Here's a question: in which country do you imagine that a police officer might say to a protestor who is trying to prevent an offshore gas/oil drilling exploration, “I have your last breath in my hands”?
Well, allegedly, it isn't the Gulf of Mexico but a good deal closer.
On the night of 14 July, a number of campaigners entered the water in Broadhaven Bay, County Mayo, on Ireland's north west coast, in kayaks and rafts in a peaceful attempt to prevent Shell from bringing in a borehole drilling platform.
They were met by five Garda water unit boats, with approximately 16 Gardaí on board.
Campaigners attempted to approach the platform but were prevented from
doing so by Gardaí who overturned their kayaks.
One managed to get close to the platform. When Gardaí overturned the kayak belonging to one of the campaigners, Eoin Lawless, he swam under the platform. A Garda then jumped into the water after him, and proceeded to drag him from the water into the nearby Garda boat.
Mr. Lawless rlates what happened next: “I said I would leave the area but they knelt on my back. One Garda then pinched my throat with his two fingers and cut off my air supply. He held me like that for about 90 seconds, allowing me to take one or two gasps. He kept saying into my ear that he had my last breath in his hands.
"It was terrifying. I truly believed he might kill me."
Mr. Lawless received medical attention at Belmullet Garda station and afterwards called for human rights observers to come back down to Mayo as a matter of urgency.
Such observers have been there before, because this is not the first time such a incident, or worse, has happened, in this long-running dispute that has been barely reported in the UK.
An independent report by Front Line, The International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, concluded this year that Irish Government-sponsored incidents against these protestors, who are mostly local fishermen and crofters worried about the impact of the development on their livelihood in this environmentally-sensitive area, warranted defence under human rights legislation.
The bakground to this story is that gas was found off North Mayo in 1996 by Enterprise Oil. A consortium of oil companies was established to develop the gas field, called Enterprise Energy Ireland EEI.
Shell later took over the exploration and now plans a pipeline coming onshore at Glengad, then crossing under Sruwaddacon Bay to Rossport and journeying nine kilometres overland to a refinery at Bellanaboy.
The development is controversial for a number of reasons. The planned pipeline is a high pressure one. It also carries raw gas, which is more volatile. Some residents argue that it goes too near to their houses – and fear the effects of an explosion. The refinery is located in – and the pipeline passes through – ecologically sensitive areas.
Shell to Sea, the group representing locals opposed to the project, has another concern – that the terms upon which the State has granted rights to oil companies were too generous (see below).
Shell to Sea wants the gas refined at sea on a shallow water platform.
In 2008, a previous group of protestors, Pobal Chill Chomáin, claiming to represent most locals opposed to the development, proposed building the refinery elsewhere – such as at Glinsk, a remote area in Mayo – with the pipeline coming onshore by a different route.
Shell has rejected this proposal. The refinery at Bellanaboy has now been substantially built. In order to pass over the lands at Rossport, either the consent of landowners had to be sought or compulsory purchase orders had to be made.
Most landowners consented but six did not. In 2004 planning permission was granted by an Bord Pleanála for the refinery at the Bellanaboy site, but the decision was a controversial one. Previously, a planning inspector had advised that the proposed development defied “any rational understanding of the term ‘sustainability’”.
Some Rossport residents defied a court order by preventing Shell agents entering lands over which the planned pipeline was to run. As a result, they were imprisoned for 94 days. The men concerned became known as the Rossport 5. They were released on 30 September 2005. Their campaign against Shell’s plans had now become an international news story.
The Irish government commissioned a review of safety issues - but the consultancy commissioned to carry out the review, British Pipeline Agency (BPA), was 50% owned by Shell. BPA kept quiet about this, even though they knew that the Minister wanted the review to be independent. The Minister did not find out until after the report was published. This did not endear him to objectors or solve the stand-off, which has continued to date.
Shell went ahead with some works at Bellanaboy without authorisation. A new report was commissioned that expressed concern that the maximum pressure for the onshore pipeline be more than halved from 345 bar to 144 bar. Shell accepted this but protestors were not satisfied with the report because it didn't consider whether processing should be offshore or alternative routes for the pipeline or an alternative site for the refinery.
There have been many other objections. For example, levels of aluminium in discharge water from the Bellanaboy plant regularly exceeding those permitted by very large margins; a slip road being built without planning permission at Glengad; unauthorised drilling carried out by Shell consultants in a Special Area of Conservation.
The Bolivian connection
More significantly, the security firm hired by Shell, IRMS, was accused of being heavy-handed. It has come under scrutiny because some of its employees have been involved in activities on behalf of gas and oil interests in Bolivia which led to one of them, Michael Dwyer from Tipperary, being shot by the Bolivian government for involvement in a plot to destabilise the government of President Evo Morales.
This is where the plot gets even murkier.
Bolivia is the key player in the struggle by developing countries to secure justice in the international climate negotiations. Three months ago it hosted the World People´s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth carried out in Cochabamba.
Oil companies are prominent amongst those lobbying against action to counter climate change. Removing the Bolivian government would clearly be in their interests.
Links to oil and gas companies are indeed mentioned in a Prime Time investigation into the death of Dwyer, and the involvement of colleagues he met through his work with IRMS at Rossport, by reports Paul Murphy and Oonagh Smyth for the tv company RTE, broadcast on 3 December 2009.
They uncovered that the right wing Hungarian terrorist who recruited Dwyer and wanted to overturn the La Paz government was financed to the tune of millions of dollars, way beyond the capacity of local business interests to raise alone, and trace it back to oil and gas companies.
The Frontline report notes that one of the security guards had posted "inappropriate material regarding operations on Glengad" on a website he ran. He also headed a far right group, the Szeckler legion.
IRMS itself was not involved with the Bolivian group. But it has been involved in a string of violent incidents against protestors, along with the Gardai. Fisherman Pat O’Donnell for example claims that his boat was sunk by masked men on 11 June 2009.
He and others have been in Castlerea prison for much of this year for refusing to stop fishing in the vicinity of the proposed tunnel. He was released after 158 days on 17 July.
Another boat has been confiscated by the Gardai.
And on 22/23 April 2009 one Willie Corduff was allegedly assaulted by Gardaí and IRMS staff. Mr Corduff had been staging a sit in under a truck.
IRMS and Gardai boats have also on at least one occasion rammed the boats of protestors.
Last week, on the same night that Eoin Lawless was struggling to breathe at the hands of a policeman, a film about O'Donnell and the campaign, ‘The Pipe’ won best documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh.
The protest continues
The protest continues, led by a body called Shell to Sea, which claims it is a national campaign with active groups based across Ireland. It has three main aims:
• to have the Corrib gas field exploited in a safe way that will not expose the local community in Erris to unnecessary health, safety and environmental risks;
• to renegotiate the terms of the Great Oil and Gas Giveaway, which "sees
Ireland’s 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent off the West Coast go directly to the oil companies, with the Irish State retaining a 0% share, no energy security of supply and only 25% tax on profits against which all costs can be deducted";
• finally, to seek justice for the human rights abuses suffered by Shell to Sea campaigners.
Shell plans to drill up to 80 boreholes to survey the Sruth Fhada Chonn estuary to determine the course of a tunnel under the estuary linking up the offshore pipeline with the proposed inland refinery. The new route is still within 250m of several houses and the local community remains opposed to the plans.
The estuary is a Specially Protected Area & part of the Broadhaven Bay Special Area of Conservation. Protestors claim that the operation will damage parts of the estuary & disturb the wildlife there, particularly Atlantic salmon, otters & birds found on the intertidal areas.
Shell to Sea say their aim is to try to stop Shell from drilling the boreholes over the next few months through a campaign of peaceful protest.
In the planetwide shadow cast by BP's offshore drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, these protestors' battle with the authorities has a significance way beyond the normally quiet Western Isles.