'Paradise' lost for residents of 'God's own country' in Mayo

 

For the Henry family in Erris, there seems to be no escaping Shell's security and monitoring despite never having been involved with the protesters opposed to the development

COLM HENRY would like to invite the two Green Party Government Ministers to visit his home in what he describes as "God's own country" of Erris, Co Mayo.

It was a paradise, he says, when he and his wife, Gabrielle, built their house on some of her family land there 30 years ago - overlooking Sruwaddacon Bay and the wide sweep of Broadhaven - designated a special area of conservation due to diverse marine and shoreline flora and fauna.

Outside his house last weekend, he and his family watched as a pod of dolphins within Broadhaven Bay was herded away by a speed boat hired to work on the Corrib gas project.

Some 155 pots set in the bay and owned by the O'Donnell family have also been damaged over the past week, according to local people. Shell EP Ireland has confirmed that it is in dialogue with two local fishermen who had reported incidents and intends to "compensate them speedily for any losses incurred".

As for the golden beach just down from the Henrys' house, it now resembles an extended security zone.

Henry, who is a musician and has worked in construction, taught his children to swim there. He had hoped to do the same with his grandchildren but, since April, any walk across his wife's family land to the shore has been monitored by unidentified security staff hired by Shell.

Henry stresses he supports the project, if conducted safely. He has not been involved in the protest group Shell to Sea but has lodged formal complaints with the Garda, the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Children about the security measures. Shell has denied that there is any video footage of the children.

Since late last week, public access to the beach has been blocked off entirely by high steel fencing, which extends for more than half a mile along the landscape. No notice has been posted and there is no mention on Shell's publicity material.

Wave and sand action has twisted the fencing, snapping welds to 1,620kg blocks. Visitors (including The Irish Times) are observed by unidentified security bearing video cameras, binoculars and notepads.

Shell EP Ireland says the fencing is required by law and that it has distributed information to residents. Henry says he was never contacted by the company before his public comments on the surveillance and his house is not accounted for in the current environmental impact statement for the project.

When he and a number of residents questioned the authorisation last Tuesday, they were arrested for trespassing by gardaí and taken to Belmullet Garda station, where they were later released without charge.

Shell says the security is required due to "intimidation" of previous staff and due to more than €100,000 worth of damage caused to equipment in Glengad, Lenamore and Rossport.

Pobal Chill Chomáin, the new community group formed to back a compromise proposal for the gas refinery, says it would never condone such action. The group has offered to meet Supt John Gilligan of Belmullet station to discuss policing issues of concern.

Supt Gilligan has confirmed that he has refused to meet the group. He says a number of complaints by different parties in relation to Corrib gas are being investigated.

Allegations of damaged equipment related to a fire last February at Lenamore and the cutting of nets erected by the developers at Glengad to prevent sand martins nesting on the cliff.

Alleged assaults are also being investigated, along with the reported surveillance of the Henry family by Shell security, Supt Gilligan says.

Tensions in Glengad are exacerbated by concerns about geological instability, given the area's landslide experience of 2003. A recent bog burst, confirmed by ESB staff, occurred during Mayo County Council's current road-widening along a sensitive habitat to facilitate the work at Glengad.

The Glengad/Pollathomas shoreline was formerly home to a Rossport solidarity camp, established after the jailing of the Rossport five over opposition to the onshore pipeline in 2005.

"They were super young people, kept the beach spotless and were encouraged by the National Parks and Wildlife Service," Henry recalls. However, under an order obtained by Mayo County Council last year, the camp was required to move on environmental grounds.