High security for critical phase of pipe-laying off coast of Mayo


ANALYSIS:A joint Garda and Navy operation will seek to protect both Corrib gas workers and protesters

THE IMMINENT arrival in Broadhaven Bay of thepipe-laying ship Solitaire – the largest maritime pipe-laying vessel in the world – represents the most critical phase to date of Shell’s efforts to pipe gas ashore from the Corrib gas field.

Solitaire will complete the 80km pipeline from the wellhead at sea to land in two stages. The first stage involves linking the land-based pipeline to the Solitaire itself, approximately one mile out to sea in Broadhaven Bay. This shore-to-ship joining-up process may take up to six or seven working days dependingon sea conditions.

This initial operation requires exacting engineering precision and minutely-calculated navigational manoeuvres in order to connect the mainland pipeline to the onboard pipe segments which will subsequently be laid – at a rate of up to 8km per day – from Broadhaven Bay out to the Corrib gas field.

This first stage will be fraught for two reasons. Firstly, the delicate joining process can only be achieved in sea swells of less than one metre or so. Even in the summer months in Ireland, in the North Atlantic waters of Broadhaven Bay, sea swells of up to three metres are common. Shell and the crew of the Solitaire will be hoping for good weather for at least one week in order to complete this first stage of operations. Even with favourable weather, during this six days or so the Solitaire – less than one mile offshore – will be particularly vulnerable to the actions of Shell to Sea protesters and others who might seek to frustrate the operation using small vessels such as kayaks, dinghies or trawlers.

It is for this reason that the Garda Síochána has formally requested the assistance of the Naval Service to provide maritime support for their policing of Broadhaven Bay.

The Naval Service has a great deal of experience of working closely with the Garda in this manner in what are termed “Aid to the Civil Power Operations” or ATCP Ops. They have worked together previously on operations to intercept weapons and drugs smuggling attempts off the Irish coast on the part of subversive and criminal gangs.

The Naval Service also has decades of experience of boarding small craft such as yachts and trawlers in the course of countless fishery protection and customs and excise patrols and operations.

The Naval Service will initially deploy one patrol vessel in the vicinity of Broadhaven Bay to act as a maritime platform for their ATCP Ops in the bay area. They will provide a number of fully-crewed rigid inflatable boats (knows as Ribs) to assist gardaí monitoring the actions of protesters in the bay during the joining-up operation.

According to Naval Service sources, the main priority of the Naval Service-Garda operation will be to ensure the safety of both protesters and Shell contractors during any protests that might take place. At least one Garda member will be on board each of the Naval Service’s Ribs at all times during this period with responsibility for maintaining public order around the Solitaire and its support vessels. The aim will be to provide 24-hour cover throughout the joining up operation.

Naval personnel at the scene – whose primary concern will be the safety and welfare of protesters, Shell employees and gardaí alike – are governed by strict controls concerning the use of force in ATCP Ops. To begin with, it is not envisaged that Naval personnel will be armed. Nor will Naval personnel be permitted to engage in any coercive use of force designed to act as a deterrent or punitive sanction against any protester.

Naval personnel will only be permitted to use force – as a last resort, and by unarmed restraint only – in situations where the lives of protesters, Shell employees or gardaí are directly endangered. The actions of Naval personnel during any protests are strictly governed under law along the three principles of minimum force, prevention (of injury and death to civilians or gardaí) and justification.

In providing Naval support to Garda operations in Broadhaven Bay, the Navy is adamant that their presence does not represent an escalation in the use of force against Shell to Sea protesters. Rather, they argue, their presence is evidence of a proactive duty of care on the part of the authorities towards gardaí and protesters alike operating in this dangerous maritime environment.

Dr Tom Clonan is the Irish Times Security Analyst. He lectures in the school of media, DIT.