Shell's bog road torn up at Rossport Solidarity Camp weekend


The May bank holiday saw the annual Rossport Solidarity Camp gathering, this year across the road from the new Shell compound at Arghoos in Erris. As has become traditional the gathering combined a direct action with workshops and socializing. On the Sunday most of those present went to the launch of fisherman's Pat O'Donnell's new boat. There was a constant Garda presence around the camp throughout the weekend but despite the destruction of some 60m of Shell's bog road no arrests were made.

The direct action had been planned for the Saturday and consisted of a mass trespass on the Shell site and the tearing up of the wooden bog road Shell had laid through the site. I arrived down at the camp a little late to discover that the direct action was already underway so I set off after the other Shell to Sea campaigners. The Shell compound is below the solidarity camp between the road and a public beach with access to the road side sealed off by a line of security fences. The Shell built bog road runs throughout the site to allow heavy machinery to be used without sinking into the bog and connects up 8 or so smaller compounds each of which contains a pair of bore holes under manhole covers. The beach side is not fenced and I knew the plan was to make use of a public right of way down to the beach to approach the site from that side.

By the time I had reached the road I could see the Shell to Sea campaigners starting to enter the compound from the beach side. As I didn't fancy trying to single handily get through the dozen or so Garda and over the security fence on the road side I followed the route everyone else had taken down the public right of way. It ran down the side of a Shell owned house which I observed had been recently hit with paint balloons. It turned out there was a car full of Garda parked across the gate at the entrance to the right of way but apart from filming me squeezing past they ignored me.

By the time I reached the beach and went onto the bog the protest had moved up to the upper end of the bog road. Which left me on my own on the lower half of the site with around a dozen IRMS security in groups of 3 at each mini compound. Walking down the bog road through the site I realized that 3 IRMS were stationed at each of the mini compounds and so weren't going to interfere with my progress, one of them at each spot had a camera and videoed me as I strolled past. However I also realised that one was following behind me (IRMS1) and ahead on the other side of a small bog bridge I could see another heading down towards me (IRMS2). He was obviously going to get to the bridge just ahead of me with the guy approaching from behind arriving soon after. Knowing what I do about IRMS (see 'The Shadow Over Erris') this was a prospect that made me slightly nervous so I set the video running on my smart phone to record whatever was coming next.  

Sure enough IRMS2 guy blocked me on the bridge. Now the annoying thing about these sort of situations is you often seem to end up saying weird stuff. So I started off with "This is like a game of troll" because as I got to the bridge I was thinking of the fairy tale about the 3 goats and the troll under the bridge. IRMS2 who was rather big and troll like however said nothing and simply stood in my way.

IRMS1 then blocked me on the other side so I turned to ask him"So is there another way up there?"

"No - do you know you are on private property - can you leave it?" IRMS 2 has a eastern European accent, Polish I'd say at a guess. Quite a large percentage of the security are Eastern European - there are normally a few Eastern Europeans among the campaigners as well with taunts being exchanged at times in a range of languages. In 2009 evidence emerged that some had been recruited from a far right Hungarian organisation, the Szekler Legion which had even produced trophy badges for their 'service' in the style of Nazi memorabilia. The Eastern European Shell to Sea campaigners tend to come instead from the anarchist and ecological movements.

"Can I leave which now?"

"This is private property"

"Sure I'll head up this way (nodding towards the road) no problem"

"This easy way" (he wants me to go back towards the beach but still blocking me in)

"No that's where my friends are, I don't feel safe going back there on my own"

"Ah ha - how you came here - by your own or somebody escort you?"

"huh - this is how I ended up here but err my wish at the moment is to join my friends"

"If your scared I can escort you"

I laugh "That's not really what I'm worried about I think"

"look it easy way.." at this point they suddenly tries to grab my phone and IRMS2 pushed into me from behind.

I manage to hang onto the phone but the microphone gets yanked out which causes it to stop recording. IRMS2 who has said nothing to that point then starts to shove me and then once I'm off the bridge pushes me over onto my back on the ground. This isn't a great moment as I'm aware I'm probably now out of the sight of the other campaigners and have two guys both of whom are much bigger than me standing over me. I do think I'd spotted a group of campaigners heading towards me as I went over so I decide to stay down and (as I thought) keep filming while narrating what has just happened. So I say stuff like "you have just stolen my microphone, please return it now" and "You have knocked me to the ground, I don't feel safe, please back away".

Surprizingly enough enough this actually worked, IRMS2 started to mumble that he hadn't done anything, he didn't have the microphone, I'd dropped it etc and IRMS2 and IRMS1 back off allowing me to get up far enough to see that there was a group of four or so people coming towards me (but blocked by more IRMS). Our exchange continued as I demanded the return of my microphone before IRMS2 (who had an Irish accent) said I could walk around them. I was still being annoyed about my mic but once I found it I did just that and walked up the bog road, past another IRMS squad, to where the rest of the campaigners were located (and busy tearing it up).

The incident was a little odd as otherwise I was told IRMS hadn't made any attempt to prevent anyone else coming onto the site. Even when the bog roads were being torn up they restricted themselves to telling us we were on private property and physically standing in the way of the sections of mat being rolled into the mini compounds.

Of course the others were in a 60+ strong group rather than a lone individual. The reason I focus here on my personnel experience is to give some idea of just how intimidating it can be when your on your own around IRMS and the Garda. Nothing much happened to me, my brief one sided tussle with IRMS only left me with a sore shoulder - those doing the heavy lifting of the bog road ended up with bruises and multiple wooden splinters embedded in their hands. But clearly the intention was to scare me. Of course it also has the purpose potentially provoking you into taking a swing at them and thus allowing them to charge you for assault. I'm frustrated enough by the encounter to feel the need to take a stroll back down the beach with a friend the following morning to show they haven't scared me. Five of them soon appear on the bog but they don't come closer than 5m.

Shell's bog road is made up of thick wooden mats that are around 3m long. By the time I arrive around 10m of these have already been torn up, there are maybe 60 campaigners working in three or four groups tearing up more sections of the road. The method is simple, the wooden mat is levered up a little, then one end is lifted vertically and the whole thing dropped onto log rollers. These are used to pull it down the road a bit and then its turned and pushed off the side of the road. The whole thing is then lifted vertically and allowed to fall over and this process repeated a few times. This gets the mat a reasonable distance from the intact section of the road meaning it can't be easily lifted back into place with machinery.

There are maybe 20 IRMS in amongst us, at least four of them recording everything with video cameras. One of them occasionally starts shouting about private property and 'for you own safety' etc but this is very obviously for the video record. The Garda are watching from the road above but unlike the June 2009 protest when Garda and IRMS were working in groups together today they are two distinct groups one inside and one outside the fence.

It's hot and tearing up the bog roads is hard enough work. Some amusement is provided when one group start rolling the torn up sections towards one of the mini compounds. 6 or 7 IRMS stand in front of it and in a reasonably co-ordinated fashion step onto the mat as it is dropped near the compound to prevent it being picked up again and perhaps dropped onto the heavy fence. This happens a couple of times leading to the sections starting to pile up, someone congratulates them on the choreography. When some people try and pick one up off the pile a couple of IRMS have the bright idea of starting to bounce up and down on it (which would crush and perhaps break the fingers of anyone trying to lift it). This challenge is taken up by the entire group of campaigners who were lifting that section, they join the IRMS on the pile of mat sections and also bounce up and down as each side try and bounce the other off this rather odd trampoline. A couple of the IRMS hard hats are sent flying but all that bouncing is perhaps a little bit too much collective fun.

In the end perhaps 50 or 60m of bog road is torn up. As people get exhausted they drop out of the process and sit or stand around the bog watching the couple of teams that keep working. Talking to people from the camp afterwards they say it will take a day for repair work to be done. In fact its going to be longer than that as on Tuesday morning the camp block the gates to the compound with a lock on prevent that repair process starting - this lasts several hours.

I wander down to a fenced off extra boggy patch that I figure will make a good photo and when I'm down there the word is given that its time to head. This time everyone heads for a gate at the top of the field where the Garda are waiting, the command unit in a car taking pictures of us with still and video cameras.

There are more Garda with cameras on the road and a couple of campaigners hold up their jackets in front of the camera's. This is really just a refusal to be intimidated, between IRMS and the Garda there were probably a dozen servants of Shell videoing and photographing us from every possible angle, for some of us Shell must have hundreds and hundreds of photos by now. Editing my footage afterwards I see at least a dozen IRMS or Garda filming me at varied points over the weekend and wonder if there is anyway to use a Freedom of Information requisition to demand a copy of the footage.

It is all of course about intimidation. All though the weekend a constant stream of Garda cars and & vans drive slowly along the road that runs above the large communal camp tent. The command car regularly stops to take photos of us as we sit around chatting in the sunshine. The dish washing station is almost beside the road so they must have a lot of photo's of dishes being lovingly washed in preparation for our collective meals.

For those of us who visit Erris a few times a year this constant low level intimidation is annoying. But imagine what it must be like to live through years of this stuff, day in, day out. It's also important to understand that it also involves more sinister and direct assaults ranging from my rather low key encounter to the beating Willie Corduff took one night in April 2009 when in another Shell compound in the dead of night when "up to ten Shell security personnel in black and wearing balaclavas “appeared out of nowhere”. The men pushed Willie to the ground and started kicking him and hitting him with a heavy object that appeared to be a baton or torch. They knelt on his head and twisted his arms behind his back as they beat him." [Read more]

Through in a few incidents like that and the reality of being on your own on a country road or beach except for squads of sunglass wearing security personnel on a regular basis and you can see why over years this sort of intimidation wears people down. Elsewhere Oil corporations have had people killed and even started wars to maximize their profits, a contingent who had worked security for Shell in Erris with IRMS were part of a plot to start one such civil war in Bolivia, one of them an Irish man called Michael Dwyer being killed in the process. Whatever the case before Shell arrived in the area the local population are now very much aware of such stories, some of them have been jailed and others have been permanently injured. Being constantly filmed and watched by both Garda and IRMS has the purpose or eroding people's ability to continue to resist.

But resistance continues and remains fertile. Satuday's direct action will slow the project down for a day or more. Shell now hope to start pumping gas in 2013, some ten years late and at a projected cost of 2.6 billion, around five times the original estimated cost. A significant part of that cost and delay are the hundreds of actions of protest and resistance that have happened in Erris over those years. Other gains are the improvements Shell have been forced to make as the health and safety concerns of the community have been vindicated again and again - whenever in fact they have been seriously investigated. Resistance has literally cost Shell hundreds of millions of Euro.

The rest of the weekend was composed of workshops on various aspects of the long struggle against Shell and the background issues around the project including a detailed explanation of the facts of the Great Oil & Gas Giveaway. Under this Shell have essentially been given the Corrib field without even having any legal requirement to sell the gas within Ireland! The massive costs overrun means that they won't even be paying the tiny percentage of tax they might otherwise have had to. Erris has been turned into a police state for no benefit to the population of Ireland. I'd heard a fairly clueless guy from the ESRI on the radio a couple of days before who didn't even seem to understand what the terms of the giveaway was and therefore imagined that Corrib represented income for the state and energy security. And the Corrib field is jut the leading edge of the 600 billion or so estimated reserves of Oil & Gas off the coasts which are currently been given away to Energy companies under one of the lowest tax regimes in the entire world. Nigeria takes more from Shell that Ireland will.

Shell hope to complete the project in just over two years and then expect to exploit the Corrib field for a couple of decades until they have pumped it dry. In the meantime they intend to put an electric fence around the compound where the pipe comes ashore at Glengad and maintain a constant menacing private security presence in the area. Because the area of state owned forest given to Shell is much larger than the area used by the current refinery its widely assumed that the reason Shell are so desperate to impose the project as an onshore refinery is because the intention is in fact to also use the space and infrastructure to process the other Oil & Gas discoveries that will be made in the years ahead. The Corrib field is probably worth in the region of 10 billion but it is estimated by the Irish government that in the region of 600 billion euro worth of Oil & Gas lies off the coast.

That is such a vast fortune that it becomes clear just why Shell and its various hired servants are so desperate to impose the project on the people of Erris and suppress the facts of the Great Oil & Gas Giveaway. But after a decade of keeping the facts of the Great Oil & Gas Giveaway hidden this year has seen the suppression of that aspect of the struggle collapse under the sustained work of Shell to Sea in exposing it. In the last months alone several serious articles have appeared in the mainstream press which seriously try to defend rather than just sneer at the giveaway. And last week the INTO teachers union voted unanimously at its annual conference for natural resources to be taken into public ownership.

It's an extraordinary struggle between one of the largest corporations in the world (which has bought the full services of the Irish state and the bulk of the media) and one of the most thinly populated parts of the country where the severe weather for most of the year meant people have for generations just hung onto the marginal land and dangerous fishing waters. Now they find themselves under an army of occupation, but not quite alone, because of the way their struggle has inspired campaigners from other parts of Ireland and beyond. In terms of rocketing costs and the setting of a bad example Shell has lost but both Shell and the Irish state remain dedicated to crushing resistance and imposing the project, fully aware that an obvious defeat for them in Erris will inspire those in struggle against them elsewhere. 

WORDS: Andrew Flood

Read more on the struggle against Shell's experimental gas pipeline in Ireland