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Shell to Sea

Andy Bowman examines the global links and networks being built by Irish anti-Shell activists

December 18, 2008
8 min read

It’s now 13 years since the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a political activist from Nigeria’s Ogoniland who was executed on 10 November 1995 alongside eight colleagues. Their ‘crime’ was campaigning against the impact of oil industry activity in the Niger Delta. Shell was – and still is – a focus for protest in the region, accused of causing large-scale environmental damage, encouraging repressive state activity against local people, and being unwilling to share the region’s wealth with those who inhabit it.

Among the broad international network of those pledging solidarity with the people of Ogoniland, the most prominent are to be found more than 3,000 miles away, on a remote stretch of Ireland’s western coast. Here, the community of Erris in County Mayo is engaged in its own long-running struggle with Shell.

If Dutch-British owned Shell and its Norwegian partner Statoil have their way, a high-pressure pipeline will transport gas from the Corrib field 60 miles offshore, through Broadhaven Bay and on-land to a new £545 million refinery at Bellanboy. The issue gained international attention in September when retired school teacher and local resident, Maura Harrington, undertook a ten-day hunger strike to force a pipeline-laying ship, the Solitaire, out of Irish waters. Work had begun on the pipeline despite its on-land route not having been agreed.

Harrington explains: ‘My argument for taking this action was based on the primacy of place, encompassing the health and safety of people here, the environment, the culture. This place had to be defended whatever it took – it is a place worth fighting and dying for.’

And the Solitaire did leave, following ‘technical faults’, with Shell denying that protests in support of Harrington had influenced its decision.

Problems in the pipeline

It was a dramatic chapter in a story that stretches back to October 1996, when the Corrib field was discovered by Enterprise Energy Ireland (EEI). It was not until August 2001 that serious steps were taken towards its exploitation, when Mayo council granted EEI planning permission for a pipeline and onshore refinery. This provoked the first of many appeals to An Bord Pleanála (the Irish government’s planning appeals authority) from residents. The hearings became the second longest in the board’s history, and in April 2003 the decision was overturned.

After EEI’s transformation into Shell E&P Ireland in April 2002, however, a new application was submitted. Opposition from residents was fierce, especially over safety concerns. Because the gas would be processed on-land rather than on an offshore rig, as is usual, the pressure inside the proposed pipeline would be four times greater than that of the largest existing Bord Gais pipelines. Furthermore, the pipeline would cross boggy ground prone to landslides. Locals feel the risk of explosion is intolerably high – and Shell’s safety record worldwide does little to inspire confidence.

With the proposed refinery being the largest of its kind in Europe, there are also many potential environment problems. Emissions from four 140-feet tall chimneys will have an adverse affect on the local environment – a catchment area for the region’s water supply – and make a significant contribution to global warming. Meanwhile, waste products (including lead, arsenic and mercury) will be pumped into Broadhaven Bay, an EU Special Area of Conservation. While the development will create some new jobs for locals, others will be lost in the tourist industry if this beauty spot is blemished.

Despite the high price placed on the area by the project, Shell will likely get excellent value for money. In other parts of Europe, the state’s stake in gas and oil fields can be 50 per cent or above, as indeed it was in Ireland until 1987. Decades of ‘investor-friendly’ reforms, however, mean the Irish public will get very little at all in this case: no stake in the Corrib field and no royalties, despite the provision of 100 per cent tax write-offs on development, exploration and operating costs.

Mayo council again granted planning permission for the scheme in 2005, as did An Bord Pleanála. Shell was also granted compulsory purchase orders to deal with people living in its way – the first time such laws had been used in Ireland for a private company. According to Mike Cunningham, a former director of Statoil Exploration (Ireland), ‘No other country in the world has given such favourable terms as Ireland.’

Other avenues of resistance

Let down by the legal process and faced with a government apparently wedded to the pipeline consortium’s interests, opponents explored other avenues of resistance. Most notably, five local men were jailed in June 2005 for defying compulsory purchase orders. The anger aroused by the case of the ‘Rossport Five’ intensified protest and spread it further afield. Large rallies were held in Dublin, pickets of Shell operations across Ireland and the UK proliferated, and blockades of the construction site itself went on around the clock. With publicity growing and the Rossport Five vowing to remain behind bars until they got justice, Shell dropped the case against them in September 2005.

The protests led to further reviews of the project, which in turn revealed serious breaches of the consents given to Shell. Three kilometres of pipeline were dismantled, and construction deferred yet again. To date, with resistance continuing, work on the pipeline has yet to begin.

The effectiveness of the resistance has come from its multifaceted character. Though principally led by locals, it has drawn support from around the world, brought together through the Shell to Sea campaign. The campaign, as the name suggests, seeks primarily to put the development offshore, but also challenges its environmental and economic shortfalls. Shell to Sea has remained non-aligned with any particular party or group, and in doing so has drawn everyone from the Socialist Workers Party to the Woodland League under its umbrella.

Solidarity campaigners from outside the region have a permanent presence in the community using a donated house and land. One Manchester-based campaigner, Amy Thompson, who spent time there during the period of Maura Harrington’s hunger strike, described ‘an intense level of cooperation between solidarity activists and locals in carrying out actions’.

While ‘tactical differences’ sometimes became apparent, Thompson claims the interaction was extremely fruitful. ‘It’s great to see the diversity of tactics and everyone working so well together. Activists often talk about “networking” their campaigns with “the locals” – but here everyone’s actually physically fighting together to defend the land … it was something I’d never seen before, and very inspiring.’ Maura Harrington echoes this: ‘The relationship is symbiotic. There is a lot to learn by both sides, from both sides, and the people living here totally appreciate it, so there isn’t really a them and us anymore.’

Not giving in

Links have also been made with those struggling against Shell in the Niger Delta. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s brother, Dr Owens Wiwa, attended the Rossport Five’s trial, saying that their courage ‘gives hope to the African people … to see that Shell can be made to back down … it is being watched with interest by many involved in similar situations.’ In February, a delegation from Rossport will be travelling to New York for a case brought against Shell for its complicity in human rights abuses in the Niger Delta. Shell to Sea spokesperson Terence Conway hopes to attend. ‘The lesson we’ve learned from the Ogoni is not to give in no matter how impossible it seems, no matter what the odds.’

The global networks that the Shell to Sea campaign has established are essential, as James Marriot of ecological campaign group Platform stresses: ‘They work in the opposite direction to companies like Shell, which try to compartmentalise everything and separate problems in one part of the world from the company as a whole. To connect things up like this puts into question the entire institution.’ The damage done to the Shell brand – a brand eager to lose its planet trashing, community wrecking reputation – may be more severe than the escalating costs of the delays.

Also called into question by the campaign is the relationship between the state and big business in a country that has gone further than most in making life easy for multinational investors. The government reaction has been predictably heavy handed. Terence Conway describes the police as having been given ‘carte blanche’ to disrupt protests: ‘They have done everything possible to provoke people, including targeted arrests to discredit us in the media. It’s one thing to give Shell all our resources, but when they send in the police, basically as Shell thugs, that tells you of the collusion.’

Nonetheless, with the pipeline route – announced in April this year – said to ‘literally cut through the heart of our community’, Shell to Sea has vowed to continue its campaign. Things are quiet for now as construction work winds down for the winter, but whatever Shell decides to do come the spring, it’s going to face a fight.

n Get involved

www.corribsos.com

(the Shell to Sea campaign website)

www.remembersarowiwa.com

www.platformlondon.org

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