Rossport: a closer look.

Police patrol boats in Rossport
Police patrol boats in Rossport

This article on the Shell to Sea campaign and on Rossport Solidarity Camp, was written in May 2006, for a publication which unfortunately did not see the light of day. It is a look at the campaign against the state and Shell’s “development” of a corner of the west of Ireland, situating it in an international context of environmental justice struggles.

Submitted by Terry on September 15, 2007

This campaign against the plan to build an unprecedented high-pressure raw gas pipeline and refinery in Northwest Mayo is in its sixth year, but last spring took a turn towards popular protest and direct action and has shut down construction work.
The feature will look three strands within this struggle. Firstly at the politicisation and political issues arising in the context of the struggle; secondly locating Shell to Sea in a framework of similar movements in Ireland and abroad; and finally about what the experience of this campaign says about ways for the libertarian left to get out of the “activist ghetto”.

Shell to Sea

The Shell to Sea campaign has its heart in a marginalized and sparsely populated corner of North Mayo, which has long been hit hard by migration.
Shell’s plan is to build a high-pressure raw gas pipeline 9 km over land to an on shore refinery. Campaigners believe this is only the first part of the destruction planned for the area, as there is likely to be further commercial gas fields off the coast, and possibly oil. The campaign demands that, as a minimum, the gas be refined at sea, as is the normal practise.
The on shore part of the development is to begin on a beach at Glengad, Pollatomish, where since February 2006 Rossport Solidarity Camp has been located. This beachhead is the landfall where the pipeline from the Corrib gas field is to hit land.
The pipeline is then to cross over Sruth Fada Conn bay into Rossport, travel along beside a public road and houses before crossing over the bay again to the refinery site at Ballinaboy.

At Ballinaboy is a picket occupying an unassuming horse-box trailer, now bedecked with newspaper cuttings, posters and photos. The picket operates from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday. Almost all the participants had, until comparatively recently, no experience of political campaigning or community activism. Most would have been voting along traditional Civil War lines, i.e. for either of the two main right wing parties Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. This is in an area with no tradition of collective action or popular protest. The local establishment, clerical, business, political, and in pressure groups, were lined up on the side of Shell from day one.

The mobilisation, politicisation and empowerment of residents involved in this struggle is described by one as “a form of primitive democracy, like a New England town meeting”. Another Mayo Shell to Sea campaigner describes the change like this
“[people are] a lot more socially aware, people who would normally say mind their own business or say keep out of things that say didn’t concern them, or that they knew nothing about, people would have generally kept themselves to themselves, and I would have been the same way, I wouldn’t have got involved in stuff that I thought was not my business. So I think people have woken up to the fact that if you do nothing, if you have an attitude sure someone will take care of it, sure the council is there to take care of us, the government is there to take care of us, if you let them do that job without checking on them now and again that is a very dangerous thing. So people in general have become aware that you have to be active in the community, you have responsibilities to the community in which you live and people have realised that and are now taking it into their own hands.”

Direct action has been an important component in the mobilisation. A very small country road is the only way into the compound for construction of the pipeline in Rossport.
In June 2005 there was a sort of ‘park in’ on this road, as the road is so narrow heavy goods vehicles can not pass parked cars on it. This went on for 12 days, 24 hours a day, preventing the entry of the 60 to 70 truck loads a day which were to be going to the Rossport compound. This very practical and very accessible action, and the fact there were people there all the time, played a very important role in bringing people together.
On June 28th while this ‘park in’ was on going, five residents, subsequently to become known as the Rossport Five, were imprisoned for refusing to obey a court order forcing them to allow Shell hired engineers access to their, and their neighbours’, small farms.
At this point mass picketing began at all the Shell construction sites, shutting them down.

This struggle has raised a lot of issues and linked in with a lot of issues.

Most obviously around planning and development and who decides what is built where. A hot issue given that, as shown in the planning tribunals, much of the transformation of Dublin has been decided in smoke filled rooms in the back of Conways pub with financial transactions between lobbyists, developers and politicians. More fundamental than simple corruption is the fact that power of decision is vested in unaccountable hands in the first place, be they from the world of business or the world of politics. Yet more fundamentally the question of what gets planned and developed is answered by the short-term considerations of profit and market, shown in the Corrib gas case by the fact that the gas could be refined at sea, as the campaign demands, with very very minor costs by comparison with Shell’s turnover. This point is underlined when you consider that with global warming investment in fossil fuels is hardly appropriate and even moreover with the fact that simply leaving the gas in the ground for the time being would be more beneficial from a long-term energy security point of view, as it would be a reserve for future shortages. Shell to Sea has been closely watched by people facing similar mis-development crises around the country, and it fair to say it carries many peoples’ hopes.

The whole Corrib gas story raises the issue of in whose interest does the state rule, given the extent to which the development has required the states’ active participation. For instance changing legislation so that compulsory acquisition orders could be used for a gas pipeline; selling Shell state forestry land for the refinery site; holding special private meetings between Shell and planning officials.
Not to mention the privatisation of natural resources, with a special low cut tax rate, the removal of royalties, and the removal of the policy of discount sale of gas to the state gas company. The imprisonment of the Rossport Five was a classic case of one law from them, one law for us.
The campaign has linked in with victims of frame ups, with Paul Hill of the Guildford Four, and Nicky Kelly, framed for the Sallins train robbery, visiting Rossport Solidarity Camp.

The Shell to Sea struggle has made significant international links. For many years Mayo has been visited by relatives of Ken Saro Wiwa, a Nigerian writer executed by the Nigerian state for opposing Shell, a row of white crosses opposite the gates of Ballinaboy commemorates some of the people executed with him. We have recently been visited by South Africans who are campaigning against the pollution caused by oil refineries in South Durban, as well as by activists from struggles in Iceland, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

The similarities between the tactics employed by corporations and states the world over has really struck people, both visitors and hosts. The same sponsorship bribes, the same lying pr mantra about jobs, the same establishment of fake pro-‘development’ ‘community groups’, and most of all the same support by states, the world over, for developments and privatisations which imperil their ‘citizens’.
Many of the international visitors stressed that a positive outcome in the Shell to Sea battle would benefit the situation in their countries, particularly those with a problem with Shell.

Environmental Justice

The horde of community-based campaigns against hazardous, or simply unwanted, developments around the island rarely blip on to the political and media radars of Irish life.
Outside of the immediate local areas in which they occur it is very very easy to be unaware of their existence.
A full count of these campaigns is beyond the capabilities of the author, and indeed possibly anyone, but consider the following list as some indication of the extent of this form of grassroots community action. All of the following are campaigns which have came to my attention in one way or the other in recent times; there are anti-pylons groups in North Dublin, Cork, Roscommon and Donegal; protests against Lagan Cement in Kinnegad; protests against the proposed building of an incinerator in Ringsend, Dublin; a campaign against a waste dump in North Dublin; as well as the famous Shell to Sea there have been a number of other campaigns in North Mayo recently, and, further south in that county, protests against a road in Westport; a few years ago Galway city was the site of an anti-incinerator movement, and there is currently a major campaign in Cork city and its environs against the proposed development of a toxic waste incinerator in Ringaskiddy.

All of these happen in particular contexts and unfold in a unique fashion; for the most part there is not a general form applicable to all cases. Usual themes are health and safety concerns, and anger at the lack of consultation with affected communities is a perennial. Protest around amenity space issues or protest focused on ‘unspoilt nature’ exists but is less common. However the nature of the campaigns, the organisational forms, the tactics used, the political forces involved and the issues raised, or not, beyond health/lack of consultation, differs widely. Hence no general rule can be simply lifted from the Shell to Sea case and applied across the board, nonetheless the experience of the resistance to Shell in Mayo underlines the importance of keeping a close watch on this sort of community activism. That experience bears out the value of the orientation of the sixth Grassroots Gathering, one of series of left libertarian conferences, towards community based ecological struggles. At this gathering, in Galway in November 2003, there were a number of speakers at one session from what was then a little known campaign, later to be called as Shell to Sea and then mostly focused on the planning appeals process. Out of links made then subsequently developed Rossport Solidarity Camp, and Shell to Sea as a national and international campaign group.

Other countries have seen the development of environmental justice movements coming out of ‘fenceline communities’, that is residents downwind of hazardous developments. Mostly this has developed someways in opposition to ‘mainstream environmentalism’, as was outlined by Siziwe Khanyile from Groundwork in South Africa: “I think traditionally what we have seen in South Africa is that there has been a very strong environmental movement where you had your conservation types, you know, and they were seen in a particular way as, you know, very distant and doing their own thing caring about the environment and animals and not about people but the environmental justice movement links the struggles of people because it relates not only to pollution and the environment but it relates to peoples’ everyday lives, the poverty that people face, the injustices that they face in their lives, and it makes those linkages so it is not too far removed from peoples’ everyday struggles.” [1]

Some interpretations see this distinction as rooted in class, gender, race and bureaucracy: “The hierarchally structured organisations of the professional environmental movement, most of them headquartered in Washington D.C., predominantly consist of white, male, upper and middle class, paid employees. Their constituencies reflect a similar demographic pattern of white, highly educated, upper and middle class members. Their elitist membership profile and organisational structure of the professional environmental organisations, along with their neglect, if not ignorance, of the social justice and public health implications of environmental problems, contributed to an ever growing rift between low income and minority communities and the mainstream environmental movement.” [2]

The term ‘Environmental justice movement’ developed originally in the United States to describe a radical outgrowth of campaigns against toxic waste dumping in the late 70s and early 80s.
Some commentators see the environmental justice movement in the United States as akin to the ‘environmentalism of the poor’.
Environmentalism of the poor being a term used to describe environmental conflicts in the global South with a strong social element and orientation towards survival and the defence of livelihood and community. The expression is part of an analysis that denies the concept of environmentalism being a ‘post material value’, a product of affluence and a ‘new middle class’.
The most famous cases of environmentalism of the poor being the Chipko movement in India in the 1970s, Brazilian rubber tappers’ opposition to deforestation in the Amazon, and the struggle against the Narmada dam project in India today.
However the list of similar resistance movements the world over is one with out end.
The Chipko movement was a struggle carried out largely by women from villages adjoining forests threatened by logging and commercial forestry, which would deny local people the use of the forest as a subsistence resource, and, by disrupting the ecology, lead to flooding and soil erosion.

Similarly in the 87,000 riots and mass protests in China in 2005 pollution and the requisition of land for new developments appears to have featured prominently.
The following is how one witness described an uprising there against the construction of a coal fired power plant: "I guess there were about 10-20,000 locals and more than 1,000 police, including militia. The police used rubber bullets first, then villagers threw petrol bombs and pipe bombs at them, so the police used some kind of machine gun ... I heard from others that three people were killed."
Conversely the problem with interpreting environmental conflicts as a form of class struggle is it is never that simple. The Karnataka State Farmers Association for instance, famous for spearheading the opposition to genetically modified seeds in India, is formed by landowners dominant in their villages, and while themselves uncompetitive when faced with global agro-industry, are the main exploiters of labour on a local level. Hence one does have to suss out the class nature of any environmental conflict closely to ascertain its actual liberatory potential.

Rossport Solidarity Camp

Rossport Solidarity Camp developed by drawing on left libertarian networks that had grown out of anti-war and anti-globalisation activism.
From June till September 2005 it was located on the proposed pipeline route in Rossport, in February 2006 it re-opened in Glengad, beside the proposed pipeline landfall. It has played two main roles, one is being part of the pickets and actions which have so far closed construction work down, and the other is being a place people can visit to learn about what is going on at first hand and then go home to contribute to building the campaign in their own locality.
The camp was born out of the Solidarity Gathering held in Rossport in early June 2005, which also established Shell to Sea groups for Cork, Dublin, Galway and other parts of the country.
It is fair to say that the camp represents a departure from the usual political practise of the networks that have been its principal source of recruits and support.
Does it, and the left libertarian involvement in the Shell to Sea campaign, offer a way out of the “activist ghetto”? The following will look at the possibilities and the possible objections to such a route out.
Ben Trott writes in Shut Them Down, the book about the Dissent wing of 2005’s G-8 protests:
“That struggle is taking place all around us continues to this day to be largely overlooked by many of those who identify themselves as political activists. More often than not, struggle is understood as ‘activism’ and activism alone.”

This is the politics of moral outrage, where the determinant of activity is not any kind of strategic perspective on what will or will not contribute to social change, or even what is possible to achieve as a single-issue reform, but is rather the cry to ‘do something’.
This ends up with a politicised youth sub-culture that will burn itself out.
Even tendencies with an on paper focus on class struggle are more likely to be found practising an approach which involves establishing their own campaign around a class based issue or, more often of late, with class based propaganda. That is to say the impetus for the campaign comes from a political minority, which would be called a party but for its rejection of that organisational form. The campaign then aims to draw in “ordinary people”.
The end result is campaigns dominated by a plethora of left groups, with a mostly pretty passive support in the wider society.
Another approach would be to see what actual existing struggles are out there throwing a spanner into the works of capital and the state and to contribute to them.
This has been the path that Rossport Solidarity Camp and the left-libertarian involvement in Shell to Sea has gone down.

The argument against this is that of ‘objective factors’ and a ‘low level of struggle’.
On that I would claim that there is always resistance going on, and it can be found if you look for it. Earlier in this article there is a long list of environmental struggles, but there are others around other issues as well, for example police brutality.
Moreover the injection of support into a struggle can give the participants more opportunity to take more militant action and be more steadfast, knowing they are not isolated. That is to say altering the ‘objective factor’ that is a ‘low level of struggle’.
Moreover a victory on one issue will have a domino effect of confidence building for campaigns on related issues.

One cannot say that such an approach is exclusive to our involvement in Shell to Sea, supporting; for instance, the Belfast postal workers strike is, to my mind, of obvious similarities.
The fact that, for at least some sections of the libertarian left, the first, Shell to Sea, would be seen as ‘abnormal’ and the second, the postal workers, as ‘normal’, serves to demonstrate the extent to which those parts of our movement most absorbed in the practises and attitudes of the traditional left have difficulties in thinking outside the box.
Tara Jones’s and Robert Allen’s book Guests of the Nation is an odyssey through decades of community based environmental campaigns in Ireland and is replete with examples of the Workers Party and Trade Unions opposing, to the extent of having counter-protests, movements standing against hazardous developments.

A faint strain of this muddled thinking lives on in the notion of treating ‘environmental issues’ and ‘class struggle’ as things separate and distinct.
Though one cannot counter-pose class struggle to environmental issues as a critique of the Shell to Sea campaign given the left libertarian movement, in the few years that it has existed in Ireland to any significant extent, has on the whole, not engaged in class struggle. Part of the problem is that environmentalism, as a political movement, as opposed to a facet of popular resistance, has, for the most part, consisted of either conservative forces (the Green Party, NGO types) or a ‘radical’ wing without a social or class analysis which finishes with absurdities such as valuing trees over humans.

Even much of what has existed as a red-green synthesis rejected a class struggle perspective. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that people influenced by traditional left concepts are confused by the word ‘environment’.

There is also a degree of flak campaigns such as Shell to Sea get, from various sources, the cry that it is just N-I-M-B-Y (not in my backyard). It would be curious if the logic that the people most directly affected by a problem should not be at the heart of the movement to address that problem was applied elsewhere, say to feminism, or to strikes.

A more pertinent criticism of the camp would be that as a tactic it is extremely inaccessible as it requires a full time staff, and is not open to people with full time jobs, mortgages, and kids, or most people basically. In so far as is possible Rossport Solidarity Camp has attempted to address this within the inevitable boundaries set by the protest camp tactic. For instance great stress is laid on people being welcome to come for whatever amount of time they can come for, and, if truth be told someone there for a day, but bringing vital logistical support, is playing a crucial role.

Nonetheless the camp tactic has little viability outside of a context of mass unemployment or a large drop out counter-culture. It has a particular use value in the Rossport situation due to the sparse population of the area, and due to the fact the area is very remote from any city or town from where people could travel out to support on a part-time basis. Generally I wouldn’t envisage the future after Rossport Solidarity Camp being one of a string of protest camps. The wider Shell to Sea campaign offers a more practical model for the future. In this you have political networks around the country mobilised in support of a particular localised residents’ opposition to a development project. It will be harder to achieve this around other situations than it has been around Shell in Mayo. This for a couple of reasons, firstly because in this instance there is more for people to relate to, particularly the privatisation of natural resources, and as a civil liberties issue during the imprisonments, secondly because the development itself is so bad there is a strong moral outrage aspect to feed the mobilisation. Furthermore at one stage there was much media coverage on Shell to Sea, unfortunately this is often a determinant of political activists’ activity in the belief, not borne out by the Shell to Sea campaign, that this will provide an impetus for a broader participation. On that note consider the fact that almost all the people picketing petrol stations in Dublin came from various left groups.

The test for whether or not Shell to Sea has been a real step out of the “activist ghetto” will come if its model can, and will, be repeated without those particular factors.

Immediate tasks.

Of course all that is for the future. The immediate task for now is to win victory in Mayo. Although in the last year we have been very successful, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels, this is a major infrastructural project with a lot of money involved and it is most likely that the enemy is waiting for the right opportunity to strike.
From June to September 2005, during the imprisonment of the Rossport Five, there was a lot of public interest and sympathy, and media attention. Unfortunately this was not capitalised on to the extent it could have been. What we need to do now is relate the situation in Mayo to working peoples’ day to day lives in the rest of the country.
Ultimately instinctual sympathy with something happening far away can only bring the Shell to Sea cause forward so far. Linking in means a greater focus on the privatisation of natural resources, or, essentially, their give away, and with what the gas and probable oil could pay for, this being particularly relatable to the health system crisis in the Republic.
We also need more and more people to come to the camp, even for a couple of days, and we need people to promote the camp, nationally and internationally.
Another direction we our going down is calling for solidarity protests at Shell’s sub-contractors, particularly the construction firm Roadbridge.
We can win, we will win, but we need you help, all are welcome to participate.

[2] Banu Koçer Reisman, Revolutionary Aspirations + Piecemeal Solutions = Imperfect Reform? Environmental Justice Movement in the U.S.A.. in Colin Barker and Mike Tyldesley (eds.) Eleventh International Conference on Alternative Futures and Popular Protest: Conference Papers Volume III. (Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University, 2006)