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Personal account of Day of Support in Mayo
rights, freedoms and repression |
Saturday February 17, 2007 15:01 by unmasked eyes and ears
To date residents and supporters of the Shell To Sea campaign have been staging an ongoing picket outside the Shell gas refinery gates in Ballinaboy. Numbers on average at these chilly weekday morning vigils vary between 40 to 60 people. The picket is a reminder both to the government and the petrochemical multinational that local residents are against the construction of the refinery and the laying of gas pipes in their area.
A national day of support was called, inviting people who empathise with this campaign to come up to Mayo on Friday 16th February 2007.This is what one person saw:
Announcement of National Demonstration ·
Breaking News of the Morning's Events (incl. Audio Reports) · Another Report of the Occupation ·
Photographic Report ·
Solidarity Action in Scotland
By 7am Friday morning plenty people had already started to assemble at the intersection near the Ballinaboy Bridge. Some supporters had noise-makers and instruments while others carried banners listing the toxins that are understood to be in Carrowmore lake since the construction of the refinery started. The mood was friendly and jovial, and as we walked along the left hand side of the road towards the construction site the morning light brightened and the initial threatening smudges of dark grey cloud began clearing.
One intrepid supporter had a modern day music box – and he was transporting his sound system around in a wheelbarrow, there were a few skeletons in our ranks and others were dressed as comical clowns with squeaky pork chop wings. A few of the stewards seemed quite stressed out by their task of herding people to stay to one side of the white line in the middle of the road – even when there were no cars driving past. People walked along meeting and chatting with each other –there were people from Mayo, Cork, Dublin and Galway; as well as visitors from England, Canada, the US and Australia.
By the time we reached the construction site the workers and construction machinery were all on site and work had begun. There was a line of garda in front of the gates and a number of sunglasses & hard hat wearing security guards were peering over the fence at us. But it was the noisy continuous sound of the construction and drilling that seemed to cast a deflating spell on all of us.
Everyone that I spoke to today knew clearly why they were there and each time I have been up to Rossport I am amazed at how much in depth knowledge people have of the history, facts and figures of related to this controversial project; so I was surprised that while we were waiting in front of the gates (to one side of the road so that cars could drive by us), a few different voices came over the loudspeaker to tell us again why we were all there.
After the speeches it was apparent that there would be no attempt at all to block any vehicles leaving or arriving to the gates (and seeing that the construction work was going full steam ahead inside it would have been a bit pointless). It seemed too that this was always the intention, which surprised me because many of the people I spoke to, who had travelled quite a distance to be there, were ready to support this campaign by doing more than just typical symbolic, polite, marshalled protesting.
I was told that the decision to not attempt a blockade had been decided in a local Shell to Sea meeting as a few people were shocked and afraid of the garda’s mishandling of the day of support in November. Fair enough I guess, there were children on this walk, but quite a few people there did not realize that this was the intention from the outset; and quite a few people would probably not have bothered to come up at all as there is a walk-down-the-road-listen-to-speeches-demo in Dublin on Saturday the 24th Feb, and people wouldn’t have had to take time off work and travel so far.
We all dispersed then with some headed for soup and sandwiches but the mood was deflated. It was on this stroll back that whisperings of another action were happening and everyone was invited to take part. A number of us crossed the fence and waited at the bottom of that section of exposed pipeline where we had a brief meeting. At this point a resident from Rossport explained that this pipeline leads to the construction site and that the intention of this demonstration was to stick together as a group, go onto the site, halt the work and carry out a peaceful, non-aggressive inspection of the site. It was at this point that people who were uncomfortable with this could turn back. Some other members of Shell to Sea handed out leaflets with legal and medical support phone numbers; and I think this made people feel at ease that there would be experienced assistance if the gardai took a hard-line reaction to this.
We then walked along the wooden pallets parallel to the corroding pipe, and turned the corner into the site. Workers saw us as soon as we turned the corner. They halted their vehicles and sat back smoking cigarettes and watched us. There was no hostility to them as we walked past them, with some of our group encouraging them “Workers, workers join with us.”
We stopped at least 3 times to wait for people at the back to catch up, but also at these points those familiar with the area explained our location in relation to Carrowmore lake, Glenamoy, the camp and the direction of and numbers of each of the 3 gates on site. I think this type of information dissemination is imperative on an action like this, and thanks to those who filled us in.
No one disagreed with the proposal to head towards the main site, do the inspection and hopefully exit through Gate 1 – the main gate the guards had blocked earlier. We also had a brief discussion about what to do if the gardai baton charged us. Each time we stopped the point for us to stick together and not wander away from our route was reiterated. When got to the main area of the site a rough headcount said there were about 95 of us. There was no aggression from us towards the workers, to the point that when one of our group (a local resident) shouted “scumbag” a few times to one of the workers he was shushed by others in our group.
It was around this point also that 1 person from our group got his wrist injury; he did leave our group unilaterally (and some said stupidly) on his own after all our reminders to stay together, so he didn't really get much sympathy from a number of people I spoke to.
We now waited together for a while with some of our group taking photos of the building to date and others just happy to delay the work for as long as possible, eating some food and sharing tea or coffee. Again some chanted “Workers, workers join with us”, which was greeted with bemused smiles from a few of the construction workers who were all standing to one side watching us.
I think this reluctance to leave stood in our favour and the fact that we were nearly 100 strong also helped, as when the gardai arrived they seemed happy enough to escort us off the site, as opposed to baton charging us. As they surrounded us two of them started pushing one of the journalists with us, but the higher-ranking officers calmed them down and insisted that the back-line of gardai step back away from us. I appreciated this, as its difficult to walk calmly when you are surrounded by over 120 gardai with 3 paddy wagons waiting on site behind you, and on the walk down you pass 2 bus-loads full of police backup.
As we existed the gates that earlier had been locked keeping us out, fellow campaigners cheered, rhythmically hitting the metallic fence surrounding the site. I think the only reason we managed to leave the site without any arrests or assaults by the gardai was because they were there to witness our exit, along with journalists and camera crews from the BBC, TG4, Al Jazeera and newspaper photographers. So massive thanks to those that waited in support.
Some have said that the police got violent as they closed the gates and cleared the road, but having seen how the gardai up here have behaved before, I think it was just a minor bit of muscle flexing and a very belated attempt at asserting “authority”.
The mood outside the terminal and on the walk back to the hall to get soup and tea had totally lifted; and nearly every residential car driving by hooted, waving in support and giving everyone thumbs up. Although I was disillusioned with the initial protest, I see now that it suited many people and so the day ended up being a day of symbiosis, with 2 different methods of voicing ones opposition to this project being mutually supported by the other.