MAURA Harrington should have been enjoying her first week of retirement from her job teaching children at Inver National School in Mayo last week. Instead, she was on hunger strike. Hardly normal behaviour for a pillar of the community in the rural north Mayo village. But locals are used to such extreme behaviour from the 55-year-old gaelgeoir who, as spokeswoman for the Shell to Sea campaign, has led the protests against Shell EP Ireland's plans to bring gas onshore. When a ship arrived last month to begin laying pipes that would bring gas from the Corrib field onshore at Mayo, protesters took to their kayaks and Maura Harrington declared she would starve herself to death if it didn't leave.
Embedded in her car parked at the gates of Shell's compound at Glengad for 11 days, she claimed that not a morsel of food had passed her lips. Her only concession was water mixed with salt. By day, she made occasional visits to use a neighbour's washing facilities, when necessary. By night, she wrapped up in her car. "I have a delightful, gorgeous woolly blanket that was given to me by a neighbour of mine who makes gorgeous soft woolens. Her label is Fastnet, so you could give her a plug," she said last week. "I sleep quite contentedly."
Her hunger strike ended at 3pm on Friday after the Solitaire was dispatched from Irish waters. It didn't seem to matter that retreat of the Solitaire had to nothing to do with Maura's fast. The ship was damaged during pipe laying, had been resting in Donegal, and on Thursday was sent for repairs to Scotland. That didn't stop Maura and Shell to Sea from claiming the intervention of "Divine Grace".
Such extremes are par for the course in what has become one of the longest-running civil protests in recent history. Shell plans to pipe gas from the Corrib field, bring it onshore at Glengad beach and feed it through pipes that cross nine kilometres of land to a refinery, currently under construction in Bellanaboy.
The Government, corporate Ireland and Fine Gael support the plans. Ireland is fast running out of gas and imports more than 80 per cent of supplies from the UK. The community is divided. Some want the Shell development. Others -- protesters claim a majority -- don't. There are concerns over pollution of the water supply, health hazards, risk of landslides, destruction of natural habitat and the environment.
Local protest galvanised around five farmers who refused to allow the pipeline to cross their land. When they were jailed in 2005 for flouting a court injunction to stop diggers on their property, they gained hero status. The campaign to Free the Rossport Five became the Shell to Sea campaign. Its stated aim at that time was to get Shell to process the gas offshore, with minimal disruption to the environment, and away from the local community.
What began as a legitimate local protest has become a magnet for international eco-warriors, rebels in search of a cause, and political groups in search of a platform. The initial demand that gas processing take place off shore has grown into an argument about who should control Ireland's natural resources. Shell to Sea branches have cropped up everywhere from Dublin to Belfast to Germany. The Rossport Solidarity Camp hosts visiting eco-warriors and agitators bussed or ferried in from abroad.
A demonstration in November last year ended with one of the ugliest clashes yet between gardai and protesters. There were claims of republican infiltration of the cause. Two of those arrested were members of a fledgling group of revolutionary socialists and disaffected former Sinn Fein members now in a group called Eirigi. Founded in 2006, its aims include a 32-county Ireland, the nationalisation of natural resources and it supports the people's right to "armed struggle in the correct context" (although not in the present climate, points out its chairman, Brian Leeson).
They were Dominic McGlinchy, the son of the late and notorious INLA leader, and Robert Jackson, a former IRA prisoner who served 20 years on an explosives offence and was released under the Good Friday Agreement. They were each given the Probation Act for blocking a public thoroughfare at the sit-down protest.
Another Eirigi member, Brendan McKenna, a veteran of Catholic protests against Orange Order marches on the Garvaghy Road, was also there that day, advising protesters.
If Shell is to believed, there is also a rogue guerrilla element amongst the protesters. Last Sunday night, a soft drink bottle was filled with petrol, attached to a clock and a can of paint and left in a carrier bag outside Shell's headquarters on Leeson Street in Dublin. The device wasn't rigged. Had it exploded, it had the potential to kill or cause considerable damage. Shell linked the device to the Corrib protest, describing at as a "sinister development", to the anger of all the protest groups, who not only denied having anything to do with it but criticised the stunt. Nor have gardai found evidence of a link. They suspect it was the work of a maverick who planted the crude device as a sick prank or publicity stunt.
So just whose interests are being represented by the protest movement that has sprung up in Mayo? An answer is provided in a letter to the Minister for Energy, Eamon Ryan, in October. Three local priests wrote: "We believe that most people are not opposed to the gas coming ashore and seeing the area benefit. The opposition relates to the way it is being done." Shell's toadying to the local community didn't help matters either, according to the letter. "Health and safety, environment and quality of life, will not necessarily be enhanced or protected by attempts on the part of the developer to win support through sponsorship of sporting organisations, scholarships and multiple appointments of public relations staff with their photographs circulated periodically. Most people find such approaches disturbing and antagonistic ... "
The letter was signed by Fr Michael Nallen, Fr Michael Gilroy and Fr Sean Noone.
The same three priests later stepped in with a proposed solution. They suggested the refinery at Bellanaboy be scrapped and moved instead to Glinsk, an uninhabited area 12km north-east and far enough away from humans for comfort. Local people backed it and Poball Cill Chomain -- people of Kilcommon -- was formed.
John Monaghan, a former Shell to Sea leading light who is married to a daughter of Michael O Seighin, one of the Rossport Five, is its spokesman. Unlike Shell to Sea, the group doesn't engage in acts of civil disobedience.
"Last November there was a lot of protest and unrest at Bellanaboy, violence from the gardai, pushing and shoving. That was taking away from the health and safety aspects of what we were about. A lot of people felt that that was going down a road that was probably unnecessary. We never set out as a community to be in confrontation with anyone, especially gardai," said Monaghan.
"Our primary goal as a community is to ensure the health and safety and integrity of the people of the parish and the environment we live in. The only difference between ourselves and Shell to Sea is that Shell to Sea is also
driving for natural resources. There are still a number of people in the area who are supportive of both groups. Some people would say that there is a split, friction, that kind of thing but not really because the two sides complement each other."
Maura Harrington, of Shell to Sea, suggested otherwise. When the Sunday Independent raised Pobal Cill Chomain's claim that the majority of the community backed moving the refinery to Glinsk, she declined to comment. "They claim to speak for the majority of people of the parish," she said. "But I would ask you to discuss that with Pobal Cill Chomain. I I have no comment to make on the matter."
Asked if she would support the move to Glinsk, she declined to engage in "speculation", as Shell has already ruled that proposal out.
While the protest lobby groups might play down divisions, there is little doubt that the Corrib gas pipeline has had an ugly impact on the entire community. There have been allegations of intimidation of Shell workers. Paddy Cosgrove, a former Fianna Fail councillor who complained of intimidation to gardai, claimed that local people were afraid to speak out.
Gardai have been accused of heavy-handedness, claims denied by Superintendent John Gilligan. "The policing of this dispute is not easy but as much as possible people involved in the protest are given the opportunity to carry out a peaceful and lawful protest," he said. "In general with regard to certain criticisms, I would say we carry out our duties taking into account the rights of all concerned. I am very proud of the dedication and efforts of members of An Garda Siochana who work with me in policing this dispute."
Gardai have also received a battering. Last Sunday, at a solidarity rally for Maura Harrington's hunger strike organised by Shell to Sea, about 88 set off in convoy along the roads of Erris. Tempers flared when four gardai sitting in their unmarked car were spotted videoing the convoy. Two cars pulled in front and behind the garda car, effectively hemming it in. Protesters surrounded it. The car was jostled from side to side and allegedly, attempts were made to open the doors. Six local people were arrested last week.
Now that Shell has postponed its pipe-laying and Maura Harrington has called off her hunger strike, Michael D Higgins, the President of the Labour Party, called on the Government to use that window to bring "peace to Mayo". It is a sentiment shared by local Belmullet priest and columnist, Fr Kevin Hegarty. "My general impression is that most people in the community accept that the project is going to go ahead. Some accept it enthusiastically. Some people who are neutral sense that it's going to happen anyway. Then you have people from the community who are working on the construction of it or providing services, and who are quite happy about the whole matter."