Shell meets its match in the Rossport Five

[ This article was first published in The Guardian on Friday, July 29th, 2005 ]

by William Hederman

The residents of the tiny village of Rossport, in the north-west corner of County Mayo on Ireland’s Atlantic coast, have been up in arms for almost five years now. They have spent that time campaigning against a proposal by the petroleum giant Shell to lay a pipeline through their community to carry untreated gas from beneath the sea to a refinery 5.5 miles inland. Their cause secured little or no coverage in the national press until, at the end of June, five of them were jailed for refusing Shell access to their land to begin work on the pipeline.

Suddenly, the issue became one of the biggest news stories of the year and, as the Irish Examiner called it, “a major public relations disaster for the Shell corporation”. The “Rossport Five” were jailed at the specific request of the company, which had obtained compulsory purchase orders for the land in question – the first time in Irish history that such an order was granted to a private company. The five will remain in jail until they undertake not to obstruct the company.

“Shell officials misjudged the situation if they thought to intimidate others by making an example of these men,” the Irish Times said. Indeed, July has seen huge rallies in support of the men in Co Mayo and in Dublin, the picketing of Shell garages nationwide, and round-the-clock blockades of the refinery construction site.

Broadhaven Bay pictured from Dooncarton Mountain. In the foreground is Glengad, where the Corrib Gas pipeline is due to come ashore. Copyright: William Hederman

“Their imprisonment,” declared Fintan O’Toole in his Irish Times column, “exposes the hypocrisy of the law, which holds that property rights are sacred except when vast public resources are being given away to powerful corporations, and unimportant people object to having explosive materials pumped through their lands.” He then turned his attention to the government: “It can recognise, however belatedly, that the pipeline is unnecessary and unworkable … It can pretend that a sovereign, supposedly republican, state has half the backbone of a few Mayo families.”

The success of blockades in preventing further work on the pipeline or refinery since the men were jailed has been celebrated in some quarters as exemplary direct action. According to Workers Solidarity, a monthly anarchist newsletter, events had “made crystal clear that the only thing that can oppose the strength of the state and the corporations is people power … It won’t be easy, especially as Shell have the forces of the state on their side, but people power has won before. It can do it again.”

The tradition of civil disobedience was also championed by Eoin O Murchu in his column in the weekly current affairs magazine Village: “Peaceful agitation for change frequently involves breaking unjust laws … It’s what makes real democracy function … And isn’t it because [Irish people] took the law into their own hands historically that we have an independent state?”

The British state came in for criticism following the shooting by London police of Jean Charles de Menezes, in the mistaken belief he was a suicide bomber. The incident prompted comparisons with the treatment of Irish people in Britain during the IRA bombing campaigns of the 70s. “As the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four will testify, the British police are a blunt instrument where counter-terrorism is concerned,” said the Irish Examiner. “Seemingly, the police are now pursuing the kind of logic which put people behind bars because they were Irish. Apparently the authorities have learned no lessons from the IRA campaign.”

The Belfast-based Irish News recalled killings by security forces in Northern Ireland that “gave rise to accusations that a shoot-to-kill policy was in operation here. The bitter legacy of many of these incidents continues and the British government should learn the lessons of the past.”

However, the Evening Herald, while agreeing “Northern Ireland was poisoned by … shoot-to-kill,” concluded that Tony Blair “must tell the world that it is worth it”.

As the week drew to a close, yesterday’s statement from the IRA on disbanding was eagerly anticipated. “It had better be good,” demanded the Irish Independent. “What it should say is that they are going out of business. Just that … The worst outcome would be for the IRA, having made the effort, to fall short of the mark required by political realities. They might also try to squeeze one last concession … Such a lack of vision and generosity of spirit would betray the national interest and the wishes of ordinary people, North and South.”

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