14 September 2008

Mayo Teacher on Hunger Strike against Shell

The long-running stand-off between local residents of northern Co. Mayo on one side, and the unholy alliance of multi-national energy giant Shell and the Irish state on the other, has reached a new dimension.
With the begin of pipeline laying between the land station and the Corrib offshore gas field imminent, a local teacher and prominent member of the 'Shell to Sea' campaign has gone on hunger strike as a "last step of protest".

Maura Harrington (photo left), Principal of Inver Primary School, situated very close to Broadhaven Bay, has enough of the broken promises, outright lies and the constant bullying of the local population by Shell, their Blue & Limes 'security guards' and their accomplices in the Irish government.

The 54-year-old woman from Erris, who has lived in the area all her life and is married to another member of the 'Shell to Sea' campaign, has gone on
hunger strike to stop the construction of the gas pipeline and to draw attention to the way the countryside - including nature reserves - and the tightly knit rural community of northern Mayo are destroyed in order to give Shell what they want, regardless what the people think of it.

Maura Harrington began her hunger strike on Wednesday (September 10th), the day the world's largest pipelaying ship, the Solitaire (pictured right) arrived in Broadhaven Bay, ready to start laying the pipeline. But work never got started that day and after a few hours in the bay, the massive vessel withdrew and sailed away to the port of Killybegs in Co. Donegal.

As reason for that Shell spokesman John Egan claimed that they had discovered "some damage to the ship's equipment" which had to be assessed and repaired in a port. No-one knows what kind of damage was found, and Egan did not say (or know) anything about it either. And when pressed for more information, Egan at least confirmed that "the damage was not caused by any of the protesters" who had assembled at Glengad or moved around Broadhaven Bay in boats and small fishing vessels.
From Killybegs I hear that so far nothing was observed that looked like repair work of laying equipment on the Solitaire. Which leads me - and others - to the conclusion that the withdrawl of the ship was nothing but a tactical move by Shell, in order to ease the tension.

Being faced with a hunger strike is a serious challenge, even for a company as huge and powerful as Shell. And anyone who has even the slightest bit of knowledge of Irish history knows that the death of a political protester on hunger strike can create massive outrage in Ireland. Even today, 27 years after his death in a British prison in the North, hunger striker Bobby Sands is still an Irish hero and remembered with strong emotions by the people.
So it is more than likely that Shell managers would rather risk a delay in constructing their gas pipeline than having the life of a gentle and popular Irish teacher on their conscience.

But withdrawing the Solitaire from Broadhaven Bay is only one small step backwards for Shell and not enough for Maura Harrington. As I write this, she is on day 5 of her hunger strike, still locked inside her car, which is parked outside the gate of the Shell compound at Glengad. And she is determined to continue, with only two possibilities to end it: Either the Solitaire leaves Irish territorial waters, or her death.

Many local residents, as well as people all over Ireland and sympathisers abroad are meanwhile deeply concerned for her health. She is a slim, petite and fragile person, whose weight at the begin of the hunger strike was (according to her own statement) only 6 stone 9 lbs. She also suffers from calcified TB since 1980, and in one of two open letters she sent to Shell and to the Master of the Solitaire, Captain Simon van der Plicht, she made it absolutely clear that she is deadly serious and at the end of her tether. She wrote:
Given my age, weight (and) medical history ... my death will take place relatively quickly but not painlessly. The toll extracted by eight years of activism to the Shell dictated, State facilitated Corrib Project is a not insignificant factor in hastening my death.
I place my Life or Death in the hands of the master of the Solitaire, Mr Simon van der Plicht. Be under no illusion that this is an idle threat. I will begin my Hunger Strike, as stated, if and when the Solitaire approaches Broadhaven Bay - it will end in one of two ways.

1. On written confirmation by Mr van der Plicht that the Solitaire is outside Irish territorial waters.

2. My Death.
Since the 1980s Ireland has not seen such a drastic form of political protest and determination. It is clear to everyone that Maura Harrington is serious and would rather be dead than see her community and local landscape polluted and ruined forever by the Corrib Gas Project.

Perhaps it needed Maura Harrington and her determination to wake up all those who have so far taken little notice of the situation in the north of Co. Mayo. My thoughts are with her and I wish her well, hoping she will succeed with her protest and - most importantly - survive it.

But that is not enough. I also urge the government - especially Eamon Ryan (photo left), Minister for Energy & Natural Resources, and John Gormley (photo right), Minister for Environment, Heritage & Local Government - to do everything in their power to safe the life of Maura Harrington and to bring the long and painful suffering of the community in the north of Co. Mayo to an end.
Both ministers are members of the
Green Party, and John Gormley is their leader. For many years in opposition they did argue for the rights of ordinary people, for a better system, a cleaner environment and for the sensible and sustainable use of energy.
Now that they are part of the government, they can show how serious they are when it comes to the real matters of the people, energy and the environment.

So far both ministers have stayed widely aloof with regards to the Corrib Project, and that alone is scandalous. But it is not too late. If there is a will, the government can change the agreements made with Shell and actually do what they have sworn to do when they spoke the oath of office: to defend and protect the Constitution and the country, and to serve the people of Ireland to the best of their abilities.

I further urge the Chairman, Chief Executive and managers of Shell to finally accept that they can never create and run a large project against the clear - and often expressed - will of the local people. They can still change the structure of the project and put their production facilities out to sea. That is all the local residents and the 'Shell to Sea' campaign demand, and with very good reasons.

Both politicians and business people make decisions every day. Many of them are important and have often long-lasting consequences. All it requires to get things right is a few good people with a working brain and common sense. I still believe that such people exist, in the government as well as inside Shell. Should I be wrong...?

The way the Corrib Gas Project has been planned and executed so far is a shambles, and the area in northern Co. Mayo looks more and more like a war zone. The government has deployed hundreds of Gardai to the area - which are now missing in Dublin, Limerick and other parts of the country where crime is rampant and getting out of hand - and meanwhile even the most law-abiding people see their own police as a hostile force of occupation. The Blue & Limes, a private army hired by Shell, is even worse. The so-called 'security guards' are nothing but thugs whose purpose is to intimidate, harass and bully the legitimate local residents. (for details see my entry of July 24th)
Not enough with that, the government has also deployed two of the country's eight naval vessels to Broadhaven Bay. I would like to know how it can be justified to send 25% of the nation's Naval Service to guard and protect the interests of a foreign private company and almost wage a civil war against the local residents, their own people, whose taxes pay for their existence.

It is truly bizarre, and if it were not so extremely serious, one could mistake it for a practical joke and laugh out loud. But the people of Rossport, Glengad and around Broadhaven Bay don't laugh anymore, not for a long time. Their area has been taken over by what they see as alien forces, it is almost like occupied territory in a war. There are frequent road blocks and check points, beaches are closed off and normal life is disrupted almost daily. There are intimidating controls of perfectly normal civilian residents who do nothing but living their life and going about their lawful business. And there are Gardai everywhere, on land and on the water (with up to 30 boats).
From time to time the area also experiences a technological 'blackout', with internet access of all residents being cut off for several hours. Campaigners see this as a deliberate attempt to prevent their message going out to the rest of Ireland and the world.

"We are being isolated here in Mayo," one protester said angrily, "geographically, physically and now also with regards to communication. There is not much difference between Russian troops in Georgia and Shell in Mayo."

Local residents have also observed unidentified individuals, wearing green raincoats and behaving in a strange and sinister way. Who are they? Gardai in civilian clothes? Special Branch? Private investigators? Or maybe even British agents from MI-5 or MI-6, as some residents of Co. Mayo have suggested... After all, Shell is an Anglo-Dutch company, and Britain has always had a very protective behaviour when it comes to energy interests.

Last Wednesday, the day Maura Harrington began her hunger strike, Gardai in boats boarded a small local fishing boat that was trying to control its pots on the bottom of the sea. The two fishermen on board were arrested for an apparent 'public order offence' and escorted to port.
Alright, the boat came close to the Solitaire, but it did not show any hostile action, nor had the fishermen anything more in mind than to protect their gear and their income.

Have we gone that far down the road to dictatorship already that fishing in local coastal waters is a 'public order offence'?
Not surprisingly, the fishermen - as well as eight people arrested on land - were released without charge after being held and interrogated for a few hours at Belmullet Garda station. They lost a day's work and income, and that hurts, especially in the current economic recession.

At the same time Shell rakes in profits of € 375 million a week, thanks to the high prices for oil, gas and other energy. Changing the Corrib Gas Project in the way the local people demand would cost an estimated € 360 million. So less than a week's profit would pay for a production facility everyone would accept and be happy with. And Shell would not lose anything, as they still have the gas and the right to work with it. The measure would pacify and stabilise the area, and no longer would Shell feel a need for large amounts of Blue & Lime thugs (which cost money every day as well). It would truly be a win-win situation.

I sincerely hope that people on the senior level of Shell's management will read this article and start using their brains, souls and hearts to improve their production, diffuse the tense situation in Co. Mayo and - first of all - save the life of Maura Harrington.

In case Shell remains stubborn and insensible, I have another appeal to make, and this one to everyone around the world, everyone who reads my weblog, regardless where they are.
Please do no longer buy any of Shell's products! Avoid or boycott their petrol stations, everywhere, in every country they operate! (Because what happens to Co. Mayo today could happen to anyone anywhere tomorrow...)
There are other oil and energy companies, and many other petrol stations. If you care for Ireland, the environment and right now especially for the life of a gentle, kind and very committed Irish teacher named
Maura Harrington, then please stop giving Shell any of your business and money. Some years ago a similar boycott of Shell - then over their attempt to dump the Brent Spa platform into the sea - was so successful that the company felt the people's anger in its pockets. Eventually the managers gave up their original plans and disposed of the platform in an environmentally friendly way.

People have a lot of power, but seldom do we realise how much we actually have. Try to use your power, and use it for good: To safe northern Mayo, to prevent thugs from ruling the world, and - before any other task - to save the life of Maura Harrington, today on the fifth day of her hunger strike!

The Emerald Islander


Dan Sullivan said...

There are many issues around the awarding of license to drill, and the manner in which the route was selected. However the actions of Maura Harrington and some others involved in Shell to Sea strike me as a little more than grandstanding for the sake of it.

Justin Morahan said...

to dan sullivan

What a callous comment to make about a frail and courageous woman on hunger strike. "grandstanding" is not what dying for your principles is about.
What have you done about the "many issues" you mention?


Thank you for your comments.

Well, Dan, it is good to hear from you and I respect your opinion. But I cannot agree with you on this issue.

Just imagine how you would feel and what you would do if some huge international company with little or no concerns for the local population would start building a dangerous pipeline and a large industrial plant close to your home and would take no notice at all of people's wishes, concerns and suggestions.

The whole process is now going on for eight years, and I know that I would not have waited that long to arrive at Maura Harrington's situation, if I were in her shoes and lived in northern Co. Mayo.

And we haven't even addressed the real big issue in this: the fact that our own government has given away 700 billion worth of natural energy, which could solve most of our problems, to a foreign private company, basically for free!

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