The Shell battle: Stick this in your pipe

Shell's plan to create a major gas pipeline through the Irish countryside has seen local protesters up in arms – and some of them under arrest. Phil Boucher meets the maker of a new film that charts their battle

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We raise our children to understand the difference between right and wrong. Yet it is in adulthood that the principle is most sternly tested.

Just what do you do when you believe that the forces of law and order are intimidating and arresting peaceful protesters in front of your eyes? And how do you reconcile your faith in the media, government and judiciary if you think they are blackening the name of a protest group, even though it's members are doing nothing more sinister that trying to prevent a major gas pipeline from being constructed on five areas of EU-protected countryside?

Well, in the case of 30-year-old Irish filmmaker Risteard Ó Domhnaill, you delve behind the scenes of the grassroots campaign and provide it with an unhindered platform to relay its message through The Pipe, a documentary which records the bitter birth of the Corrib gas pipeline in Rossport, County Mayo, and which shows the events thorough the eyes of the local protesters – and the protesters alone.

"The film shows a perspective. It is unbalanced. But as a feature film it is a good telling of a story," explains Ó Domhnaill. "It is just me allowing the local people to have their say without it being twisted or turned, and then trying to present it honestly, warts and all."

Ó Domhnaill's film focuses on the path of the Corrib dispute between 2004 and 2009, during which time a North-west Ireland backwater is transformed into a quarrelling mess of angry locals, menacing security guards and over-zealous surveillance.

Yet the roots of the discord can be traced back to 1996, when a vast gas field was discovered off the north Mayo coastline by Enterprise Oil – later to become part of Shell following a corporate takeover in 2002.

With Ireland importing 80 per cent of its gas from Scotland, the Irish government was naturally eager to utilise this new-found resource, which continues to promise gas supplies accounting for 60 per cent of the Republic's annual demand at peak flow. Sadly, there was one tiny hitch: Enterprise Oil's plan to create a 9km pipeline from Broadhaven Bay to Bellanaboy brought the gas through three special areas of conservation, two Special Protected Areas and one National Heritage Area as designated by the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service.

"If you looked around Ireland and the rest of Europe, you'd be hard pushed to find a denser concentration of European-designated specially protected areas," says Ó Domhnaill. "The bay is protected for whales and dolphins, the estuary is protected for wintering red geese and salmon migration, the sand dunes have a very sensitive machair system which provides a unique habitat, then the Rossport bog complex is a specially protected blanket bog with its own eco-system."

Sensing that the planning application would be defeated, Enterprise Oil removed its initial petition. Yet in 2004, Shell returned with a similar plan and to the astonishment of the local population, gained permission for a high-pressure pipe carrying unrefined gas through the heart of Rossport and the surrounding countryside.

Shortly afterwards, a group of residents took it upon themselves to prevent Shell agents from entering lands over which the pipeline was scheduled to run – openly defying a court order in the process. This resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of five local men for 94 days.

Yet it was Shell who ultimately paid the price as, during their incarceration, the men's plight became a cause celebré. By the time they were released on 30 September 2005 they had become known as the "Rossport 5".

With protest numbers swelling on the back of international news reports detailing this tale of plucky locals facing the might of a giant, faceless multinational, around 200 police were drafted into the area – a move that was akin to lighting a match at the mouth of the gas rig itself. Ó Domhnaill explains: "Before this you would hardly ever even see a police car in Rossport. So when you suddenly see 200 Garda drafted into the area dragging farmers, fishermen and housewives around and throwing them into ditches, it is very surreal."

It was during this time that Ó Domhnaill started to notice the whole story of what he was witnessing on the picket line wasn't being transmitted to the Irish public through the television news or Irish newspapers.

"The television news would show a woman being thrown into a ditch by a policeman and there would be this very polished PR person from Shell stood there saying 'these are just people who have come from outside the area to cause trouble, and don't care that this is good for jobs, good for Mayo and good for the country...' So the local voices and the local story were drowned out."

This resulted in what Ó Domhnaill sees as the "demonisation" of the protesters. With their name effectively blackened in the eyes of the Irish public, he adds that the police and Shell's security team, run by Integrated Risk Management Services (IRMS), was then handed "the green light to do whatever they wished".

The Pipe highlights this in dramatic detail, with scenes of angry scuffles and arrests blighting the protesters' attempts to stop the construction of the proposed refinery at Bellanaboy, while teams of IRMS men stand by, appearing menacing in dark glasses, high-visibility jackets and balaclavas.

Meanwhile, the protesters are constantly placed under surveillance, so they can't even take their children to the beach or drive the shops without a set of binoculars or a video camera following them.

It is a forbidding image of a peaceful rural community being torn apart by the arrival of heavy industry and the heavier fist of the state. Yet it reaches its denouement not on the roadside, but at sea, in the form of local fisherman Pat O'Donnell, who single-handedly takes on the world's largest pipe-laying ship, the 96,000-tonne, 300m-long Solitaire, armed with little more than a radio and an empty crab pot.

In scenes of amazing bravery, O'Donnell sets sail for the Solitaire to argue that his longstanding right to fish in Broadhaven Bay overrides Shell's right to lay the pipe, forcing the Irish police to board his trawler and arrest him.

At the conclusion of the film O'Donnell's protest is seen to succeed when the Solitaire leaves the area without laying the pipe. Yet it proves to be a hollow victory, as shortly after filming concluded in June 2009, O'Donnell was arrested and had his boats confiscated. During this time the Solitaire slipped back into Broadhaven Bay and laid the pipe unopposed.

"When you see that going on, you ask yourself 'who's right and who's wrong?'" says O'Donnell. "But I know the answer in my heart."

Since then work has gradually progressed on the pipeline and the refinery at Bellanaboy, with Shell altering the design to include a 4.9km tunnel underneath Sruwaddacon Bay to prevent it from affecting the delicate machair system on the doorstep of Rossport.

The company has also publicly apologised for the role it played in jailing the Rossport 5 and openly admits it made a string of mistakes at the beginning of the Corrib process that "led to a breakdown in trust".

Unfortunately, many Rossport locals will never accept the project thanks to this initial bungling and the subsequent wall of truncheons, propaganda and red tape that has greeted them. To their minds the pipeline will always smell of corruption rather than gas.

"We have lost faith in everything in Ireland," says farmer Willie Corduff.

"We went the legal route through the local authority, the appeals board, the planning department, the department of the marine, the national parks and wildlife, the environmental department, and they all turned a blind eye. The sad part about it is that we have been painted with a brush that we are opposed to the gas. We are not: we are opposed to the way it is being done and the damage the project is doing to the environment.

"The way this is being done Shell will eventually have to kill people to get them out of their way. But we are going to object to it regardless of what they do to us as our whole way of life is at stake and everything we have ever done to protect the environment to keep it clean for our children and their children. You can't just walk away from something that is in your blood."

'True Stories: The Pipe' is on tonight at 10pm on More4. For further details go to www.thepipethefilm.com

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