Taking on Shell: the people of north Mayo don’t fool too easy

IT’S all about place, Maura Harrington says. Protect a place and it will protect its people.

For Maura the most magical place in the world is a rambling bog in the north-western tip of the island, speckled with lakes, patterned by the sweeping shadows of wind-blown clouds and nudged by the waves of the north Atlantic.

At night the sky is darkest black, undiluted by artificial glare, and every merest scrap of starlight sparkles in a display that is hard to match anywhere in Europe.

Maura pitches a business proposal. She reckons she could bring in small groups of tourists, by biofuelled bus of course, and take them out at night to be dazzled by the stellar performance above.

“They would pay good money to go and sit in my back garden,” she smiles. “Now that’s a sustainable industry. That’s worth fighting for.”

For almost six years Maura has been fighting to keep fuel giant Shell, and its predecessor, Enterprise Oil, off the bog, away from the villages of Rossport, Bellanaboy and Gortacragher, and out of the waters of Carrowmore Lake and Sruwaddacon Bay.

A rich deposit of gas lies 70km off the coast of this tranquil corner of Co Mayo and the battle to bring it ashore has been tumultuous. For most people outside the area, the saga of the Corrib gas field only appeared on their radar last year when five local men were jailed for refusing to give an undertaking to the courts that they would not interfere with attempts by Shell to lay a pipeline across their land.

The Rossport Five, as they became known, spent three months behind bars before Shell agreed to postpone further attempts at the project pending talks with the objectors.

But long before the five became reluctant household names, Maura was the thorn in Shell’s side, scratching determinedly away at the company’s thick hide.

Her involvement began in January 2001, a couple of months after Enterprise submitted the first of their three planning applications for an on-shore terminal at Bellanaboy.

Some local people had expressed concerns, mainly about the environmental implications. Bringing raw gas ashore by undersea pipe to refine it on land is not the usual procedure energy companies adopt.

More often, the fuel, be it gas or oil, is pumped up from the seabed into an off-shore platform and only the finished product is piped ashore. The argument goes that unrefined fuels are more volatile than their purified form so the shorter distance they travel the safer.

It is also argued that it is better for emissions from the refining process to be released at sea rather than on land and, in the event of an accident, the effect of any resulting pollution would be diminished by the time it washed ashore.

“You can look at this issue from an environmental perspective, but also from a philosophical, civil justice or human rights point of view,” says Maura. “It is so vast and it has got so many facets to it that some facet somewhere is going to hook you.”

It was language that hooked Maura first. She learned Latin in school and loves its precision, clarity and honesty. She didn’t like what she calls the buzz words of corporate spin.

“It’s the perverse use of language in an attempt to fool the maximum number of people the maximum number of times. That’s where Shell made their mistake with us because the people of north Mayo don’t fool too easy. Quite simply, when you have a long oral tradition, you can spot spin a mile away.”

For Maura, Enterprise Oil was also an old enemy. “It was the spawn of Thatcher. It came from the privatisation of British Gas and the reason behind that was to break the power of the British miners. In the 1980s I raised £500 in Erris for the National Union of Mineworkers,” she says proudly of the contribution made by the sparsely populated community.

“I was never a card-carrying member of anything but I would be politically-minded. I call myself red and green — the Mayo colours.”

Maura, who is 52, married and the mother of three grown-up daughters and a son, was born in the Mayo colours, hailing from a family whose roots were in Muinhin. “I have the Muinhin Cointeann,” she laughs, referring to the hard-to-define trait says runs on her side.

“It’s a contrariness, an awkwardness. I call myself a small ikey thing,” she says, her made-up description conveying an obstinacy and non-conformity of which she is rather proud.

Maura went to school in her mother’s alma mater, Gortanoy, Crossmolina, a progressive boarding school run by the French-based Order of Jesus and Mary.

Inspired by her time at Gortanoy, Maura became a teacher herself and enrolled in Carysfort Teacher Training College in Dublin. They were exciting years up in the big smoke but Maura didn’t think twice about returning home when she qualified.

She has taught in the same room in the same four-teacher Inver National School all her 33 years in the profession.

“While it sounds stultifying and stagnant, it has a freedom to it. I am well into the second generation of children. You know them, you know all belonging to them — the whole business of a living community is there before you in the classroom.”

Enterprise, and Shell which took it over in 2002, did not fit into Maura’s idea of a living community. What would they add to the community, she asked, and what would they take away? She did the maths and decided north Mayo could only lose.

Between November 2000 to October 2004, three planning applications were processed for the terminal. The first was abandoned by the applicants when Mayo County Council looked for additional information, the second was granted by the council but overturned on appeal to An Bord Pleanála and the third was granted again by the council and upheld by An Bord Pleanála, despite growing local objections to the plan.

Two oral planning hearings were held. Dr Owens Wiwa, brother of murdered Nigerian anti-Shell campaigner Ken Saro Wiwa, came to lend his support, and Maura went to a Shell AGM in London to publicly tackle one of the company’s most senior executives. The pile of documents, correspondence and reports mushroomed while the list of lawyers, consultants and company men grew. With mischief, Maura calls them “Shell suits”.

She instantly developed a disliking for one, who “chewed gum and shrugged his shoulders”. In the heat of dispute, even a personal mannerism can appear an offensive act.

Heat poured on to the dispute from all directions. In September 2003, during torrential downpours, landslides close to the Bellanaboy site sent hundreds of thousands of tonnes of peat and earth spilling on to farmland and buildings, crushing roads and bridges and bulldozing a cemetery into the sea.

Opponents of Shell’s plans argued no further proof was needed that the instability of a natural bog made it no place for a hazardous industry to locate.

In the meantime, Shell had received permission to lay a pipeline from the sea, across the land of Rossport families, to the terminal. The structure did not require planning permission, only a licence from the Department of the Marine, so the locals did not get to submit objections or seek a formal hearing.

For Maura, the planning laws are one of the most unpalatable aspects of the whole saga. Despite the lengthy oral planning hearings on the terminal, the objectors had not been able to raise issues relating to health or environment.

“It was confined purely to planning matters so it was the same as if they were considering an application for a large bungalow,” she says. The exemption of the pipeline from a public planning process was the insult added to the injury.

When construction crews arrived to start laying the pipe and the Rossport Five were jailed for their objections in July 2005, the row became headline news. Protests and demonstrations followed and a round-the-clock vigil began at the Bellanaboy site that continues today and has stopped work on the construction of the terminal.

Maura became organiser, motivator and spokeswoman. The movement’s name, and aim, “Shell to Sea” became recognisable countrywide.

She has faced claims that she and the movement are merely a vocal minority who do not represent the views of the wider community but she begs to differ.

“We were at the gates [of the Bellanaboy site] on Christmas Day with 150 people. If this is the minority, where are the majority?

“They are not staging counter-protests, they are not out every day since July 2005, they are not writing letters to the papers and they aren’t being heard on radio.”

Four weeks ago, the gathering at the gates at Bellanaboy became the scene of a long-feared confrontation. Mediation had failed and Shell had had enough — it was time to move the terminal construction crew in.

In the early hours of October 3, an unprecedented garda presence — 170 members — appeared to keep protestors at bay while a convoy of vehicles brought the builders on site.

A stand-off has followed every morning since, as the crew arrives for work.

Time will stand to them in the end, she believes, because she says the campaign will run “as long as it takes”.

“My long-term concern is for the place. The place is safe and healthy and has sustained people over millennia. It has proof of habitation over 5,000 years ago and we have an abundance of Neolithic sides. That is sustainable development.”

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