A look back at the resistance to unconventional drilling at Woodburn forest

Date:

This is an analysis of events at Woodburn forest (Carrickfergus, County Antrim) during the exploratory drilling operation being carried out by the company Infrastrata in the spring and summer of 2016. It is intended as a reflection on the successes and failures of the campaign to resist a poisonous and violent extraction of resources from the land, and indeed the lease and seizure of some of that land in an aggressive manner. It draws on personal testimonies; both my own and other activists’ experiences of specific direct actions, set within a broader political analysis of the context within which this sort of struggle is taking place, locally and worldwide.

Patsy Caoróg, a small, rebellious berry, watches with indignation from between the leaves of the trees as the marvellous velvety green carpet of the forest is destroyed by the boots and jaws of the forces of extraction, and decides enough is enough!

Too much journalism is presented as ‘unbiased’, it is in fact never neutral; the structures of power, such as government and private interest control the parameters for debate. These words hope to open a small window to the experience of involvement in acts of resistance, and is in fact an open call to such resistance and indeed disobedience; one story among many in the global fightback against the fossil fuel industry.

The words protector, defender, activist and protestor are used interchangeably to refer to the brave, ordinary people involved.

Paisley Road, Woodburn forest; the site

The demonstrations and protest activity at Woodburn forest ranged widely in character; from 60 odd protestors blocking lorries and causing something of a state of emergency for the police on the ground, to less than 5 people, sometimes only 1 or 2, manning the camp, welcoming visitors and monitoring the arrival of new equipment for the site, or indeed what local companies were working for Infrastrata. There were the Sunday rambles, with people coming from far afield to join the locals in a demonstration of anger against the oil companies takeover and occupation of a public right of way - the initial agreement between Infrastrata and NI water had stated that the public path would not be altered and access would not be denied. This turned out to be completely ignored by the oil company, who put up harris fencing and later installed more permanent metal fencing dug into the ground. This was then topped by barbed wire at points, security cameras were installed that monitored the protest camp across the road 24/7. Starting with 3 or 4 but eventually up to 10 security personnel complete with trained attack dogs were constantly patrolling the small perimeter of the site. Occasionally defenders succeeded in occupying these spaces for fixed periods of time, with and without difficulty during various confrontations with police, on a few occasions ending in the arrest of the peaceful activists. Thankfully almost all charges have now been dropped.

Pictures and videos taken by defenders of the takeover of this part of forest by the company (Infrastrata) supplied evidence of the aggressive attitude of the oil company and its disregard for the law. The company knew they had nothing to fear from the police however, as there was a police presence 24/7 outside the site, sometimes as many as 7-10 cars, with 2 or 3 police in each. Doing nothing but ensuring the locals didn’t try anything funny. On certain days of action the police presence was enormous, upward of 80 personnel; we shall have a look in detail at one such day later on.

For such an important site of struggle there were not nearly enough people on the ground showing opposition, and a main cause of this I believe was lack of reporting. This did improve slightly towards the end of the campaign; however the ‘impartial’ view of the mainstream press took the oil company’s spin for fact. This, despite the mounting evidence from across the globe that unconventional drilling for oil and gas is dangerous in any context, never mind less than 400 metres from one of the main reservoirs which supplies thousands of homes from Larne to Belfast with their drinking water. The scientific fact of the matter is that it was a huge risk.

Who decided to take this risk? Mid and East Antrim Borough Council; this was a decision taken on a small scale, but representing larger, institutional lack of concern for the environment and disregard for safety of society, locally but also further afield. There was a lack of proper public consultation, and Infrastrata were granted the right to explore under Permitted Development Rights (PDR), not with full Planning Permission. To put that in perspective; they were allowed to cut down a huge swathe of the forest, erect fences and maintain a small private army to intimidate locals, perform dangerous drilling operations, all with the full backing of the police, without having to fill in as many forms as you would if you wanted to put an extension on your house.

There is a proposed change to legislation at Stormont, brought forward by Chris Hazzard (Sinn Fein), then Minister for Infrastructure, to prevent this from happening again. This is a positive move however had there been real opposition to this from the second largest party (Sinn Fein) in Northern Ireland they could have created more resistance or indeed stopped the project. It is this author’s view that at that time it did not suit SF to confront DUP about one of their projects, (DUP have a comfortable majority in this council area) as it was not widely known about and thus was not worth fighting for in their opinion. DUP’s Sammy Wilson MP admitted on air on local radio that there was a risk involved, ‘As with any business venture’; despite Infrastrata’s claims it was a ‘spill-proof site’ (this was discredited quickly with evidence of polluting spills in very early stages of the project obtained by protectors). This certainly highlights his party’s attitude to the environment and indeed the citizens they claim to represent; the risk of contaminating our water is, in his mind, a worthwhile risk to take to attract a small amount of foreign investment to allow the shareholders of an oil company to further line their already bulging pockets. He then refused to promise to step down as MP for the area if the project had gone awry and the water was contaminated. Ah well, he was just watching his back you know….

Another reason given for lack of numbers at the protests was the isolated location of the site, and this is a difficult obstacle for those without transportation, cars etc. However, the days buses were organised there was a great injection of energy into the activity at the camp, as well as generating a sense of solidarity with the locals, who were always so grateful people had taken the time to come up. Ensuring regular trips such as those organised by Friends of the Earth, People Before Profit, Green Party and other anti-fracking groups would be essential at a future site similar to Woodburn to support locals and demonstrate opposition more forcefully. The next site on the front line will no doubt be similarly isolated; this is an important lesson to draw from the experience at Woodburn.

The day the drill arrived

We didn’t know exactly when the drill would arrive, nor did we know exactly what we were going to do when it did. There was a long weekend from Thursday to Sunday, everyone was on edge at the camp, and indeed further afield with those who couldn't make it being kept abreast of events online or by phone. There were reportings of sightings of expected convoy of lorries arriving at Larne, then Belfast, in the middle of the night then 1st thing each morning. How many would come? What day? What will we do? There were various incidents of resistance including an occupation of the path. Eventually they arrived early Monday morning, there was only about 8 people at the bottom of Paisley Road holding a banner to try and stop the convoy coming up the road with a slow-walk. The inspector informed us he had closed the road under special powers act (which we found out throughout the day meant ‘the police make up the rules as they go along act’’) We told the PSNI Inspector (Ruddy) we intended to slow-walk the convoy up the road, to which he agreed, however when he saw how slowly we intended to walk they started reading us the ‘obstruction of business/traffic’ legislation and threatened to forcibly remove us. We argued that we were not obstructing but peacefully protesting, then some of the lorries clutches started to burn out and the cops got more agitated and aggressive, they called reinforcements and started counting us down ‘3 minutes left before you are lifted’ etc.

At this stage however some more locals had turned up and were walking up and down the length of the convoy, talking to drivers and inspecting equipment, taking pictures. This split the police attention away from the front, we also switched places with our own reinforcements so that the people who had been warned were no longer ‘obstructing’. This was quite effective in allowing us to continue our peaceful protest, as the police had been on the verge of throwing their little temper tantrum and violently removing everyone involved. This sort of disproportionate response was typical of police activity at Woodburn. (At other times protestors were maced by security while police looked on, and defenders were arrested off the path, a public right of way, when no work was even occurring.)

I was literally running in circles around one of the trucks with a policeman chasing me as he seemed to think I was up to something, when one of our number managed to climb up onto the drill rig! It was a fantastic chance, well taken, and this then held up the convoy for several hours, as well as managing to actually get the press to arrive. It is unfortunate that it takes this sort of sensationalist activity to actually attract some media attention on such an important issue, but it was lucky it happened as it led to a double page spread in the Belfast Telegraph (amongst other newspaper and television coverage) the next day, where otherwise there would have been probably only a few lines. This is journalism typical of our society; it's main purpose being that of a profit making enterprise, rather than for real scrutiny of events in public life, it is essentially useless unless drastic action is taken. As this brave man said when he was on the rig ‘I am committing this small crime to prevent a much larger one’.

After several hours of negotiations between the hero of the hour and the forces of the law, with acts of a spiteful nature such as refusing the protestor water by police, and acts of great solidarity by the other defenders (constant encouragement, cheering, chanting, and even music-making), the activist on the lorry was convinced that if he came down without having to get cut off (by this stage he had secured a D-lock around his neck to the top of the lorry) he could talk to the press and was granted ‘street bail’ (let to walk free having to report to police station at later date). He chose to forgo imprisonment, and achieved a great deal in those hours, through press attention and inspiring other protestors. This choice was respected by all present as this one man had already done so much.

After this we attempted to continue the slow walk, however at this point the police outnumbered us by at least 2 to 1, and forcibly pushed us along the road (at this point they were very aggressive, screaming at mothers who had young children and even pushing an elderly lady, in tears, to the ground, despite her protesting about her hip problem). The police used the special powers act to then order everyone off the road outside the site entrance, or be threatened with immediate arrest, by this stage no vehicles or people were allowed on or off the road effectively trapping everyone and curtailing their freedom of movement. The locals and other citizens were forced to watch from across the road and from the trees as the convoy made its way up into the site.

Solidarity during highs and lows

Watching the trucks go up the path was disheartening, after a hectic day of activity at the end of an intense weekend. By this stage there could have been as many as 60 protestors present around the site and on the road, however they were outnumbered massively with somewhere in the region of 100 police involved throughout the day. Pressure had mounted as the time grew closer to the drill arriving, the actual physical and also symbolic manifestation of what was happening to the land. Some defenders seemed to be exhausted emotionally and physically. Again if there had been larger numbers and better planning, more direct action could have been taken that day to delay the arrival of the drill, by occupying the road or path as one example. However, even at this low point, the same sense of camaraderie was palpable as on the other occasions when locals gathered to show their opposition regularly.

This sense of solidarity was easily felt by all gathered. Those involved in demonstrating opposition felt acutely the huge injustice of what was being perpetrated. Even certain members of police, security and engineers seemed to sense they were acting wrongly against such sincere and tireless locals and activists. When confronted with the facts of what was happening from protectors; for example the use of carcinogenic poisons near a drinking water reservoir, the doubt and fear could be seen in the eyes of some security forces and police personnel. However ultimately this did not stop them enforcing the commencement of this dangerous drill. There is a great deal of work to be done until a movement of direct resistance is more widespread, and the idea accepted that we all have a duty not to follow orders that risk the health and future of ordinary people. I believe it is important to be able to imagine the sort of society we wish to see develop; to believe in people acting responsibly towards each other, whilst also being aware that naively wishing for it to happen will not bring about the change we hope for.

The feeling of solidarity between members of the community that was growing in opposition to the drill was manifested in the food, lifts, stories, jokes and even money shared amongst the people involved (amongst a thousand other acts, large and small, of friendship and support). For example when cars were impounded (alleged by police to have been blocking access for large lorry-like vehicles to the small road by parking in awkward places!) everyone present chipped in for the cost of the release from the privately owned compound. People spontaneously worked together in a non-violent way doing the only things they could; embodying their opposition, simply being present, arguing, against the odds, with aggressive men and women; security officers and police.

Never to receive a satisfactory response as to why an unlawfully occupied piece of land was being protected by police instead of being investigated by them. Never to hear an answer to the question of why it was more important that an oil company be allowed to embark on a highly dangerous project of an untested nature, similar to fracking, right beside a water reservoir, than it was to protect that water and its surrounding ecosystem. Woodburn was a perfect example of reckless extraction; possibly the only time an organisation (NI Water in this case) existing to supposedly safeguard our water leased the land to a fossil fuel corporation.

All the while the people asking these questions and building a movement of opposition were being demonised, fined, arrested and even attacked by security and police. These ordinary folk were only exercising their right to peacefully object to great injustice. This behaviour although for now on hold in NI, continues and indeed is intensifying in UK, notably Lancashire at time of writing, as a Tory government bent on ignoring climate responsibility pushes through powers to overrule local councils decisions against fracking. Democracy subverted to push the profit agenda yet again.

Police behaviours

The biased nature of the police, and indeed institutions when dealing with the protestors as compared to when handling Infrastrata and Securitas was experienced by everyone at Woodburn protest camp. This, combined with the burn-out felt by all, culminated in the afternoon of that day with an atmosphere of despair in the air, as equipment, workers and huge convoy of lorries and cars travelled up into the forest, with locals and defenders peering through the fences from between the trunks. They watched as what was a huge swathe of beautiful trees but now a grey wasteland filled with the host that was there to begin pumping chemicals into the ground. Some sharp language was used, emotions ranged from distraught, through stunned, to furious at the sheer unfairness, stupidity and brutality of what was happening. The councillors and other politicians of various stripes and parties - although special mention must be made of the climate-change denial of DUP - were nowhere to be seen near this scene of disastrous social violence that they had created. Their hypocritical veil of Christian values and righteousness were easily seen through after experiencing the front line of the corporate takeover of land and resources, that should belong to no one group, but to all.

Propagating climate change denial when thousands are experiencing drought, famine and increasing hazardous weather, combined with supporting dubiously formed private companies from the fossil fuel industry and their right to make money, no matter what the risk to our most important resource, water, is profoundly short-sighted, selfish and dangerous behaviour. Typical it should be noted of the neoliberal/neoconservative model of government; that locks us into a cycle of privatisation and government debt as a result of bailing out the financial institutions to a tune of billions. These larger background facts are often forgotten or ignored in mainstream coverage, a perfect example of how the terms of the debate are limited.

Despite all of these obstacles, even when the drill was being set up and begun, the protectors kept their hope alive. They did not give up, the Sunday rambles continued, some councillors and MLAs from progressive parties attended; Green Party, PBP, Cross-Community labour to name but a few, whilst Friends of the Earth visited with international activists to document and show solidarity alongside local activists, many of whom travelled far themselves every day, took time off work, family and social commitments to ensure a presence of objection. Demonstrations and awareness raising events (e.g. a critical mass bike ride, large group of activists and friends taking over a road and handing out leaflets around the city) took place in Carrickfergus, Belfast and other towns. Protesters from anti-fracking groups in Sligo and Fermanagh arrived at huge numbers at the camp and other events, such as demonstrations at the Stormont Assembly buildings. People with experience of such actions by companies elsewhere, such as Lancashire and Rossport, also visited and offered advice and support. A large gathering was planned for one weekend, expecting to up the numbers at the camp from its small dedicated crew, with visitors, to hundreds of people. It was to be a family-friendly, information day, with a fundraising aspect and lots of activities, a space for people to share ideas on the situation. In the event this went ahead slightly differently as it occurred after an interesting outcome to the drill…

The shaky nature of Infrastrata as a company, them being more of a hollow front for investors (no one ever answered on the initial and only contact number on Infrastrata’s website for months, police also apparently couldn’t contact them) meant they needed a successful drill to continue operations, as without a quick return these profiteers would put their money into something more lucrative.

This ‘hollow’ company sub contracted all the work to English drilling and engineering companies, whilst the only stable jobs ‘created’ in the local area were security, some of whom actually told protectors they would refuse future work in Woodburn because they didn’t agree with how Infrastrata and the police were behaving. Infrastrata also had only a limited window for drilling as part of their permit, a matter of some weeks. During this time public and governmental (e.g. Belfast City Council) pressure on Infrastrata mounted, receiving support from the trade unions and high-profile media figures.

A lucky if somewhat anti-climactic result of a dry drill, after months of struggle was a welcome change in favour of the protector’s hopes towards stopping the operation. It was later discovered that certain investors wished to continue drilling on the Paisley Road site and other sites, however others withdrew support, citing amongst other reasons the ‘difficulty’ faced at Woodburn as one reason. The pressure exerted by the StopTheDrill campaign group (run almost entirely by a few Belfast-based women, making FOI requests, building media contacts, attending council and other governmental open meetings, supported in general by all the defenders and volunteers who took time to object at Woodburn), combined with on-the-ground direct action from a mixture of local and visiting activists, kept the issue alive and in the public eye. It cannot be underestimated the extent to which the various aspects of the campaign combined brought about the end of exploratory drilling after just the first attempt.

Reflections on organisation of resistance

There were some flaws in the organisation of resistance in this case; it was a credit to the activists they achieved so much, but the 24-hour police presence at the camp meant that direct action was rarely if ever pre-planned. People had to be careful of what they said as the camp was in earshot of police on the road. This meant that nearly all actions such as road blockages and path occupations, were spur of the moment. It is crucial to be able to take chances as they come during a protest, especially one of such importance, however there has been more effective civil disobedience by groups in Mayo and Lancashire, possibly because of the more radical nature of protest in UK and ROI as compared to NI. The idea has been floated that people in NI are less likely to be comfortable with civil disobedience and direct action as they are afraid to be branded ‘troublemakers’; having some sort of paramilitary/sectarian connotations in our newly well behaved society. It will be interesting to see how the community of environmentalist and anti-fracking activists develops in NI with that in mind.

Conclusions

A year on from the beginnings of operations in Woodburn forest, when trees were cleared and Infrastrata craftily arranged its cheap land grab, and we have reasons to be thankful and fearful. Through huge reserves of hard work and commitment, this last episode in the fight between greedy poisoning oil companies ended well in this part of the world. These last-ditch efforts by the fossil fuel industry to utilise ever-more polluting means of extraction were thwarted this time. A significant part of our water supply was not poisoned, and the forest is being restored, as meanwhile in the ROI our brothers and sisters have defeated an attempt to privatise the sale of water, through some of the largest protests in Irish history.

However, here, as elsewhere in the world, the government has shown itself willing to gamble with our environment and the safety of future generations in order to allow small groups of wealthy investors to profit under the guise of economic growth. Next time we must be ready. Infrastrata have a 50-year lease with NI Water, and the pro-fossil fuels environmental policies of the UK Tory government, dutifully followed by Stormont will no doubt encourage them to try again. We must create more awareness, more on the ground presence at front-line points of opposition, and more planned resistance. Civil disobedience must be used intelligently, in conjunction with a good media campaign, to protect our shared resources and the commons. Much like the takeover of public space in cities by private interests, irresponsible private housing and advertising being prime examples, the privatisation of the commons by extraction industries is a real threat to us all. Examples abound worldwide of severe damage economically and environmentally due to reckless extraction, (fracking in USA, mining in most South American countries, the Shell to Sea in Rossport, County Mayo) after promises of safety and quick response by companies they flounder in an emergency (e.g. BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill) taking away their profits and leaving behind a poisonous legacy.

Let us stand in solidarity, build ties and relationships with other defenders across the globe. Although at times protest may be intense and depending on your involvement in an action, exhilarating or scary, an important thing to remember is the patience it takes to become involved in a community of opposition. Time must be spent, often a first visit can lead an impatient mind to despair as there is no immediate fix in most cases. It is very much a long race not a sprint.

Many people have been convinced to put economic growth first, that it is more important than a healthy population and environment, however through various personal experiences I have witnessed that becoming involved in this type of protest, or movement, is an awakening. An awakening to the reality of what is important; of where injustice is clear, especially when claimed to be in the name of progress. Unpaid, passionate activists holding the line against corporations which have the full backing of the private and state security apparatus. These organisations act with impunity, which is frightening, however it is vital that all who oppose this greed and recklessness have the courage and patience to show support, to give some time, to get involved in awareness raising or simply being present at the frontline building a movement of opposition; or to borrow a phrase from a fantastic Ms. Klein; Blockadia. More bodies on the barricades folks.

The local people at Woodburn were amazing in their defiance. People with no experience of disobedience against official authority, working tirelessly, often in fear, standing up to ‘the law’ and creating a vibrant and open community into which people were easily welcomed from close and far afield with that unitary purpose; to stop the drill, and protect our water. The locals were defending their home, but they, as did other activists, shouldered the burden of defending us all. This is in dedication to all those folk who dared to care.

Coming down from the branches into the struggle opened up new ways of thinking for Patsy Caoróg, and the wee berry comes to the realisation there is much work to do. His heart races as he tries to imagine the immensity of his task; he becomes fearful as he realises there may be no quickly achievable end in sight. However to be aware of this but not overwhelmed into inaction is an act of bravery itself. Where there is courage, there is hope.

Words: Patsy Caoróg
March 2017

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