I defy anyone to go to Erris, County Mayo and spend time with the local people there without finding that the place eventually gets into your soul. Though it seems at first to be a strange, even bleak landscape to those unfamiliar with it, the extensive peatland with all the colour of its extraordinary plant life, the surrounding mountains and the superb Atlantic coastline all conspire to draw you in. Driving along the road through the small town of Bangor on the Belmullet road, the atmosphere is palpable. Here a community of people had been attending to what is still in some respects a remote and unique way of life in undisturbed peace and quiet until the arrival in their midst of the giant oil and gas conglomerate, Royal Dutch Shell. Shell were invited in by the Irish government with all the decorum of a gangster’s moll (if the comparison is not offensive to gangsters’ molls) for the purpose of building a gas refinery and exporting gas reserves that hitherto had been the property of the Irish people until the rights to them were sold in secret by a government politician, Ray Burke, who was subsequently jailed on unrelated corruption charges.
At first the community were unsure quite what to make of it all but they welcomed it cautiously as seeming to be something that would bring prosperity to the area. As the project advanced, however, they began to wake up to some alarming realities and during the last ten years have gone from that initial attitude of welcome to one of vehement and hugely distressed opposition to it.
Among the many people with painful experiences of resisting the project is Mayo fisherman, Pat “The Chief” O’ Donnell. The Chief has been a vocal objector to the present configuration of the benighted Corrib Gas project which is in the North West region of the Republic of Ireland. In 2008 he was instrumental in preventing Shell, the main partner in the consortium which owns the Corrib Gas field, from laying its disputed pipeline in Broadhaven Bay. Below is an interview in which he describes how he was held at gun-point and his fishing boat scuttled on the night of 12th June 2009.
As I write this in early April 2010, Pat O’ Donnell is in Castlerea prison in County Roscommon, convicted of a public order offence which Gardai [police] say he committed during a public protest. The circumstances of his arrest and conviction are strongly contested by his many friends and family who say that O’ Donnell has been subject to vindictive treatment because of his effective opposition to what Shell are doing in County Mayo. The claims made in his defence have also to be considered against the fact that since Pat O’ Donnell’s fishing boat was scuttled there has been no proper investigation into the events of that night. Though shocked at what happened, O’ Donnell nevertheless continued his spirited protest during the summer of 2009 when he made a valiant attempt with a small fishing boat to stop the colossal pipe-laying ship ‘The Solitaire’ when it finally arrived to begin work at Glengad – the beachhead in Broadhaven Bay at which the 80km pipeline would hit landfall from the gas field out in the ocean. He contends that neither Shell nor the Irish government have the legal right to damage the fishing grounds on which his and others’ livelihoods depend.
In advance of this summer’s work on the pipeline however, O’ Donnell is conveniently out of the way in Castlerea for five months.
The core of the Mayo community’s objections to the gas project are three-fold. Firstly, that it is unique in the world – a fact which was confirmed at a public oral hearing in May 2009. This means that the project is experimental in some vital respects. Locals, who of necessity over the last ten years have acquired unwanted, industry-standard expertise in the subject of oil and gas exploration and extraction, point to the unprecedented high pressure at which the gas will be travelling inland over 9km to the refinery – at anywhere between 144bar and 345 bar pressure. The gas would also be unrefined and therefore much more volatile than would ordinarily be the case which increases the possibility of ruptures or explosions. Ordinary domestic pipes operate at a maximum of 70bar carrying refined, stable gas. These concerns have recently been vindicated by An Bord Pleanala – the official body responsible for planning approvals – who have ruled that sections of the pipeline as presently planned are dangerous. The community is asking for the gas to be refined at sea or at an alternative landfall site away from communities and fishing grounds as is the norm in other countries for comparable facilities. The community is not opposed to bringing the gas ashore as is often claimed in an Irish media that has proved itself largely impenetrable, if not determinedly and manipulatively hostile towards the community in too many instances, but only ask that it be done safely and with regard for their environment – according to standards and conditions that are observed in many other places.
Secondly the terms on which Shell have been given the gas are also acknowledged to be unprecedented, with no royalties accruing to the state. Generous tax write-offs against costs mean that no revenue will be raised by that route either and in any case would only apply to future finds. Most of the Irish gas and oil field discoveries off the West Coast have already been licensed for extraction. As is often observed in Ireland, the Norwegian state-owned company Statoil, one of the partners in the project, will be able to generate huge sums of money for the Norwegian people from Corrib while the Irish people will see not one farthing from their own gas, even at a time of catastrophic economic stress in Ireland. That the entire population of Ireland has not taken to the streets in protest at this is testament to the role of the media in subduing the truth by means of what they describe as ‘balanced reporting’ – in reality heavily weighted in favour of input from Shell, the government and the Gardai.
Thirdly, there is the manner in which the project is being planned and constructed. The Mayo community are horrified at the level of government, commercial and political complicity in undermining planning and other procedures – again a matter of established fact, though largely unreported in the media. They believe that the entire apparatus of the state has been ranged against them including at times the army, navy and police forces in order to silence opposition on behalf of the powerful Royal Dutch Shell and its partners – who have deployed a much-loathed private security firm, IRMS, as their enforcers in the area. This state-sponsored onslaught has included serious physical brutality and other forms of intimidation resulting in complaints to the Garda Ombudsman – many of them upheld, though the state has so far refused to bring prosecutions.
For reasons of space, it’s possible only to make small mention of the many serious environmental impacts on a truly outstanding area of natural beauty and cultural significance if the project is allowed to go ahead. There is already evidence of pollution of the drinking water supply at Carrowmore Lake from works at the Ballinaboy refinery site. Sruwaddacon Bay, upstream from the Rossport Sound, is the place where the legendary Children of Lir are said to have spent their last 300 years as swans before taking on human form again. If the project is allowed to go ahead as currently proposed an ugly pipeline will zig zag the tranquil beauty of the whole bay – a designated Special Area of Conservation.
As mentioned already, aggravating the whole sorry saga is a national media who have been mostly duped into believing an idiotic caricature of a protest with alleged, unspecified IRA connections and motives – which leaves the local community feeling bewildered and abandoned by their fellow citizens. Having spoken to many of the farmers, business people, school teachers and others living in Erris, it is striking how much at odds with the truth it is. “We’re up here in Mayo’ one local business woman said ‘where nobody outside Erris can really see what is going on and they are getting away with it for that reason. They have all the money they need to spend on public relations and it has succeeded very well for them. Sure, several journalists who used to write about this have ended up working for Shell, including their main man John Egan who used to work for RTE and the BBC. What chance do we stand of getting the truth across to people?”
Interview with Pat O’ Donnell, originally published in Village magazine, June 2009.
MC: Can you begin by describing the events of the night of the 12th?
POD: I was in the wheel-house and Martin [O’ Donnell, crew] was relaxing and the next thing I heard a noise behind me on the deck.
MC: That’s how you first realised the intruders were present – when they were already in the boat? They must have crept up very silently?
POD: Yes they did, they’d come up alongside the boat in a RIB. The first two rushed into the wheelhouse and they had guns – they backed us up against the cabin. They were pointing guns at us. It’s hard to believe. The other two were looking around a while and they seen the hatch and went down below. I knew there was trouble in store. There were all sorts of things going through my head like were they going to kill us, were they going to throw us overboard – what was next, like. Then when I seen the two going down…and they were down there maybe twenty minutes more…I don’t know exactly. The navigator was behind the two who stayed with us so I couldn’t get a glimpse of the time – but they came back up eventually and they stayed there then for well over an hour. And the next thing the engine cut out. I knew at that stage anyway that there was water coming into the boat because the boat started rolling slowly – ‘twas heavy in other words. After the engine conking they stayed maybe another five or ten minutes and the next thing they started going into the RIB and they fucked off then out to sea – straight north.
MC: So how long did the whole episode last?
POD: The whole thing lasted about two and a half hours roughly. They left about four o’ clock. You see, when they left I checked – I went down the ladder to see – I knew there was water but I wanted to see how bad it was. Water was coming up, like, so I decided then to abandon ship. I told Martin to get his life-jacket and I went up to get the small little life raft on top of the wheelhouse on the outside, so I went up and I cut it off and took it down to the deck and we launched it and it took us a long while to inflate it. I wasn’t panicking because in a situation you don’t panic if you can manage not to. So after about…I suppose by the time we had the lifejackets and life raft down and inflated and the whole lot – maybe fifteen or twenty minutes had passed. Before they had left I caught a quick glimpse of the navigator coordinates so I had a rough idea of where we were. I put Martin into the life raft first and then I climbed in with him and tried to push the raft away from the boat as quickly as possible. I knew she was going to sink and I was afraid she would pull us down with her. I was footering around in the raft until I found the packet with the paddles in it – small little paddles – so I started rowing like hell then to get away from the boat and that took me about maybe ten minutes to get maybe 15-20 yards away – they were small little blades. So when we got away from the boat I got out the hand held VH and I put out a Mayday [received by Malin Head] and that’d be about half past four…
I just wanted them to rescue us as soon as possible…I thought the most important thing was for them to get a lifeboat launched and get out to us. So [having also rung the Garda station] the Ban Garda in Belmullet asked my name and I gave it to her – and Martin’s name – and I told her that the boat was sinking and that it was attacked in the night. She said she would make a note of it. And then Malin Head got back to me on the VHF and they wanted to talk to me on that so I finished my conversation with the Garda station. The Rachel Mary was steaming to the fishing grounds west of where we were.
MC: The Rachel Mary being?
POD: A fishing boat owned by myself and skippered by John Healey. So they were steaming west and they’re putting a spin on this too that the thing was planned between myself and the skipper of the Rachel Mary. But we were just doing our work the way we always do – and this is what we’re up against and this is saddening me. In fact he never heard the Mayday – his radio was on another channel at the time. He’d seen the boat in the water and knew it was in trouble – that it was low down below the water line. He nearly ran us down in the life raft. Martin was inside and I was out – and I stuck my head out and blew a whistle. One of the lads heard me and they came out onto the port side and they picked us up. And while that was all happening…
MC: So it was them who actually got you out of the water?
POD: Yes. Immediately after them was the Gardai in their RIB. And immediately after that was the life boat. In fairness they were fast I must say from once I put out the call for the lifeboat. So the next thing was the lads were making a cup of tea for us…but what is surprising is that I told the Garda station that these attackers had gone straight north. And instead of the Garda RIB heading straight north to try and find them they came up alongside us and escorted us in. There is no justice here! You know what they are saying now? The Gardai are saying now that they don’t believe this, that when they went out there they didn’t see anyone. The attackers were about half an hour gone. These RIBs make about 40 knots at least, so you are talking about – they’d have been gone about 15 miles straight north. Instead of our boys heading straight north when I gave that information to the station, they just went out to the scene, turned around and came up alongside us. The Rachel Mary did take us all the way to the pier. The Lifeboat crew tried to take us off the Rachel Mary but the sea was too rolly – we were afraid there would be a bit of damage done so they decided to head back in with us on the Rachel Mary. But they took us up to the lifeboat station. I was all wet from the rowing – I had been down on my knees and there was water all over the place. They gave me trousers, a pair of socks and a jacket. Martin I’d say was suffering between the fright and the whole lot, perished with the cold and with hypothermia – they put one of them tin foil sheets around him and put him in the ambulance. So he was treated for that and I was treated for shock. Next we landed up at Castlebar at the hospital. We might have been a couple of hours there or an hour and a half – all time is gone out of my head. But I couldn’t believe when we were released from the hospital - when we were discharged, just outside the casualty door we met four detectives.
MC: What time was it then, roughly?
POD: About half past nine.
MC: So there were four detectives waiting for you?
POD: And a uniformed Garda. They were nothing short of aggressive. They knew us. They never once asked us for our well-being. It was all ‘we need you to make a statement’, ‘we need you to give us your clothes’ – this, that and the other. We were terrorised by these people. Martin is quiet, like, and I had to get angry with them – they were wanting my clothes and I says ‘these are not my clothes to give you. These belong to the RNLI.’ They didn’t explain why they wanted the clothes. I says ‘I cannot give them to anybody, I have to give them back to who they belong to’…we were in shock and I says ‘that man is suffering from hypothermia’. ‘We’re in no condition to talk to anybody’, I says.
MC: You were in shock as you say, but from the history of this whole campaign, there is some mistrust towards the Gardai?
POC: You can’t you see – they twist everything. In January 2007, my other boat The Rachel Mary was attacked – criminal damage – windows smashed and the wheelhouse. I reported that to the Garda station in Belmullet. I made a statement. Nothing became of it.
…I was pulled out of my jeep in October 2006 by two lorry drivers. They tried to pull me out of the window to beat me. I went in and made a statement to the Gardai in Belmullet, backed up by a witness. The DPP decided not to prosecute – they said it was a civil matter…nobody that has been attacked has ever got anywhere. There were two complaints to the Garda Ombudsman that were recommended, in fairness, by the Garda Ombudsman for prosecution. They went to the DPP and recommended that these people be put before the courts and put to jail…it is Shell’s law – from the very top.
MC: There are some people who have the impression that you are not pursuing the proper channels?
POD: Let me give you another example. Myself and my brother and Patrick Coyle and another fellow – four of us. The shit was beaten out of us on the road at Ballinaboy early one morning by the cops. My teeth was knocked out, my nose was bursted. My brother had three stitches in his eye and Coyle was concussed – he was knocked out. Three of us ended up in hospital and we started to pursue a civil claim. The Gardai must have found out because the next thing was they were claiming that we assaulted them.
When they presented the evidence of the attack that we were supposed to have made on them – the whole incident was missing.
MC: What footage did they have of what you were alleged to have done?
POD: No footage at all. There were seven minutes missing from the Garda video. [The Gardai routinely film and photograph people and activity in the vicinity of Shell’s sites in Mayo.] Garda Greg Burke said ‘Oh well, it was a windy morning and the strap on the camera must have turned off the button’. We had a camera expert back from England – it cost us E1,800 – to bring into the court in our defence. In his evidence he said that he got an identical camera and he tried with all his might to hit the button with the strap and he couldn’t turn it off. He said deliberately or otherwise the button had to be pushed with a finger. And Judge Mary Devins, she still went ahead with the case and on that evidence she still wouldn’t throw it out…she said the Gardai were inconsistent in their evidence but that she had no choice but to acquit the defendants. And she said that some of the defendants were up here for one purpose and that was to get media attention. It cost us about 1,500 to 2,000 euro each to defend ourselves…
…They have it in for me you see. If a person won’t go away…the thing is they battoned us when they came in first with the Gardai. They hospitalised us. They brought us before the courts and they put me and my son into jail. And I told them above on the road a long time ago the only way they’ll get fuckin’ rid of me is with guns. That was two years ago and it has taken them this length of time to actually produce the guns. The state are working with Shell all the way to the very top. None of us is functioning normally because of this thing. If they had just built the thing frigging right – put it out at sea and leave the people of these parishes alone everyone would be alright. We’re all going to die before our time the level of stress is so bad. The easy thing to do is to sit down and accept their money – take whatever they give you and be a good boy. Don’t say anything and let Shell get on with their business. We have nobody to talk to. Nobody in this country is going to listen to us.
Pat granted protection of his boat after sinking of the Iona Isle
Youtube Interview with Pat O’ Donnell
Corribgas.net Michael McCaughan’s excellent website
Website of the Shell to Sea campaign – also an excellent source of information