Rossport in Co. Mayo, Ireland has become famous for its community’s fight against Shell. Shell aims to build a gas pipeline running along the seabed onto the land, through fields and then into a gas refinery site. The pipeline would bring raw gas through a Special Area of Conservation, the impact of which is unknown, but which would undoubtedly change the landscape forever. The only other place where gas has been refined on land is Nigeria which has resulted in massive environmental destruction and human rights abuse on a huge scale. Extracting and burning the gas would also add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere in a situation where we are already at a dangerous tipping point; the effects of climate change are already felt by many communities. People in Erris have been resisting this project for 9 years. It began with the jailing of the Rossport 5 for not allowing Shell access to their land, and has taken many forms of action during this time. Overseas support has always been a part of the campaign and for many in the UK, Rossport has become an inspirational fight and definitely worth the trip across the sea.
Criticisms are sometimes levelled at the campaign in Mayo for not being ‘radical’ or ‘ecological’ enough. For many who come to support the struggle, it is clear that it is possible to act in solidarity with the community, while having alternate goals and placing the conflict in the wider context of capitalism and its pending ecological disaster.
If the gas development goes ahead it paves the way for further fossil fuel developments in the region. The refinery site is 400 acres; only 60 acres are being used for the current project. Large oil reserves lie off the West coast of Ireland, and once the gas refinery is operational further developments will follow. In Erris, the politics are mixed; not everyone shares the same end goals, but the result of the collective effort (whether intentionally or not) has been the halting of a major fossil fuel development for nearly a decade.
We make compromises all the time in our lives and in our politics. There are always shades of grey; it’s just a question of which you choose. Supporting the struggles in Rossport involves working with people with a range of political ideas. It is a community led campaign, so unsurprisingly they are not ‘anarchists’, ‘anti capitalists’ or even coming from a strong ecological perspective. They are an ordinary rural community who have been forced to take extra-ordinary action to protect their land, health and way of life.
The primary campaign aims are that the gas is refined at sea and a greater proportion of the profits go to the Irish state. Although these are the set campaign aims, to a large extent the ‘politics’ of people in the community are fluid. Because of the events of the past eight years many have had to significantly rethink their ideas about the role of the state, the church, corporations, the Gardai, and the relationships between them. Perspectives have changed in response to state repression and people have become more open to alternative ideas about ways of living and organising.
In some ways the structure of resistance parallels ways of organising used in direct action. The Shell to Sea (S2S) campaign works largely through consensus, although (as with all horizontal organising) there have been subtle, and not so subtle, wannabe leaders. Direct action moved to the heart of the campaign as soon as it became a relevant tactic. The community use it when they see it as appropriate, and these ideas of appropriateness have evolved over the course of the conflict. Sometimes it works to transfer tactics we’ve used in the UK, sometimes it doesn’t. Often tactics developed by the community, specific to their needs and abilities work best. All of us are engaged in a learning process. While there are certainly things that the community can learn from people with years of experience of political activism, there is also much that we can learn from the sustained and successful resistance of this community that has cohesion, generations of shared history and a very real sense of place – things that most of us have little experience of. This long term connection to each other and to the land are almost certainly significantly responsible for sustaining the passion and determination that drives the resistance in Erris.
If there is any hope of (positive) radical social change it is dependent on people with different life experiences and perspectives, being able to come together to share ideas, find common ground and collectively work out solutions of new ways to live. It is during periods of upheaval, times when life can no longer continue as usual, that long established world views are turned upside down and people become more receptive to different ideas. The realisation that government and religious institutions cannot be depended on for support is often paralleled by an increased reliance on friends, family and community, and the benefits of concepts such as mutual aid, co-operation and solidarity are discovered experientially. These are moments to engage with disparate communities, to find common ground and support struggles for self-determination. Ideas for real alternatives to our political and economic system are not broadcast by the corporate media; most people have little access to this information and often, until times like these, little impetus to search for it. The presence of outside supporters with ‘radical’ politics provides an easily accessible source of some alternative ideas, at a time when people are more willing to explore them. If ‘activists’ can also remain open to learning from the communities they engage with, the potential for navigating the difficult paths to real and radical social change increases. As diverse groups and individuals find ways to work together in struggle, it becomes more possible to imagine, and to create, a truly revolutionary social movement.
Resistance continues in Mayo and at the end of May about 150 people travelled to Erris for a weekend of workshops, networking and building support. The week following the gathering saw two successful actions where dredger boats were boarded and work stopped for sustained periods. Water and land based actions will continue throughout the summer in Mayo. The presence of the dredger boats signal the imminent arrival of the Solitaire which is the ship that will lay the pipeline. Last summer the Solitaire left Broadhaven Bay without laying the pipe and this summer it is hoped that again resistance will ensure the pipeline is not laid. The Solitaire is the only ship in the world that can undertake this work and if it is stopped this summer the project will again be put on hold for a year. The camp itself will continue in its current location in a field just up from the shore. What is needed over the few months is people to come and take action. So now is the time to come to Mayo.