Corrib: Shatter’s ‘protest tourists’ are acting in Ireland’s interest

As 19 campaigners go on trial in Mayo, William Hederman writes that the expensive policing of the Corrib gas project is facilitating a transfer of resources to private corporations. Those "outsiders" who protest in Mayo are doing Ireland a great service

Nineteen people are due before Belmullet District Court this week charged with 80 offences relating to civil disobedience and obstruction of Shell’s attempts to build an inland refinery and high-pressure pipeline in north Mayo. Civilians have been taking the law into their own hands: closing public roads and illegally detaining other civilians on those roads.

The two sentences in the above paragraph are connected, but not as closely as you might expect. The 19 accused are anti-Shell campaigners, but the civilians referred to in the second sentence are employees of IRMS, the private security company guarding Shell’s troubled project. Since the latest phase of the project began in the spring of 2011 – a 5km tunnel under Sruwaddacon Estuary – IRMS staff have been taking a very hands-on approach to guarding the tunnelling compound at Aughoose.

I have witnessed IRMS staff assaulting protesters, closing off sections of the public road and physically detaining protesters. All of this happens in full view of gardaí. It is illegal for private security guards to close roads and to physically manhandle people – they have no more right to do that than protesters do. To date, not one IRMS staff member has been charged in relation to this activity, despite the fact that local residents say they have made complaints about it at Belmullet Garda station, as well as to the Private Security Authority.

This is what protesters refer to as ‘Shell’s Law’. As An Garda Síochána apparently seeks to reduce the huge police overtime bill for Corrib – €14.5 million at the last count – gardaí are stepping back and allowing IRMS to operate as a private police force on the public road.

As judgements are handed down over the coming days, you might hear Government TDs and other promoters of Shell’s refinery project proclaim: “Protesters must stay within the law.” You won’t hear the same people saying that IRMS must operate within the law, in part because IRMS’s behaviour has been largely unreported by mainstream media. Imagine the outcry and the repercussions if campaigners were seen manhandling Shell workers.

Shell itself has displayed a disregard for the legal boundaries in which it should operate. As documented in Lorna Siggins’s authoritative book on the Corrib saga, Once Upon a Time in the West, the company has on several occasions breached planning legislation. In July 2005, Shell was forced to dismantle a 3km section of onshore pipeline it had built illegally.

Gardaí have also chosen to ignore the law, even doing so as a publicly-stated policy. Quoted in the November 2006 edition of the Garda Review, Supt Joe Gannon spoke of the “no arrest” policy he was overseeing for the policing of the protests. “There were no arrests. That was part of our strategy: we did not want to facilitate anyone down there with a route to martyrdom.” Following the huge nationwide support for the campaign following the jailing of the Rossport Five in 2005, Gardaí used the “no arrest” policy in 2006 to break a 15-month blockade of the refinery site by local residents. Instead of arresting people engaging in civil disobedience, as the law requires, the tactic seemed to be to wear them down through heavy-handedness and intimidation. The 2010 report for Frontline Human Rights Defenders by barrister Brian Barrington found: "The danger with not arresting people is that, instead, force may be unnecessarily used, particularly as frustration builds among Garda officers. Some of the footage supplied supports the view that this is what in fact happened."

Gardaí have generally avoided arresting local residents, in order not to create any more “martyrs”, as Supt Gannon put it. This week’s raft of charges are targeted mostly at outside supporters. Rossport carpenter Terence Conway, a Shell to Sea spokesperson and one of the few local people facing charges this week, says: “We have witnessed a Garda policy of not arresting local people or not prosecuting local people. Instead gardaí have been arresting and prosecuting our supporters. This policy is an attempt to deter support and isolate our community.”

The more important context to these court cases is the so-called “national interest”. The key to success for Shell and the Government is to convince journalists and the public that the Corrib project is so vital to Ireland's interests that a blind eye can be turned to such inconsistent application of the law. Years of spin by Shell’s huge PR team and successive governments have resulted in a perception that Corrib is crucial for Ireland’s security of supply and a major contributor to the economy.

Last week, for example, another PR outing by Shell resulted in headlines that repeated a common media myth, that Corrib will “supply 60% of Ireland’s gas needs”. In fact, Shell's claim about 60% refers to the field's "peak production" point, which may only last a short time. The amount of gas in the field is actually very small in the context of Ireland's consumption. With a simple phone call to Bord Gáis, any journalist or politician could confirm that the gas in the Corrib field (1 trillion cubic feet, according to Shell) is equivalent to the quantity of gas Ireland consumes in just five or six years.

And, thanks to licensing terms drawn up by Ray Burke and Bertie Ahern two decades ago, Shell and partners will own 100% of the gas. As they are not obliged to sell into the Irish market, Bord Gáis will have to bid for it on the international market – we enjoy no discount for this gas from Irish territory.

We will pay the same for it as we now pay for gas from Norway (we don't get our gas from Russia: that's another industry-promoted myth). So if the price of gas internationally were to double in the next 20 years, then the price Irish consumers pay for the gas from Corrib would double. Minister Pat Rabbitte evidently did not know this when he said on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland last June: “Gas prices have rocketed again in recent months and that has serious implications… It’s an argument as well for us getting the Corrib field onshore.”

Far from being in the national interest, the Corrib project represents a net loss to the exchequer of many billions of euro. In effect, the taxpayer-funded Garda operation is not only helping Shell to endanger the local community and the environment in pursuit of profit, it is also facilitating the transfer of ownership and control of our resources to private, profit-making corporations. Further gas finds off the west coast could be piped to the refinery at Bellanaboy. As production increases, companies could choose to export to the UK, via one of the interconnecter pipelines that currently bring gas to Ireland, or directly from the field. In fact, the Government’s policy is for Ireland to become “an exporter of gas”. 

Futhermore, the tax take is also likely to be extremely small from future gas projects. A private report for Shell carried out in 2003 by industry consultants Wood Mackenzie projected that the Corrib field would pay just €340 million in tax over its lifetime. Bear in mind that the gas in Corrib is said to be worth up to €13 billion (it was worth less than that in 2003, but based on the increase in the price of gas since 2003, this suggests the €340 million in the report would have represented 7% or less of the likely revenue from the field).

When the Corrib Garda overtime bill was in the news recently, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter branded campaigners as “self-indulgent”. He also attacked what he called “protest tourism”. This idea that “outsiders” have no part in a campaign is baffling. Is he seriously suggesting that a citizen is entitled only to protest against something that affects her or his own neighbourhood? All those people in Ireland who campaigned against South African apartheid in the 1970s and ’80s – presumably they should have been minding their own business.

North Mayo is one of Ireland’s most remote and sparsely populated places, one which has enjoyed little political influence. The communities that have resisted Shell’s experimental project for more than a decade have always asked for and welcomed outside support. On a practical note, many local people are unable to participate in protests or civil disobedience because of family commitments, old age or injuries sustained in earlier protests. Moreover, the struggle in north Mayo is a national issue, because of the natural resources issue dealt with above.

As newspapers and broadcasters bring us comments from politicians and other commentators about the "outsiders" in court this week, bear in mind that this project is being foisted on the community there by a range of outsiders: international Shell executives and Irish ministers, with the help of gardaí bussed in from several counties and IRMS staff from around Europe, all to benefit corporate shareholders around the world.

William Hederman is a photojournalist and campaigner. He blogs at

Twitter: @IrishOilGas


Image top: Nick Humphries.