Shamrocks and Oil Slicks

Wilcox’s Shamrocks and Oil Slicks recounts the inspiring resistance in county Mayo against their government and Shell Oil’s collusion to force oil development, finds Ellen Graubart

Fred A. Wilcox, Shamrocks and Oil Slicks: A People’s Uprising Against Shell Oil in County Mayo, Ireland (Monthly Review Press 2019), 168pp.

Fred Wilcox tells the story of peaceful resistance met by cruel violence, over a period of fifteen years, by a people whose love for their families and communities, the sea, their rivers, lakes and bogs, pitted them against Shell Oil -one of the world’s most destructive predators. Through their struggle, they have also shown us a way of resisting the powerful corporate/government interlock which threatens communities with destruction of the environment and their way of life.They have given us a model for the sort of action we must take to defend life on this planet against the cruel ravages of capitalism:

‘Abandoned by politicians, maligned by the media, beaten by mercenaries and the police, sent to prison, they chose truth over lies, courage over cowardice, and life over death. They represent the future – a sustainable world in which all creatures celebrate the gift of living together on the only planet on which we know, for certain, that life exists’(p.15).

Fred Wilcox is a man with past experience. He fought in the Vietnam war, has studied Irish history, and is also well aware of BP’s behaviour in Nigeria and other countries. His first trip to Ireland was in 1970, during the period of multiple assassinations: John F Kennedy, his brother Bobby, the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, several civil-rights workers, members of the Black Panthers movement, and students at Kent State University.

Fed up with the US, he flew to Ireland. At the time he was unaware of the extent of imperialism or of the colonisation of Ireland and its long struggles to become a free democratic nation. He arrived at the height of the troubles and travelled from town to town meeting and talking to people. Five years later he returned to Ireland, and read Irish history. He later became involved with a group of international observers in Northern Ireland during the marching season, witnessed a Belfast riot, and experienced first-hand the rage of people who had been forced to live in sub-standard housing, to work at low paying jobs and to suffer decades of sectarian violence. He got to know and love the Irish people and they loved him.

Shell Oil’s plans

In 2014, Wilcox learned of Shell Oil’s plans to build a natural-gas refinery in County Mayo, against which the local people were resisting. It did not occur to him that government officials would let such plans go ahead, in an area where tens of millions of tourists visit every year, who would not expect to see a refinery, or have to worry about the dangers of a pipe-line exploding near their hotel, hostel or bed-and-breakfast accommodation: he was wrong. In writing this book he discovered the utter depth of greed and corruption surrounding the project, but also discovered the meaning and extent of the great courage it took to resist the giant corporation’s plans.

The truth was that the Irish government was in with Shell and their plans to build the refinery. Members of the clergy, whom the people had always relied upon to be on their side, colluded with Shell, giving their new project their blessing, supporting the company and encouraging the protesters to accept Shell’s offers of money, promising that soon everyone will be rich and happy with no financial worries. The police, many of whom were personally known to the community as friends and protectors, turned against them with appalling violence. Some people were happy to accept money from Shell and move on, only later seeing the damage and destruction that the company had left behind.

However, some courageous people understood the threat to their environment and way of life, but they found they had no one to turn to for help and support. In spite of the threats and bullying tactics of the powerful corporation, they stood up to Shell and refused to co-operate.

Wilcox visited and interviewed some of these brave people that had resisted the Shell company’s plans: a farmer, a fisherman, a scholar, a journalist, a teacher, some musicians and innkeepers. In his sensitive response to them and their stories, he reveals the passion and love of the people of County Mayo for their land and their close community ties.

No one had foreseen a situation such as in Nigeria, where a dictatorship was supported by Shell. In the 1990s, this resulted in the Ogoni people’s land being turned into one giant oil slick, where the military government executed environmentalists and slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children, robbing, raping and disappearing their own people, in protecting multinational corporations. Nevertheless, the Irish government, ostensibly a democracy, did allow a powerful multinational corporation to use violence against its own peacefully protesting citizens, to disrupt communities and traumatise people who were only trying to protect their beloved environment.

Time Frame

In October 1996, Enterprise Oil Ireland discovered a 250-million year-old gas deposit 52 miles off the coast of Mayo.By 2002 Royal Dutch Gas had acquired primary interest in the Corrib deposits, and initiated a plan to build the first refinery on land in Ireland:

‘The project will bring new jobs, improved roads, money for schools, and more to this impoverished area. County Mayo’s environment will never be harmed. Tourists will always visit this magical region; the company is committed to being a good neighbour, will listen to the community and resolve differences through constructive conversation’ (p.10).

Later in 2002, an employee of Shell turned up unannounced on Willie Corduff’s farm, with the intention – without permission – of walking about his farm. He informed the family that Shell was going to run a pipeline under the property, and that their neighbours had agreed to the plan, which he later found to be a lie. (Willie and his family had spent a life-time reclaiming land from the bog.) When the man knocked on his door to take measures, and dig holes for the gas pipeline that would run beneath his fields, Willie ordered him to leave; the man returned soon after, this time accompanied by the police.

This time the invader to County Mayo was not a landlord’s vicious agents, or uniformed men with guns, but a powerful corporation, backed by well-paid lawyers, professional engineers, high powered executives and public-relations staff highly skilled in propaganda and deceit. The intended route of the pipeline was to come ashore approximately six miles inland to the village of Ballinaboy, and be buried in unstable soil, run through farmers’ fields, running dangerously close to private homes; ‘Pressure inside the pipeline will be so high that in the event of an accident, families will be incinerated in seconds’ (p.10).

More property owners found people digging holes and taking measurements on their land, who when asked to leave, stated that they had permits – from Shell Oil. When farmers blocked access to their fields, the Minister for Ireland’s Marine and Natural Resources issued a Compulsory Acquisition Order, which denied them the right to order Shell off their property. Crews from Shell arrived with police escorts.

‘Farmers, fishermen, housewives and others begin a non-violent campaign to resist construction of the refinery. Police punch and kick demonstrators, beat them with batons, and toss them into ditches. Shell hires mercenaries who harass, intimidate, and assault its opponents. Media outlets call resisters “terrorists” and accuse them of belonging to the Irish Republican Army (IRA)’ (p.12).

In 2005, three County Mayo farmers and two teachers, who became known as the Rossport 5, challenged Shell Oil’s right to violate the rights of property; they refused to apologise to the court for their actions and spent 94 days in prison, where they received great support from fellow prisoners. They became an inspiration to people in Ireland and elsewhere to join the movement to stop Shell from building the pipeline and refinery in rural Ireland. At that time Shell Oil was establishing a beachhead in County Mayo, preparing the way for fossil-fuel companies to build refineries near ancient villages and to bury a network of dangerous pipelines all around the countryside.

The oil refinery arrives

By midnight on January 1, 2015 the skies over Ballinaboy, County Mayo were lit up: the Corrib oil refinery and pipeline was in full operation.

The people of Ireland could not believe what was happening to them. Later they would joke about their naivete; they had respected their police and trusted the government, only to learn that Shell was not concerned about people, culture or history, and that neither police nor clergy can be trusted; all had gone against everything they had ever been taught. Truth and integrity had vanished. They had learned the truth about the grubby world of politics, that gas was coming whether they wanted it or not, and that they should support the great economic opportunity. Since everything that they loved was under threat of destruction they found they had no choice but to fight or lose all.

Willcox was shocked at the complicity of governments, the police and the clergy, with acts of violence against people who dare to resist, even peacefully, against threats to their human rights. He cites US-government violence he had suffered in peaceful protests against the war in Vietnam; violence and murder in Nigeria, where Ken Saro-Wira and eight other non-violent Nigerian environmental activists were executed. He writes about the My Lai massacre committed in the Vietnamese village in March 1968 by American soldiers who massacred the civilian population, burned their houses, killed their livestock, destroyed food supplies and poisoned their wells. When photographs of the dead bodies and devastation reached the press and the public, and twenty-six men are charged, only one man was convicted: his excuse for carrying out the massacre was that he was ‘only following orders’ from his commanding officer.

‘The pipe-line controversy became a law-and-order issue, rather than a civil-liberty or human-rights issue. Law-and-order concerns can be, conveniently, concocted to justify even the most absurd and anti-people governmental policies and activities, and also to excuse completely disproportionate responses by a state’s security agencies. In Erris, under the pretext of enforcing law and order, people were criminalized for seeking changes to a project that threatened their community’s health, safety, and lives. People’s rights were ignored. Existing regulations were changed, to meet Shell’s needs, Democratic principles were jettisoned’ (p.147).

Multinationals use every imaginable chicanery: bribery, the hiring of mercenaries and assassins, armies and corrupt police, legislatures and courts to secure and exploit the world’s natural resources; they pay pseudo-scientists to promote propaganda against evidence of global warming caused by human activity.

‘They build pipelines that leak and explode, killing and maiming people. They float tankers that seep crude oil onto beaches and wetlands, destroying the habitats of birds and mammals and fishes, reptiles and amphibians and smaller organisms, and leaving swaths of unemployed destitute people’ (p.13).

There are nation-state enshrined laws to protect endangered environments, and world bodies have established international agreements to preserve the planet’s most vulnerable regions; but in spite of these protections, greedy corporations manage to trash all of these protections by colluding with corrupt politicians and so-called civil servants, in their determination to extract every ounce of profit out of the earth, with no concern at all about the devastation of rain forests, the poisoning of the last clean water, and in fact making extinct protected animals and sea life on the planet.

Following orders

In conclusion, Wilcox talks about orders, who gives them, who obeys them; that we are all taught by parents, teachers, the clergy, by powerful figures that we must be obedient, we must follow orders; that if we refuse, we are unpatriotic, should be ostracised, sent to prison or killed.

But some of the worst crimes the world has ever known were committed under orders:

‘At the Nuremberg trials following the Second World War, German officials who had helped exterminate millions of human beings argued that they’d been acting as servants of the state. Doing what they were told. Performing their patriotic duty. Following orders. Therefore, they could not be held liable for war crimes’ (pp.144-5).

The International Tribunal was supposed to have changed all of that. The importance of the Nuremberg Trials is that they were:

‘landmark developments that planted seeds of new understanding on the part of citizens as to their political obligations. The Nuremberg concept was extended down the ladder of responsibility from the level of primary leaders and applied to doctors, judges, and business executives who were associated with implementing one or another facet of officially sanctioned Nazi (and Japanese imperial) policies’ (p.145).

According to ‘the Nuremberg Principles, which codified guidelines for determining what constitutes a war crime, citizens have not only a right, but an obligation not to follow the orders of leaders who are preparing crimes against peace and crimes against humanity’(p.150).

This is where a person’s responsibilities lie in a democracy: to do what the men, women and children of the county of Mayo did, in refusing orders to obey unjust laws or to be prepared to accept corruption, or to endure living lives of miserable desperation.

The time of the fossil-fuel industry is coming to an end, the victory of Shell Oil in County Mayo was a hollow one. At a time when the world is experiencing the consequences of global warming, Shell and all of the other multinational companies still persist in profiting in an industry that is threatening the viability of life on the planet. The courage and determination of a small group of people has forced the Irish government to take the first steps in taking a lead in climate action. If we are to survive as a species, along with all of our fellow creatures, and rid our beautiful planet of the dinosaurs of the fossil-fuel industry we are going to need the kind of courage, guts and determination that these ordinary but brave people of Ireland have shown us.

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart was born in India of American parents and came to London from Virginia as a teenager to study art. She lives and works as an artist in Hackney. She is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War and Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign.