LOOKING out of his window surveying Broadhaven Bay John Monaghan is pensive.
He knows that any day now the idyllic peace will be interrupted when the world’s largest pipe-laying vessel, the twenty story high and 100,000 tonnes, Solitaire will loom on to the horizon.
It will be the second summer that the massive vessel, accompanied by three Irish naval ships, will attempt to lay the final sections of a 80 kilometre steel pipe through which precious gas from the Corrib offshore reserve will flow.
Visible on Glengad beach is the fenced compound where the pipeline is intended to come ashore. A small figure in a high visibility vest surveys the surrounding homesteads while two Garda vans are permanently parked outside the construction site’s entrance.
As he cradles his six-month-old son, Sean, Monaghan, a trained engineer and blacksmith, has the looming conflict on his mind: “Our community’s principal concern is the physical danger that this project will mean for the people who live in the parish of Kilcommon.
“At the planning hearing, Shell have accepted that in what they term as the extremely unlikely event of pipeline failure and the ignition of a vapour cloud, people will have less than a minute to evacuate a ‘kill zone’ of up to 270 meters. We are expected to live with that.”
Since the jailing of five local men for 94 days in 2005, the “Rossport Five”, for opposing the pipeline’s construction, there has been an influx of gardaí and private security men into the locality to cope with regular, and increasingly heated, protests. Since April this year alone, there have been more than 30 arrests. For Monaghan, whose father-in-law Micheál Ó Seighin was among the Rossport Five, this influx has provoked more concerns: “You have a private army... some of its members... driving around this parish videoing people from cars, with no number plates, being escorted by the gardaí. People have been assaulted, grandmothers pushed into ditches by the previously respected guardians of the peace. We have had a short sharp shock about how the world operates.”
Those perceived as arrayed against “the community” include a media intent on presenting not a “put upon community”, but “subversives rolling around the bog trying to stop progress”. In Monaghan’s view — “you could say that the image that is portrayed is exactly the opposite of the reality”.
Kilcommon parish consists of around 2,000 people living in small settlements, such as Inver, Rossport and Portacloy, dotted along coastal bays.
Separated by bog and hills the communities are woven together by a tight tapestry of familial and social relationships. Signs declaring “Shell go to Hell” and “No Consent no Gas” dot the roads.
The nearest town is Belmullet, 22 kilometres away, and to locals a very separate community. It is this town, and the further away Ballina, that have experienced most benefit from what Shell claims is the €2 million weekly pumped into the north Mayo economy by the pipeline’s construction. Some 50 “activists”, the media’s “eco-warriors”, are camped at the Rossport solidarity camp, about 200 meters from Glengad beach, their numbers swell on “days of action”. However, opposition to the project is clearly managed and led by local people.
Although retired Inver school teacher Maura Harrington has come to personify the Shell to Sea campaign for the media, she is not at the forefront in Kilcommon.
Rather heavy set solemn Mayo men form the majority watching the daily proceedings at a reconvened An Bord Pleanála hearing into the pipeline route at the Broadhaven Hotel. All are resolute in their opposition, Monaghan’s concerns are echoed by many.
Among them Colm Henry, who lives only 200 meters from Glengad beach: “We are being treated like native Americans, Shell has to understand this pipeline as proposed is just not going to happen.”
Of those who have allowed their land be used for the project, Henry is blunt: “Just because my neighbour sells his soul does that mean I have to go to hell as well?”
Due to the harsh north Atlantic seas the Solitaire can only work during the summer. Its impending return has re-ignited the conflict.
Last year Harrington embarked on a 10-day hunger strike which only ended when the Solitaire, having experienced some unexplained damage to its pipe-laying equipment withdrew from Broadhaven Bay.
The start of this summer’s campaign was heralded by violent events on April 22 at the Glengad compound.
Rossport man Willie Corduff, who went to prison in 2005 for his opposition to the project, positioned himself under a excavation vehicle.
Gardaí and private security at the compound attempted to persuade and then physically remove him.
Early the next morning Corduff’s protest was brought to an end. He claims he was beaten by security men. Gardaí dismiss this, claiming his protest was a diversion for the intrusion of more than a dozen balaclava wearing protesters who severely damaged the compound.
In the early hours of June 11 another leading protestor Pat “The Chief” O’Donnell’s fishing trawler sank in mysterious circumstances, some kilometres beyond Broadhaven Bay.
Mr O’Donnell, and his crewman, claim the boat was boarded by four men in dive suits wielding guns who holed it below the water line.
Others point to the lack of evidence of fishing gear debris from the vessel as indicating a more premeditated sinking.
This version, according to gardaí, is backed by the fact that as the boat was going down, a dozen kayaks were launched from the Rossport solidarity camp as activists attempt to once again breach the Glengad compound.
The gardaí are investigating the sinking incident but the alienation many in Kilcommon feel towards both them, and Shell’s security, means that whatever the findings the event is seen as a serious escalation.
Events are seen differently nine kilometres inland at the three quarters completed Bellinboy Gas refinery. Sitting in an office that overviews Ireland’s largest construction site, which covers 13 hectares in a mass of twisting pipes and employs more than 800 workers, is Denise Horan, Shell’s new local spokeswoman. Where those opposed see bribes, Horan talks of nearly €10m in “social investment” in the Erris area.
Among those who have received funding is Belmullet GAA club and a scholarship scheme partly administered by Belmullet priest Fr Kevin Hegarty. He has condemned those opposed to the pipeline for employing “fascist” tactics, a position diametrically opposed by the local Kilcommon parish priest, who is supporting the campaigners.
Although Shell has “prioritised” funding schemes in Kilcommon Horan admits that “difficulties within that community has made it difficult for projects to come forward”. The case of a new football pitch constructed with company funds at Rossport School is highlighted — since Shell’s involvement in the project was publicised no one has played on it.
Horan, who only recently went from editing the Mayo News to working with Shell, is part of the company’s public face in Mayo.
Others are former editor of the Western People Christy Loftus and another new addition northerner Padraig McCluskey, who has been moved from the company’s north American division.
Shell spokespeople admit that “trust” of the Anglo-Dutch corporation is “low” with “a influential minority” in Kilcommon.
The 2005 Rossport Five confrontation was defused when Shell backed down. After “community consultation” overseen by former trade unionist Peter Cassells a new route was decided for the pipeline, and the pressure the gas will travel on land reduced from 345br to 144br, doubling the distance between the pipe and homes necessitated the pipeline’s landfall being moved from the townland of Rossport to Glengad. Here a pressure valve will decrease the pressure.
For the company, and some in the wider Erris area, these concessions should be viewed as a victory for the protest campaign. For many in Kilcommon, the changes only confirm Shell’s initial willingness to push through a dangerous project.
Horan said: “Up until 2005 it was badly handled. The jailing of the Rossport Five led to a huge outpouring of support. I think it is widely acknowledged locally that what was achieved by the protesters was huge in terms of the additional commitments that were given, including increased social funding. However, I don’t believe the project was unsafe at anytime because I don’t think any company would set out to do an unsafe project. Reputation and safety standards are a huge concern for Shell; it is not going to set out to cut corners.”
Other Shell workers have talked of facing intimidation from protesters, cars being followed and late night telephone calls. Belmullet Superintendent Micheal Larkin has no doubts about what is aligned against his force.
“A number of locals are involved, and have been arrested at recent protests. They may claim to have lost faith in policing, but they have also lost faith in their democratically elected representatives and the courts. But the silent majority are absent.”
Supt Larkin describes the conflict “as a battle for democracy”.
Beyond the confines of Erris the gardaí have also been active, calling into the Dublin homes of some protesters to inform them of the “dangerous elements” who lie behind the campaign.
To back this up critics point to the presence of Éirígí activists at recent “days of action”. This group comprises mainly young Dubliners who split from Sinn Féin in 2006, unhappy at what they saw as its move away from campaign politics.
Also the appearance of former leading IRA activist and fugitive from Colombian justice Jim Monaghan at protests has provoked some fevered speculation.
However, those close to Mr Monaghan insists that, at 64 years, he is merely returning to his protest politics roots.
For those opposed to the pipeline the involvement since late 2007 of Integrated Risk Management Security, a company ran by former Defence Force ranger Jim Farrell, is equally as sinister. Among the 160 I-RMS security guards employed at the site in 2008 was 24-year-old Tipperary man Michael Dwyer, who was shot dead by Bolivian security forces in the company of far right paramilitaries.
Talking to the Irish Examiner in the Broadhaven Hotel, Mr Farrell confirmed that two Eastern European men who travelled to Bolivia with Mr Dwyer have in recent weeks resigned from his company. He dismisses speculation of any possible involvement by his company in the South American venture. Equally, he says speculation of “Republican involvement” in the Kilcommon protests are over played.
What both sides agree on is that the Solitaire’s arrival in Broadhaven Bay will mark a possibly decisive new phase in the conflict. The conflict has raised up spectres in the local community not seen since the days of the land war. One local offered a tale dating back to the period of a family who were so submissive to the local landlord that they attended a wake for his dog — there descendents are among those backing Shell.
A possible compromise supported by a new community group — Pobal Cill Coman — which has emerged from the Shell to Sea campaign now calls for the pipeline to come ashore at the deserted area of Glinsk. This is described as unfeasible by Shell.
Company spokesman Padraig McCluskey said: “We want to just get on and deliver within the parameters of planning and show that we are a professional operator.”
Paul Lynch, a 27-year-old Cork native, environmental engineer and former Green party voter, who has been involved in the solidarity camp since seeing YouTube footage of a gardaí baton charge against protesters in 2006 sees it differently.
“We will oppose the Solitaire by whatever peaceful direct action is needed. If someone gets hurt it will be because of Shell pushing on with this in the face of peaceful opposition, the cards are in their hands.”