'Shell snaps its fingers and the State hops to it' - Maura Harrington
In Bellmullet court on Thursday, five Shell to Sea protesters were up for hearings on charges ranging from last August 2008 to this June 2009. Judge Anderson dismissed several charges on technical points but was very harsh in serving two of the campaigners with four and eight month prison sentences.
Maura Harrington, a well known Shell to Sea campaigner and spokesperson who has already spent time in Mountjoy prison twice this year for acts of civil disobedience against Shell, was given a four month prison sentence for Section 8 public order charges (failure to obey the directions of a garda). The judge took quite an interest in the fact that Maura had spent much of her life as a public servant. She was a school teacher for 36 years in Inver, and would have taught several generations of local people in Erris. The judge asked Maura if all of her ex-pupils are 'potential anarchists'. The court offered a suspended sentence if Maura agreed to enter into a good behaviour bond to keep the peace. As an objector to the Shell gas project and an active citizen committed to civil disobedience exposing the injustice of the Corrib Gas Project, Maura told the court that she could not agree to such bond conditions, and was given four months imprisonment for it. Referring to Maura's refusal to enter into the peace bond the judge accused Maura of wanting “to be free to assault members of An Garda Síochána.”
Niall Harnett was also up for a Section 8 public order charges from an incident that had happened last 30 August 2008. The timing of these cases is highly political, as many of these case were only introduced in the Spring so that hearings and convictions would coincide with the Solitaire and Shell works this summer, making it more difficult for people to protest against the project. Niall had already had a suspended sentence of three months which he was supposed to have served if he'd committed another offense within 12 months. This 30 August incident was within the 12 months, but a judge in Clare chose not to activate the suspended sentence last month. In the Belmullet court Judge Anderson asserted that he had no authority to activate the suspended sentence since the Clare judge had chosen not to, and so that he would treat the Section 8 charges as an isolated incident. However it was still dealt with harshly because as the judge explained, in terms of the 'range of penalties' a person can receive, a custodial sentence comes next after suspended sentence. Niall received four months in prison for the Section 8 charge. Judge Anderson ruled that Niall's bail pending appeal would have stringent conditions, meaning the appeal conditions would be such that if Niall appeals the conviction and is released from prison, he must stay away from all Shell work sites in Erris, including the compound on the beach at Glengad, the refinery in Bellanboy, and the Shell offices in Belmullet (as well as the surrounding waters of Erris). However as an objector to the Shell gas pipeline 'committed to civil disobedience to Shell's law' Niall refused to sign these bail bond conditions, essentially giving up the opportunity to be released from prison pending an appeal. He could have had his liberty by Friday, but he did not feel that he could rightfully agree to such extreme bail bond conditions which would essentially surrender his right to protest.
Eoin Lawless was up for Section 11 charges of trespass from an incident that happened over the Rossport Solidarity Camp gathering weekend on 31 May 2009. Garda Flannigan MY162 testified that protesters approached the perimeter fence of the Shell compound with scaffolding to help them jump over to the inside of the fence where there were gardaí and IRMS security waiting for them. Garda John F Mulligan was the arresting officer. The State called Martin McDermott from Roadbridge Ltd as a witness. Roadbridge are the project managers for the Glengad landfall project, and McDermott's testimony said that he is in charge of workings, various companies working in the compound, and authorising persons to go on site. He said that he did not authorise Eoin to go on site, however the judge ruled that the state did not provide sufficient evidence for a trespassing conviction. Judge Anderson said that there was no evidence from the site owner and that he had no proof that McDermott is the sole person who can authorise entry to the site, so the charges were dismissed.
Eoin Lawless was also up for a second hearing from an event that happened 30 August 2008, the same protest which Niall and Maura had faced convictions for that morning. Like Maura and Niall, Eoin faced Section 8 public order charges, failure to comply with directions of a garda. Gara Jim Daly MY98 was the arresting officer, and testified that it was not him but Inspecter Martin Byrne who had issued the Section 8 order. Sergeant James Gill MY23 also testified that Inspector Byrne had given the Section 8 order, and during his testimony brought up an 'incident' which had occurred in court that morning. He said that at 11:50pm [sic] Eoin Lawless approached him in court and allegedly told Gill that he was a scumbag for putting him in jail for four days for nothing. The defense lawyer responded by posing Sergeant Gill with the question 'Is there any truth to that statement?' The courtroom was highly amused by this, however Sergeant Gill was not and became extremely red in the face. The defense lawyer asked Gill if he needed a minute to compose himself, and said that 'Perhaps I should break down the question for you.' Gill accepted this offer, and the defense lawyer proceeded to ask him 'Do you deny the allegation that you are a scumbag?' At this point Sergeant James Gill's veins in his face were nearly bursting, and much of the courtroom was openly laughing at him. After a few awkward minutes for Sergeant Gill, the judge decided that the issue was irrelevant.
Sergeant Gary Walsh MY33 and Garda Martin McHugh MY67 also testified against Eoin Lawless, testifying about the protest that occurred on 30 August and that Inspector Byrne had issued the Section 8 order to the group of protesters which Eoin was a part of. The prosecution was not able to establish that any garda specifically gave Eoin the Section 8 order, but they seemed to be repeating that it had been given to 'the crowd generally'.
Jim Farrell, an IRMS Security manager, also testified against Eoin though he said he had 'no dealings with Lawless' and he was 'vague in my recollection of him'. When he was asked to clarify the IRMS relationship with the An Garda Síochána, Farrell responded that it was 'A professional relationship. Like anyone else, we call them if we need assistance.' The defense lawyer proposed that IRMS is like the 'first line of defense', then come the gardaí. However Farrell refuted that, saying that this particular protest had happened in the road outside the gates of the compound which was a public place, and that 'we don't have jurisdiction on public property.'
Eoin Lawless testified that he never heard clear directions by Byrne or any other garda, and that he was never asked why he was there, and that it never came into question what his lawful excuse might be. He said that if he'd been asked he would have explained that people's lives are being put at risk and that is his reason for doing whatever he can to block work on the project. However the judge did not see it his way. Judge Anderson ruled that Section 8 orders do not have to be given to individuals but can be directed at a crowd, and he convicted Eoin. The judge said that Eoin would have to sign a good behaviour bond to keep the peace for two years, and though Eoin expressed reluctance to sign a bond which gardaí could use against him in a corrupt manner, he agreed.
Iollain O Mongain, Eoin O Leidhin and Niall Harnett all faced Section 6 breach of the peace charges relating to an incident from 13 September 2008 when a group of protesters attempted to access the public beach at Glengad. Sergeant James Malone MY213 testified that it was 'unsafe' to access the beach because of the work going on. The judge ruled that in order for a breach of the peace to occur members of the public who fear potential future events must be present, and he deemed that as there were only protesters, IRMS and gardaí present, there were no members of the public. The Section 6 charges were dismissed.
Though the Section 6 charges from 13 September were dropped for all three defendants, Niall was also up for Section 2 assault of a garda charges from the same incident. Video footage was shown in court which raised serious questions about the gardaí's allegations of assault, and Niall argued that while he had held the hand of garda Hugh Egan MY101, he had only done so to prevent Egan from assaulting his friend who was stuck in the fence. The footage clearly shows the person stuck in the fence in distress and protesters asking garda Egan to calm down and 'use reasonable force'. Garda Egan is the garda out of uniform in the brown jacket. In court one defendant referred to Egan as 'a bull in a china shop.' The person who had been stuck in the fence gave evidence in court, and said that it was a 'disgrace' that Niall was up for assault when Egan's behaviour towards himself had been much more aggressive and reckless. Garda Micheal Clark MY2 testified that there were no IRMS security around the person who had been stuck in the fence despite photos submitted in court with the person surrounded by security. Despite a seeming lack of evidence towards an assault of Egan, Niall was convicted and given a second four month prison sentence to be served consecutively after the first one.
On Friday Maura appealed her conviction, and was released from prison on bail pending appeal. Niall is unable to do the same because of the stringent appeal conditions which he was given. He is currently in Castlerae prison in County Rosscommon, letters are much appreciated. His address is:
If you cannot send post, please sent messages of support to rossportsolidaritycamp[at]gmail[dot]com, and we will pass on the message (but obviously handwritten letters are nicer).
Caption: The footage which was shown in court from the 13 September