ON a damp road in the predawn morning sur- rounded by dozens of hostile police officers it was easy to picture yourself in Portadown in Co Armagh or Ardoyne and the Lower Ormeau in Belfast.

As the anticipation built in preparation for the arrival of unwanted visitors determined to trundle through the community, it almost felt like the marching season.

But this wasn't Belfast, Dunloy or Bellaghy. This was Rossport, a small Gaeltacht community in probably the most remote part of Mayo. Take away the legions of Guards and protestors and it would be hard to imagine confrontation ever taking place on a road enveloped by bleak bogland and foreboding forest.

However, the ongoing conflict in Erris goes as much to the heart of pow- er relations in the 26 counties as sectarian marches do in occupied Ireland.

What is at stake is the safety and democratic entitlements of Irish citi- zens.

In the most recent development in a long running dispute, Shell announced the commencement of con- struction on their €200 million terminal for the early part of next year. For the last number of weeks, construction workers have been carrying out preparations on the Bellanaboy site, despite the vehement opposition of local people.

There are two key issues for the people of Rossport and their supporters. One is the inability of Shell to guaran- tee the safety of those who live in the vicinity of the proposed land-based gas terminal. The other is that the Irish people will accrue absolutely no financial benefit from the pumping of this gas.

Effectively, Shell will be exploiting the natural resources of the Irish na- tion and generously selling it back to the Irish nation at full price. To ensure the success of this operation hundreds of Gardaí are being bussed into north Mayo from around the country, so far the policing opera- tion has been estimated to have cost the 26 county taxpayer in excess of 1 million euro.

The attitude of these Guards has been inconsistent. The more senior of- ficers have clearly relished their role while most of the younger foot soldiers are unable to look locals in the eye and have visibly shook and gulped when confronted by indignant Mayo women about their betrayal of the Rossport community.

However, the Gardaí's actions have been nothing if not consistent. Morn- ing after morning they have ensured that the unwanted construction workers have been able to make their way to Bellanaboy, hospitalising and arrest- ing numerous protestors in the process.

One such victim was Maura Harrington who was treated in hospital for head and neck injuries after being felled by a police officer. Harrington has described the behaviour of Gardaí in the area as being "out of control."

However, the Rossport issue cannot be dealt with in isolation from the Dublin government's overall, long- term strategy regarding the economy. At every opportunity they have sold off the property of the Irish people, including the "national" phone network and, in the near future, Aer Lingus, the national airline.

Another example is their positive attitude towards the private sector's growing involvement in the health service.

The Erris pipeline is merely the most blatant example of this state run auction, with the Norwegian govern- ment set to receive 36 per cent in royalties from the project through their subsidiary companies, 36 per cent more than the government in Leinster House.

Against this backdrop, the majority of the Irish media have acted in a typically shameful manner, ignoring their obligation to fair and investigative journalism and siding with the sell-off of the peoples' resources.

Among the many outlandish allega- tions made against the Shell To Sea campaign through this media are that the Rossport community is being manipulated by outside elements with their own agenda, the IRA and Sinn Féin have taken control of the campaign for their own gain and flying columns are being reorganised in north Mayo to "deal" with supporters of Shell.

Regardless of the smear tactics, people from across the country, including Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Galway and Clare, have mobilised in defence of Rossport and the nation's property, travelling to Bellanaboy as well as organising protests and meetings in their own communities.

This mobilisation must increase in the time ahead.

Shell and the Dublin government have shown themselves to be totally in- different, even hostile, to legitimate concerns about this project. People have been raising these concerns for years to no avail. Pressure must now be put on both institutions, clearly indicating that the Irish people are not prepared to allow the gas venture to continue in its present format.

This demand has been articulated by prominent Shell To Sea activist, Tadhg McGrath. He said:

"This refinery will never be built. How long will it take them to realise that you can't do something like that against the com- munity's will? When the people are against it, it's not going to happen."

November 10 marks the 11th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and his eight comrades by the Nigerian government for their opposi- tion to the Shell exploitation of their indigenous Ogoni community and en- vironment.

For those who think that any comparison between the two struggles is extreme it would be pertinent to remember that the Nigerian government actually received a better deal from Shell than the dubious one agreed by the Haughey government.

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