A peaceful demonstration at the site of Shell’s construction site in County Mayo, timed to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the state murder of Ken Saro Wiwa and 8 other Ogoni activists in Nigeria, has seen some of the worst state violence so far by the 26-County’s Garda police.
The day was chosen by the Shell to Sea campaign as a suitable day of action against Shell’s controversial attempt to build a very high pressure gas pipeline across bogland to an onshore terminal site considered inappropriate and dangerous.
There had been a sense of foreboding after Shell to Sea’s compromise solution - for a commission of inquiry into the optimum terminal site - was rejected by Minister for the Marine Noel Dempsey and Shell within hours of its presentation last week.
However, protestors were stunned by a quantam leap in Gardai violence against legitimate protest in Rossport. The gardai were caught on camera baton-charging the protestors and hurling one protestor over a fence into a deep ditch. Several injuries were reported and several people were hospitalised. One man was followed into a field by three gardai, pulled to the ground and savagely beaten in front of a dozen witnesses.
The state and Shell are clearly set on smashing the protests by violence if necessary, a view confirmed by the subsequent comments of 26 County Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Minister for Justice Michael McDowell.
At a roadblock set up outside the Bellanaboy site, the site of the planned refinery, one woman was dragged out of her car after Gardai smashed her windscreen.
Protestors who managed to block the road to the site were set upon by Gardai who mounted an RUC-style “baton charge”. In chaotic scenes, their attempt to break up the blockade soon degenerated into club-wielding thuggery and general physical assault.
A number of people were injured in the violence, including one who was hospitalised with back injuries after being flung down an embankment.
Later, there was an assault on protestors who had successfully blocked entrances to the construction quarry site, where they linked arms to block the entrance. Large nunmbers of Garda police arrived and soon advanced on the sitting protestors and proceeded to drag people away, push them around, throwing people into ditches and barbed wire fencing.
One protestor described what went on as ‘indiscriminate violence’, with both men and women receiving blows, sometimes to the head, leaving five more to seek medical treatment with fractured and broken bones.
“I believe someone will be killed, given the violence by the State and the low number of trained police,” Micheal O Seighin, one of the original Rossport Five protestors, said afterwards.
‘Shell to Sea’ spokesman Dr Mark Garavan said that the campaign was “very disappointed” that the middle ground solution, involving last week’s compromise proposal for a commission of inquiry into the optimum site for the terminal, had been rejected so quickly by the Minister for the Marine and Shell.
“If Bertie Ahern had an ounce of cop-on, he’d come down and see for himself what’s happening,” said Glenamoy farmer and Shell to Sea supporter PJ Moran. “We’re not asking for anything, only for our safety.”
However, the Taoiseach said that “the rule of law has to be implemented” and “the work goes on” at the Corrib gas terminal.
Reflecting an increasingly bloody-minded attitude of the Dublin government, Mr Ahern said “now it’s a matter for enforcement”.
Minister for Justice Michael McDowell backed the gardai, and claimed that what he described as a “tiny minority” of people were confronting the law and were “being supported in this by the Sinn Féin party”.
He told reporters in Dublin that “Provo tactics won’t work”.
Sinn Féin described Mr McDowell’s comments as “scare tactics designed to deceive the public”. Party spokesman Caoimhghin O Caolain, TD pointed out that the campaign at Bellanaboy “is community-led and community-driven and has won widespread active support from people of all political parties and none.
“To try to portray that campaign and this morning’s protest as being orchestrated by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and myself is absurd.
“Sinn Féin has been proud to take our place in support of the people of North West Mayo in opposition to this pipeline. We have backed the Shell to Sea campaign’s demand for the refinery to be offshore. And for many years we have highlighted the disgraceful giveaway of our natural gas and oil resources to multinationals by successive governments, including the present FF/PD Coalition in which Deputy McDowell is Tanaiste.
“Minister McDowell’s sudden and new-found interest in the Rossport issue comes now because he sees it as yet another opportunity to have a go at Sinn Féin. His comments should be treated with the contempt they deserve.”
Mayo TD Dr Jerry Cowley (Ind) described Mr McDowell’s comments as “disgraceful” and part of a “Shell spin”. He also said he was “amazed to hear the Taoiseach doing a Pontius Pilate”, and that “washing his hands of this will not resolve it”.
Micheal O Seighin, one of the five Mayo men jailed for 94 days last year over opposition to the pipeline, said that Mr McDowell was acting as a “recruiting agent” for Sinn Féin in making such comments.