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Rossport: Safety begins with team work?

Posted by KM on July 15, 2009

Original version of this article at Shift Magazine

by Steph Davies

Shell plan to build a pipeline from offshore in the Corrib gas field, through Broadhaven Bay, ending up in a £545 million refinery at Bellanaboy. Since 2000 the people of Rossport have been working with activists from across Europe and beyond, fighting this project with amazing determination, and a wide diversity of tactics. The solidarity camp and house act as bases where activists from outside the area can converge, live and take action from.

Many actions, from blockades, to car cavalcades, kayak flotillas to sabotage of police vehicles, occurred last summer in Erris. In August the Solitaire arrived to lay the pipeline required for Shell’s project. Its work was successfully disrupted and no pipes were laid. This was due to close collaboration between the local community and activists from outside the area. However, as with any campaign, there are ideological tensions and conflicts in politics, strategy and messages. This article does not provide a historical overview of the campaign, but analyses some of the events and issues that arose during the Solitaire’s presence last summer. The events and individuals described in this article are no more important than others that have taken action, or the actions that preceded them.

Shell’s Tactics

The potential value of the Corrib and surrounding fields for Shell and its partners is in excess of €50.4 billion. Shell have the provision of 100% tax write off’s on development, exploration and operating costs connected to the pipeline. The government has been supporting Shell at everyone turn, through tax rebates and providing ‘security’. In 2006 the state spent €8.1 million on policing for the Corrib project.

The community in Erris have been torn apart by Shell through their tactics. They have also shown a stamina, courage and strength in persistently facing up to the threat which is truly remarkable. Shell have been buying up the community and intimidating and bribing individuals for information. This has caused strong divisions, but has also brought those together who are united in the resistance to Shell and Stat Oil. The solidarity people displayed, for example in connection to the famous ‘Rossport 5’ who were imprisoned in 2005 for 94 days each for their refusal to give up land and fishing rights, or Maura Harringtion’s hunger strike, are examples of this.

Community Responses

The most famous response to the threat of the Solitaire this summer was the hunger strike that community activist Maura Harrington undertook for 11 days outside the compound of the pipe complex to demand for the Solitaire (the large pipe laying vessel employed by Shell) to leave Irish waters.

By day 10 of the strike tensions were running high as the local community and the camp had been maintaining a 24 hour vigil at the compound and doing actions everyday against Shell and the Solitaire. The camp decided it was important to support Maura and that individuals should participate in the vigil and any solidarity actions organised by the local community during this time. It was difficult at times because the hunger strike was never agreed with the consensus of the community, and was not part of a particular political strategy. However, people rose to the challenge in supporting Maura and her family, taking action in a variety of ways, from solidarity demonstrations, to a kayak armada including members of the Harrington family to directly confront the Solitaire.

During the ‘Reclaim the Beach’ action international activists and the local community worked together to take down the fence and re-establish a public right of way on the beach in Broadhaven Bay. Meetings to plan the action were attended by individuals from the camp and the wider community. Decisions were made by consensus and the camp and the wider community worked together during the action to stick to agreed decisions and support each other.

Whilst most actions taken against Shell by the local community and the solidarity camp are broadly agreed upon, some tactics revealed ideological differences. The car cavalcade, first done to celebrate ‘the Chief’s’ (Pat O’Donnell) release from prison, and repeated during the hunger strike, was an example of this. A three hour car rally including 500 cars drove around Bel Mullet and Bellanaboy. Certainly, in a campaign calling for environmental awareness, a protest dependent on fossil fuels seemed an unusual course of action, but this tension did at least provide an opportunity to explore some of these ideological differences.

The solidarity camp and house are both examples of sustainable living. Power comes from the sun and the wind and there is a compost toilet. However, controversially, the camp is not vegan. The local community often delivered diary products, and sometimes the fisherman even dropped off fish. This was a major challenge to many living on site. The danger of refusing gifts from the local community is alienation, and some did not consider the ‘vegan issue’ one of importance in relation to the issue of the pipeline. I found this deeply challenging however, as mass produced animal products depend on high levels of suffering to animals, and can play no part in an environmentally sustainable future. The tensions that arose from lifestyle differences also proved to be fertile areas for discussion and exchange, and it was interesting to compare different view points and talk with people who hadn’t thought about emissions from animal consumption and animal rights previously.

‘Shell to Sea’? Or Shell to Hell? NIMBY-ism in Rossport

The biggest white elephant of all in Broadhaven Bay is the ‘Shell to Sea’ message. Fearing for their land, homes, livelihoods and community, locals in Erris have adopted this slogan for their campaign. The ‘Shell to Sea’ demand was a source of controversy on camp. How can so called environmental activists endorse slogans such as ‘Shell to Sea’ and nationalistic turns of phrase such as O.G.O.N.I ‘Our Gas, Our National Interest’ (a reference to the struggle of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta, a place similarly torn apart by Shell). Surely the concept of nation-state is not helpful when we should all be calling for this unstable pipeline to remain unbuilt, whether at sea, or on land? The Shell to Sea website states that it would ‘wholeheartedly welcome any open forum’ with the government and all those involved if better tax breaks and an off shore refinery were considered. However, on off-shore refinery would still have devastating environmental effects. This pipeline represents a line in the sand for new infrastructure at a time of increasing wars for resources and unstable energy projects.

It is often easy for climate activists to refuse to compromise on issues such as the development of new infrastructure. It is undeniable that it is easy to deal in absolutes when we are dealing with ‘climate’ as a broad topic, but hard to put this into practice in specific struggles, but the concept of Shell to Sea is a compromise that would have terrible consequences for the wider geographical area beyond Erris. Many activists who have come to fight with the community return and feel a close link to the area and the struggle, but all are aware of the ideological differences which abound in the campaign.

As the campaign grows momentum a sense of urgency of the wider climate problem and the need for international networks of resistance (such as links with the Ogoni people) is growing in what began as a localised struggle. People involved in the camp for several years have described how the involvement of activists from outside the community has helped bring the climate change agenda into the campaign, and also brought new methods of organisation to the struggle, such as the consensus process which is now used in the regular meetings at Glenamoy.

The people of Erris are fighting to halt gas extraction and are taking on a giant multi-national intent on profits at any cost. The work of the Solitaire was successfully disrupted this summer, through collaboration between the immediate community and activists from outside the area, and despite tax payers’ money being spent on drafting in the Irish Navy to ‘protect’ the vessel. This is an amazing achievement and an example of how, by acting with real on the ground solidarity, environmental activists (to use a clumsy label) can work with specific communities to support them in their struggle and move beyond the rhetoric which we often try to impose on people through local networking without meaningful community led actions.

The Solitaire will be returning in the spring and with it will come new problems and challenges, but I have no doubt that the people will continue to be united in their fight. This pipeline can be stopped, if people from many backgrounds work together to fight it. The diversity of tactics and creativity shown in response to the huge threat continues to be a major strength for this campaign. My time in Rossport was one of the most inspiring and challenging experiences of my life, and I encourage anyone to get involved in the campaign.

Steph Davies has been working on various campaigns, from Climate Camp to No Borders and animal rights, for several years. She is committed to direct action as an effective form of protest but is aware of its limits when used as a form of movement building in isolation. Because of this she has also worked on various forms of networking and skills sharing in order to make sure that ideals such as sustainable living, autonomy and freedom of movement move beyond the ‘activist ghetto’.

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