Taking on Shell Oil in Ireland: The Strange Saga of Pat O’Donnell

"Civil disobedience is not our problem….Our problem is civil obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country."Howard Zinn, US historian, 1924-2010.  

Mayo fisherman Pat O’Donnell, described by Judge Raymond Groarke as a thug and a bully, was jailed for seven months in Castlebar Court in February for his activism against Shell’s planned gas pipeline through his community. For most people observing from afar, with little more than tabloid headlines to feed on, the story ended there. Strange then that Pat’s home has been besieged by well wishers, the phone has been hopping and over 600 letters of support have been sent from around the world. Strange too that Pat’s daughter Aisling received gifts sent from well wishers in London for her recent 9th birthday, a reminder that in jailing Pat the state has also punished his wife and children. Strange also that the ‘thug and bully’ should be visited by two priests from his home area bringing messages of support from the community while Socialist MEP Joe Higgins called in to denounce the jailing as “an outrage.” Strange indeed that the family of the ‘thug and bully.’ convicted on the word of a garda, (police officer) should receive a visit from Minister for Social Protection, Eamon O’Cuiv, who was greeted with the same courtesy that all visitors to the Erris peninsula enjoy, regardless of political affiliation. The people of Erris are all ears even though the state has shown only deaf ones. As Minister O’Cuiv approached Pat’s home village of Porturlin however, he was asked to leave his garda escort behind. The arrival of a squad car is nothing short of a provocation in a community which has been harassed and criminalised for actively exercising the right to dissent from a project they believe will result in the destruction of land and livelihoods. 


The recent criticism by the Irish Planning Board (ABP) of Shell’s planned gas pipeline route in north west Mayo has vindicated the concerns of O’Donnell and hundreds more like him as engineers rejected the proposed route due to the ‘unacceptable risk’ it poses to the nearby community. The public inquiry which uncovered this evidence would probably never have been held were it not for the ten year battle waged by local residents. The story of Pat O’Donnell and the Corrib gas project goes well beyond a day in court or an exchange of insults with police. O’Donnell, a successful fisherman from the age of fourteen, was never involved in campaigning until the gas project arrived. Like most of the local population O’Donnell initially celebrated news of the gas discovery, anticipating jobs and prosperity ahead. As time passed a few people expressed concerns about safety issues, prompting O’Donnell, worried about potential pollution at sea, to contact an engineer in Britain for a second opinion. Upon examining the outline plan for the high pressure gas pipeline, the engineer responded; ‘If this was coming through my neighbourhood I would pack my bags and leave.” O’Donnell didn’t leave, nor did he accept the €300,000 offered by Shell for looking the other way when the gas pipeline was being laid last year.

O’Donnell observed the first oral hearing into the proposed gas refinery site at Bellanaboy in 2002, during which local people spoke eloquently of their relationship with the land while corporate engineers dismissed safety concerns as groundless. The Corrib gas project began life as the Irish economic boom was in full flow, at a time when objecting to a foreign investment project was like insisting the earth was flat. In his 400-page report, senior planning inspector Kevin Moore rejected the proposed gas terminal site in Bellanaboy as inappropriate for a number of reasons. The community had won an important victory but the state quickly stepped in as Prime Minister Bertie Ahern met Shell executives and encouraged the company to appeal the planning board decision. Ireland‘s entire economic strategy rests on foreign direct investment, from Dell to Shell, Google and Statoil. The gas project involved an additional strategic ingredient, energy provision, which elevated its status to one of national security. When a further oral hearing was under consideration Shell wrote to the planning board to request that inspector Kevin Moore not be involved. They got their wish. Bertie Ahern’s interference in the issue and Shell’s pressure on the planning board are in the public domain, entirely unremarkable in the symbiotic world of business and government. Comedian Tommy Tiernan described it in less polite terms; “they (Shell) knew which holes to oil.”  

Once Pat O’Donnell began to question the safety of the Corrib Gas project he discovered a whole new side to Irish democracy as he was beaten by police, his teeth smashed, ribs broken and charged with ‘loitering’ at sea while out on his fishing boat which was itself sunk by persons unknown last year. A loud whisper campaign suggested O’Donnell was chief suspect in the sinking of his own boat with police following ‘definite lines of inquiry’ and swift arrests promised. Several months later the police quietly announced that the investigation was over without further comment. An eyewitness to one of the alleged police assaults on Pat O’Donnell wrote an affidavit containing the following statement; “…I saw the garda (police officer) pull the local man (O’Donnell) who had spoken with the quarry owner to the verge at the other side of the road, they flung him to the ground with firstly two then one garda kneeling on his back and pressed his face into the dirt all the while hitting him with batons, there were four gardai at least involved in this…” This rough stuff happened during a peaceful protest, with no scuffles beforehand and no order to disperse given by police. A retired garda examined a complaint made by O’Donnell to the garda Ombudsman Commission and described it as one of the strongest he had ever seen. Like almost every other case taken against gardai for alleged brutality in Mayo it was rejected by the Director of Public Prosecutions (Attorney General) as lacking in merit. Since then just one complaint has been upheld by the DPP, involving a senior garda but the recommendation was stamped return to sender as the force closed ranks at the prospect of even a verbal reprimand. Professor Dermot Walsh, director of the Centre of Criminal Justice at the University of Limerick, recently described the Irish police force as “one of the most secretive in the western world”. A number of opposition legislators questioned the independence of the garda Ombudsman Commission after it was revealed that currently serving members of the force had been ‘loaned’ to the Commission to ease their workload. A recent report into the issue of justice for rape victims in Ireland revealed that “the most common reason given by (rape) victims for considering withdrawal (of a statement) was poor treatment by gardai” while the Ryan report into child abuse in the Catholic church denounced garda collusion in covering up abuses.

Shell recently announced the suspension of work on the Corrib gas project until a number of issues highlighted by the planning board have been resolved. It is widely acknowledged that the changes forced upon Shell to date (a landfall safety valve, donations to the community, hiring of local people, consideration of other pipeline routes) have been secured thanks to the persistence of the campaign. Yet Pat O’Donnell continues to pace the yard at Castlerea prison, a fish out of water with nothing to look forward to but a single, weekly visit and perhaps a special permit to attend his daughter’s upcoming communion. This week (March 22) twenty seven more cases will come before the Irish courts involving alleged public order offences against community activists. It is important to note that Pat O’Donnell was never accused of using violence against anyone. The Mayo fisherman was one of a group of 50 protestors who approached an unmarked police vehicle during a protest in September 2008. The vehicle had joined a community convoy of cars and plain clothes officers began filming people who were attending the rally. When O’Donnell and others demanded to know the purpose of the surveillance operation the occupants locked the doors of the car and took off. The second offence occurred when a police officer on duty outside Shell’s work compound signalled to O’Donnell to slow down as he drove by. O’Donnell parked his vehicle and approached the officer who told the Court he felt ‘intimidated’ by O’Donnell. Judge Groarke sentenced O’Donnell to seven months in prison for the two charges.  

Frontline Human Rights Defenders

A week after Pat O’Donnell was sent to jail, Frontline, an Irish human rights organization, invited 90 activists from around the world to a conference in Dublin. These people, from Burma, Colombia, India and elsewhere, had one thing in common; a well founded fear of persecution for their work on political and environmental issues. The public platform and media profile would help protect these endangered individuals and make it harder for their governments to lock them up or kill them. Remarkably the abundant media coverage failed to mention the sole Irish delegate invited to speak at the conference, Vincent McGrath, one of five men jailed in June 2005 for refusing to allow Shell to occupy his land. Few observers doubt that any of the five men would have spent a day of their lives in jail was it not for the extraordinary circumstances which obliged them to defy a court injunction. After 94 days behind bars Shell and the government facilitated their release as public support for the men was growing, putting the entire project at risk. When the five men (known as the Rossport Five) were released in September 2005, their wives were literally elbowed aside by politicians eager to appear in the first photos alongside the people’s champions. There they are; John Gormley, (Green Party) Trevor Sargeant, (Green Party) Finian McGrath, (Ind) Tony Gregory, (Ind/RIP) and Jerry Cowley (ind). When the Green Party formed a governing coalition with the dominant Fianna Fail party in 2007, they were rewarded with the two key cabinet posts responsible for implementing the project. They have been silent ever since. “Ten years ago the oil companies and politicians told us the gas project would transform our lives” Vincent McGrath told the Frontline conference, “our lives have indeed been transformed but in ways that we never thought possible.”  

The Current Situation

Since 2007, media coverage of the issue has marched in one direction and the reality of the Corrib gas project in a dramatically different one as Shell launched a PR offensive, acknowledging ‘mistakes’, funding a football pitch, hiring locals and offering grants for ‘enhancements’ to local homes. Shell’s community liaison representative recently visited an elderly woman living beside the Glengad work site after hearing that her toaster had broken. He arrived with a new toaster in a box and a piece of paper for the woman to sign. She refused. The provision of a toaster brings to mind the memory of a local priest (since deceased) who celebrated the arrival of the gas ten years ago as ‘the best thing since sliced bread.” However the project remains the same; a unique, high pressure onshore gas pipeline running through a remote area reliant on farming, fishing and tourism for survival. The recent economic downturn has highlighted another negative aspect of the project; the state giveaway of natural resources. The Norwegian taxpayer will enjoy the benefits from the Corrib gas project thanks to Statoil’s revenue share but the Irish people will receive a trivial tax return only after the entire project has been paid for and completed. The price and control of supply are entirely in the hands of the developers comprising Shell with 45% Statoil with 36.5% and Vermillion Energy with 18.5%. If one accepts the dominant media perspective then Shell is now doing its best to play fair in County Mayo and the continuing protests are a distraction at best, or worse, an act of subversion against badly needed foreign investment. This is how the recent TV3 documentary ‘The Battle for the Gasfield’ was framed by presenter and celebrity crime correspondent Paul Williams. The choice of Williams as narrator suggests criminality ahead and the police were his main source of information. Without inside information from the police, Paul Williams ceases to exist as a crime correspondent. It speaks volumes of the Irish media that this flimsy propaganda piece, which avoids every issue of substance, was nominated for an Irish Film and Television Award.

The people of Erris are busy challenging the Corrib gas project with all the tools at their disposal. In the past month 190 local objections were lodged to the Minister of the Environment over the proposed foreshore license sought by Shell. In addition, the state and Shell failed in their efforts to block two local residents from pursuing a High Court claim as to whether a ministerial consent given eight years ago for the gas pipeline is valid. There are cases winding their way through EU courts and one local legal challenge, just underway, could halt the project for good. The developer has been caught illegally drilling on protected land, illegally welding pipeline before permissions were granted and illegally occupying a privately owned pier. Shell has acknowledged wrongdoing but the state, instead of seizing an opportunity to halt and review the project, has granted exceptions, exemptions and extensions whenever Shell demand them.

Shell recently announced the suspension of work on the project until next year, acknowledging ‘tensions’ in this remote rural bog land. This is the understatement of the year as local farmer Willie Corduff, one of the Rossport Five, was beaten almost to death at the Glengad work site last year and Pat O’Donnell was physically dragged from his boat, which was then impounded, despite enjoying a legal right to be at sea. The Irish navy has deployed vessels to prevent seaborne protest while gardai have worked alongside Shell’s private security, a ragtag militia with links to eastern European mercenaries. One young Irishman, Michael Dwyer, was shot dead in Bolivia during a failed coup plot in April 2009 after he travelled to South America at the invitation of individuals he first met at the Shell compound in Glengad, Co Mayo.

The planned pipeline route would give local people just 30 seconds to flee the 200 metre ‘kill zone’ in the event of rupture, a detail which came from independent technical advisors testifying before the Irish planning board last year. Shell has concealed or downplayed the scale of the project, insisting that the project is similar to gas pipelines elsewhere, a myth now debunked by planning experts. Pat O’Donnell, alongside almost one hundred people who have come before the Courts, believes that he has no option but to engage in civil disobedience to draw attention to his concerns. O’Donnell’s prison sentence was handed down on the evidence of a police force regarded by many local people as an active protagonist in the construction of the project. The gardai have played a central role in framing events in Erris, protecting the developer and acting as spokespeople for the project before a pliant media. A record 111 complaints have been made against police to the garda Ombudsman Commission, of which 78 were deemed worthy of investigation. The adversarial role forced upon the police encourages officers to pursue trivial claims against local people who might end up testifying against them in the future.

There is still an easy way for the government to review the project and allay community concerns. The website of Green Party Minister Eamon Ryan’s Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources spells it out; “The Minister may, for such a period as the Minister deems necessary, require that specified exploration, exploitation, production or processing activities should cease.” Such a halt to the work would be legitimate “in any case where the Minister is satisfied that it is desirable to do so in order to reduce the risk of injury to the person.. or damage to property or the environment.” Such conditions clearly exist in County Mayo. The Ministerial opt-out forestalls any threat of corporate legal redress; “No claim for compensation may be made against the Minister on foot of any such requirement”. It is worth recalling the words of Minister Ryan in a speech he made to parliament on November 24, 2005, arguing forcefully that the Corrib gas project should be reviewed; “Anyone who examines from the outside the process that led to a decision being made on the (planning board) appeal in this instance would agree that it was not conducted in an open and fair manner. … I have serious concerns that the Government constantly took Shell’s side, in effect, throughout this process. … I contend that he [Taoiseach Bertie Ahern] put remarkable and untold pressure on An Bord Pleanála to accept the Government’s will.”

The phrase ‘social capital’ is often closely followed by ‘active citizenship’ when politicians reflect on the need to inject fresh life into the democratic process. In its business magazine ‘Innovation,’ the Irish Times lamented the greed of the Celtic Tiger era and pondered the prototype ‘perfect citizen,’ an individual engaged with a multicultural world, socially responsible and always “upholding the richness and uniqueness of their own culture.” These model citizens would have lashings of “tradition, identity and community” while never forgetting to “perform their own research, solve real-life problems and make decisions such as developing the capacity to apply knowledge to projects in local communities.” By these standards the people of Erris deserve the Nobel Prize for Active Citizenship but instead they have been demonized and jailed. Pat O’Donnell, charged with ‘aggressive behaviour’ toward police, was offered the option of community service instead of jail time. “I have been doing community service for ten years now in opposing this project”, he responded. If the Green Party were still in opposition, there is little doubt that MPs Eamon Ryan, Trevor Sargeant and John Gormley would be elbowing their way into Castlerea prison to show their support for Pat O’Donnell, while expressing outrage at the abuse of a rural community. And when the moment of his release came, the elbows would be out again to secure a place in the official photo. These days though the Greens are too busy implementing the policies of their coalition partners to consider acting on their forgotten principles.

Michael McCaughan has reported extensively from Latin America for the Irish Times and the Guardian, among others. He is author of True Crimes: Rodolfo Walsh, the Life and Times of a Radical Intellectual and The Battle of Venezuela.

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