Resisting Shell in Mayo and the experience of policing in Erris: an eyewitness account

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The following article is an eyewitness account of policing in Erris in Mayo where protests against Shell construction of a gas refineryare ongoing. The article gives some general background to the protests and details what it was like to see Garda brutality on a regular basis.

In October 2007, An Garda Síochána drafted several hundred gardaí to one of the most isolated parts of Ireland - the Erris peninsula in northwest Mayo.  Since then the state has spent millions on overtime and have sent ever larger numbers of gardaí to this small corner of Mayo. By the summer of 2009 there were a hundred and fifty uniformed gardaí, a  hundred and fifty Public Order Unit members equipped with riot gear, numerous Special Branch  deployed alongside the ERU (the armed emergency response unit), Garda naval teams and two hundred privately hired security menin one small, rural parish.
It was a bizarre to see that many gardaí in such a remote area.  To explain just how bizarre it’s probably worth explaining a little bit about Erris. It is situated at the meeting of two bays on the northwestern corner of Connaught. The area is dotted with sparsely populated fishing villages and small tight knit farming communities. It lies 50 miles from the nearest town of any size, Ballina, and it has one of the lowest crime rates in the country. So what led to this extraordinarily large and threatening mobilisation of gardaí?

In 2005  a long-running community campaign in Erris to oppose attempts by the oil and gas multinationals Shell, Statoil and Marathon to build an onshore raw gas refinery in the area came to a head. The project had been opposed by locals since 2000 because of health and safety concerns about placing a high pressure unrefined gas pipeline close to houses over land which is boggy and unstable. The crisis was precipitated when Shell sought an injuction against five local men and one local woman who along with others had tried to block work going ahead on the pipeline. They decided to ignore the injunction and continued to oppose the pipeline and in June 2005 the five of the six people under injunction were imprisoned for 94 days, becoming better known as the "Rossport Five".

In response to their imprisonment, local people blockaded Shell's building sites in Erris. This got widespread public support across Ireland and managed to shut down Shell operations in Mayo. The community decided to maintain the blockades, while Shell and the gardaí made little attempt to break throughthem fearing that more controversy and negative publicity would further bolster support for the campaign. This situation continued until late 2006.

However, although Shell and gardaí had decided to avoid confrontation that summer, they were busy preparing for a counter attack. Throughout 2006 several newspaper stories emerged in the national papers from Garda sources about how "sinister elements" had taken over the local campaign called “Shell to Sea”. This reached a crescendo in October 2006. Paul Williams, a journalist they frequently use, in the Sunday World on October 1st 2006 in a piece entitled "How the Shinners hijacked Rossport" announced to the world that the IRA had taken“control of Rossport". This piece of ‘news’ was credited, as usual, to anonymous Garda sources.  No matter that this was happening at a time when many politicians in Ireland and the world were celebrating the fact the IRA was completely inactive and has fully engaged in the peace process.

As the gardaí fed the rumour mill, making up one fantastical story after another to blacken the campaign, they faced one huge problem. It was just not true. When they drafted in the gardaí from around the country they were lining up against a community. This community was older than average, with a majority of residents being 40 or over. They were very ‘normal people’ and what’s commonly described in Ireland as ‘salt of the earth’. There were no scary “terrorists” or “criminals” just people who could be your aunt or uncle, brother or sister, or parent or grandparent. Naively some of us thought initially that the gardaí would be unable or even unwilling to brutalise because of this. This had absolutely no impact and four years later the Erris is a repository for a frightening number of stories of psychological and physical abuse at the hands of the gardaí.
They acted like animals at protests, breaking bones , punching, kicking and manhandling protestors regardless of their age and gender. This led to numerous hospitalisations and several people suffered injuries which continue to give them trouble.  The severity and regularity of violence has led many observers  to conclude in retrospect that the police were attempting to provoke locals and their supporters into violence. The violence was backed up by frequent intimidation, harassment and surveillance of rural communities when people were going about their daily business. The black humour of the people in Mayo, who came up with the description of their lives as “Shell shocked”, give some indication of the impact this had on people’s lives.

It is noteworthy that of the hundreds of gardaí were drafted in to the area over the coming years very few refused to engage in violence and intimidation (less than a dozen to my knowledge). At no point were gardaí made accountable for what they were doing in the area. Despite this the community resisted peacefully, avoiding anything they thought might provoke or worse in their minds hurt the gardaí.

In retrospect it is clear that this was part of a broader strategy. The gardaí were asked to break the campaign through violence and intimidation but to avoid any high profile arrests (which could result in another Rossport five). In fact senior gardaí have admitted using tactics which would mean there would be no ‘martyrs in prison’ in the Garda Review in late 2007. Instead of arresting people engaged in civil disobedience they were going to operate on the logic of "teach them a lesson". To do this they used a dual strategy of tarring locals and supporters as marginalised, conniving Republicans in the press and violence against demonstrators on the roads of Mayo.

Knowing this does not change the fact that when you see that level of constant brutality it's very hard to understand. These people were not used to abuse and vilification from the gardaí. They had previously trusted and respected the police.  This is what made me really understand that the person you see in a uniform is much more than just a face or an individual. They are remoulded by their training in Templemore and the culture within the gardaí.

The gardaí in Mayo exhibited a pack mentality with an unfaltering and unquestioning allegiance to their leadership and a sense that anything they did in Erris was not their ‘personal’ responsibility. The leadership, which the rank and file follow like sheep, led the way in assaults. This was clearly not about the odd rogue garda getting out of control and the Superintendents, Detectives and Sergeants administered much of the violence with many others joining in or at best looking on often laughing or smirking. On occasion I wondered if behind the smirks, grins, leers and laughter of the gardaí there was no compassion for the people in Mayo? After a while I gave up.

The gardaí changed tactics in 2008 when they moved to an arrest policy again. This has seen hundreds of charges, usually  bogus (most have been thrown out in court) backed up with the continuous physical assaults. Again there was no sense or evidence of public accountability or personal responsibility, even when gardaí contradicted each other in court while trying to prosecute community members.

It was obvious it was not just senior gardaí or the ‘system's fault’. They are culpable, but the individual guards are too because they chose to ignore what was going on in Erris (including for instance a 70-year old woman being punched). No matter how much training you get, you always have a choice. Amazingly though, the people in the communities in Mayo have their choice to back down, walk away and ignore what they think is wrong. Yet in the face of this brutality they choose to struggle on.
 


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