Time to call it a day

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The Independent Online

When the first tractor was driven across the entrance to the Shell oil refinery at Stanlow last Thursday night, even the most experienced farming activist could not have guessed the country would be brought to its knees within a week.

When the first tractor was driven across the entrance to the Shell oil refinery at Stanlow last Thursday night, even the most experienced farming activist could not have guessed the country would be brought to its knees within a week.

The British public had appeared indifferent to the escalating price of fuel after a day of action this summer to "dump the pump" at petrol forecourts had attracted little support.

But when a convoy of lorries and tractors began a 50-mile journey from an angry cattle auction meeting in St Asaph, North Wales, to the country's largest oil refinery, public opposition to fuel taxes quickly gathered pace.

Today, the seven-night vigil at the terminal in Cheshire was the first protest to be brought to an end.

The demonstration sparked similar protests at each refinery in the country, dozens of "go-slows" on major routes and in city centres, and an epidemic of panic buying in the nation's petrol stations and supermarkets.

Public opinion appeared to be squarely behind the protesters, despite the inconvenience of queuing at forecourts or resorting to public transport to get to work.

Last night, an estimated 90% of the country's petrol stations were without fuel, the NHS was on red alert and troops were on standby.

Tony Blair's assurance that the situation should be getting back to normal within 24 hours had backfired, and industry, public transport and public services were reaching crisis point.

Perhaps influenced by the dire warnings, and after hours of talks between shell managers and police, protesters at Stanlow announced they were to call it a day at 5.30am.

"We decided enough was enough," said farmers' spokesman Tom Houghton, who had spent every night at Stanlow.

"When we first came here last Thursday I did not quite realise the overwhelming public support we would have behind us.

"I had no idea we would bring the country to a near standstill and the Government almost to its knees.

"I feel very proud to think that the British public have supported us all the way and still do, despite the disruption to their everyday lives.

"We will still oppose the unfair tax on fuel, but there comes a point when you have to call it a day and today was that day.

"The Health Service was on red alert and the situation was grinding to a halt.

"When you have got the public behind you you have to look at the power you have and you have to think seriously about that.

"Yesterday it really hit home to me just how much our protest had reverberated across the country and in the corridors of power.

"But at the end of the day Tony Blair is a very worried man and we have achieved a great victory for the British people here."

By 9am today, tankers were rolling freely through Gate 2 of the Shell terminal as a handful of farmers and hauliers stood by and watched.

Bales of hay used as chairs for protesters had fallen apart during overnight rain, their cardboard signs were discarded on the roadside, where at one point more than 400 protesters had stood.

Mr Houghton was getting ready to return to his sheep and beef farm in Sandbach, Cheshire, to see his wife, Sylvia, son Thomas and daughter Racheal.

He said: "I am now looking forward to going home tonight and getting a good night's sleep."

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