Tunnel vision at Glen of the Downs
This week eco-warriors are ``digging in'' at the Glen of the Downs after spending two years carving out a dangerous network of tunnels beneath the forest they hope to save. It's their last gasp Doomsday action. Jerome Reilly goes underground
So how many tunnels lie concealed beneath the dank forest floor of the Glen of the Downs?
Is it a Viet Cong-style labyrinth of interconnected passageways, a sophisticated multi-level warren with box room sized chambers? Or are they merely a random smattering of large holes in the ground at shallow grave level just about capable of concealing one small, non-claustrophobic eco-warrior when the bulldozers move in?
Officials at Wicklow County Council wouldn't mind finding out just what's going on below ground right now, as the two year chess game in the forest between the protestors and the State reaches end game.
Less than a handful of the activists know the full extent of the tunnel network as a bit of ``loose lips sinks ships'' paranoia sets in.
Taking to the tunnels is their doomsday tactic and they reckon they can survive for weeks below ground. Water, dried fruit, ventilation tubes and candles have been stored, they claim.
The eco-warriors are working on the basis of posing an intense moral dilemma for the people they know are coming to root them out of the forest.
``Kill the tree and you kill me,'' is their last gasp scenario.
No-one in their right mind would drive a heavy excavator though the forest if they thought there may be someone dug-in a few feet beneath the massive caterpillar tracks. Nor would the gardai allow any risk to life.
Meetings have already been held between the protestors and senior local officers so they know, in broad brush strokes at least, the plans of the eco warriors.
By staying underground they hope to dissuade the tree fellers and bull dozers for a while.
But they know they can't hold out forever.
What they are seeking is a glorious defeat and a national and possibly international media-fest.
Remember Swampy, the teenage eco-warrior who dug himself in under a runway at Manchester International Airport?
The Glen of the Downs environmentalists want Charlie Bird shouting down the ventilation tubes and a live feed to Joe Duffy's Liveline direct from the tunnels.
So far two activists, a woman known as ``Eagle'' and a young man known as ``Mole Dragon'' have been chosen on the basis of their size and build to take to the narrow tunnels.
Mole Dragon has been the primary architect of tunnel complex claiming he has spent nearly two years digging way below the tree roots of the forest.
``It's quite easy to dig the soil around here because it's light screed, though at road level you can run into bedrock,'' he says.
Another eco-warrior maintains the experience of tunnel building in other locales has been utilised to ensure the tunnels are properly shored up and safe if they are left undisturbed from above and below ground.
Nevertheless it doesn't take the qualifications of a civil engineer to realise the inherent danger and utter foolhardiness of digging into relatively unstable ground even with just a few hundred pounds of soil above your head.
Mole Dragon is a college educated Wicklow man in his early 20s. It is of course in the protestors interests to exaggerate the extent of their underground lairs.
Any claim of extensive tunnelling, no matter how far fetched, would mean just mean further difficulties and lengthy investigations for the authorities when the time comes to move into the forest.
Yet the existence of the tunnels only came to light by accident when Council officials discovered a steel trap door set in concrete on the forest floor.
When it was opened, a vertical shaft about 20 inches in diameter was discovered travelling vertically about three feet. That ran into a horizontal shaft about six feet long.
The eco warriors, a motley collection of environmental protestors from Wicklow, and all parts of Ireland, the UK and Europe maintain this was a tunnel project which had simply been abandoned some time ago.
As their plans for a final show down continue in the forest there was another attempt in the Courts yesterday to prevent the construction of the 5km dual carriageway through the Glen of the Downs which would bring about the destruction of a significant swathe of forest.
Council officials maintain that the eco warriors are actually harming the forest they are seeking to protect and say the construction of a decent highway through the Glen is a necessity.
The latest effort to thwart the £18.5 million plan is being taken in the Supreme Court by way of an appeal against part of a High Court decision made last March that the carriageway may proceed.
Wicklow Co Council began felling trees for the road scheme in January 1998 but after it had felled 124 trees, it was forced to stop because of the protests.
Legal proceedings to halt the construction of the carriageway were instituted in the name of a Dublin computer technician, Dermot Murphy who now lives in Galway supported by the eco warriors.
But last March, High Court judge Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns gave the go-ahead for the roadway and ruled against Mr Murphy.
In the Supreme Court appeal, it is being submitted that the planned roadway works cannot go ahead without Ministerial approval amending a statutory instrument designating Glen of the Downs as a nature reserve within the meaning of the Wildlife Act.
The appeal is being heard by a five-judge court, with the Chief Justice, Liam Hamilton, presiding.
Just last week in the High Court an injunction was granted preventing a number of eco warriors from trespassing on Wicklow Co Council lands beside the carriageway site. They joined a list of other protestors named in previous injunctions.
Bob Burns, one of the protestors, says they have a general idea what's going to happen next, if the Supreme Court action goes against them.
``We expect a dawn or night time raid to remove us. There will be no violence or any rubbish like that. It is against every single thing we stand for.
Our main philosophy is NVDA Non-Violent Direct Action. We have plans to ensure we stay on the site. We will have people below ground in the tunnels, at ground level locked to re-inforced structures, and people high in the trees above.'' As they sat around the timber structure which serves as their main cooking area, the eco warriors said they would be able to call upon hundreds of supporters within hours.
A highly-organised mobile phone network will spread the word very quickly.
``We've been preparing for this for two years,'' says Bob Byrnes.
The other fortifications and defences include a series of tree houses they've built, linked with walkways high in the canopy.
The walkways will allow the protesters run from tree to tree if the bulldozers finally move in, to defend any trees they see threatened. They also have a number of `lock-ons' concrete and steel re-inforced contraptions hidden deep in the ground at strategic points near to trees to which the activists can attach themselves.
They have even utilised Council drainage ducts so they can place their arms below ground through narrow drainpipe wide steel tubes and handcuff themselves to objects which are only removeable following extensive and laborious excavation.
They say they've stockpiled enough canned food and dried fruit to enable them to hold out for some time.
On Monday nearly a dozen local people and their children in small groups came into their camp in the space of an hour to offer words of support and encouragement as some of the eco-warriors prepare to literally dig in.