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How Ireland Banned Fracking – The Importance of Connecting Across Struggles

Connections to other struggles, both nationally and internationally, played an important role in the Irish fracking campaign. At a time when strengthening grassroots struggles and building movements internationally is more urgent than ever, we asked some of the people most involved in the Irish campaign what they learned from making these connections.

Global Frackdown 2017 – the international day of action against fracking – has a particular significance in the Republic of Ireland this year.  It will be marked by a huge party in Leitrim in North West Ireland – the centre of resistance to fracking in the country – celebrating the national ban on onshore fracking approved by the parliament on the 28th June 2017.

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Democracy Center team members Philippa de Boissière and Thomas Mc Donagh were in the Irish Parliament to see the Bill finalised and were later able to sit down with eight people involved in different capacities in the Irish campaign. Our interviewees were Meg Rybicki and Lucy Maunsell from the North West Network Against Fracking; Nuala Mc Nulty, Eddie Mitchell, Scott Coombs, Jamie Murphy and Dervilla Keegan from Love Leitrim; and Donal O’Kelly from Dublin-based NGO, AFRI-Action from Ireland. We discussed many aspects of the campaign and one of the things that came across really strongly in our conversations was the importance of connecting across struggles – a constant conversation in activist communities all over the world.

At a time when it has never been more urgent to prevent the expansion of extractive projects and with our dire international political moment placing renewed emphasis on local action, here we present some of the insight gained from these experienced campaigners about the role and importance of connecting across struggles generally – looking in detail at three examples of how these connections occurred in the context of the Irish campaign, and some of the general lessons that can be drawn for campaigns elsewhere.

Connection 1 – Down the Road – The Corrib

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”The first time the word fracking was used in Leitrim as far as I know” recounts Donal O’Kelly “was in the Glens Arts Centre when we showed Risteard O’Domhnaill’s documentary, ‘The Pipe’, and got a few of the people who’d opposed [Shell’s project in Mayo] to come over from Mayo to Manorhamilton to be there”.

After the documentary screening John Monaghan – who features in The Pipe – took part in a post-screening group discussion. When asked about some emerging news of potential gas exploration in the Lough Allen basin in the North West of Ireland, he said “if it’s gas exploration and they’re using hydraulic fracturing – fracking – you need to watch a documentary called Gaslands’.

St. Patrick’s Day parade, Sligo 2012. North West Network Against Fracking.

Monaghan wasn’t just speaking with the authority of a professional chemical engineer, he was also by now a well-known seasoned activist who’d been at the centre of one of the most controversial resistance battles by local communities against the fossil fuel industry in Irish history – The Corrib Gas controversy, about which ‘The Pipe’ was made.

According to Donal O’Kelly, looking back on the event, “if he hadn’t done that, it would have been months before the wheels were turning on resistance to [fracking]…in fact within two weeks a touring cinema was going around towns and villages in Leitrim showing Josh Fox’s film Gaslands and loads of people saw it.”

Although international connections were to prove vital to the successful campaign against fracking in Ireland, it was the connection to this struggle much closer to home that was crucial in not just raising the alarm, but also providing some hard won lessons about community organising and combatting the powers that be.

VIDEO: Risteard O’Domhnaill’s documentary beautifully captures the voices of the community members on the frontlines of resisting Shell’s plans to bring gas onshore to be processed in a remote rural community in the Corrib basin in County Mayo. The resulting conflict saw five community members spend 94 days in prison at the behest of Shell; witnessed police and private security repression and corruption, as well as the infiltration of activist groups by British police. It has also severely damaged and divided the local community. In the words of local resident and campaigner Willie Corduff “it will never be the same, never, never…it left a mark on the community that will never be healed.”

That initial warning from the Corrib campaigners about the prospect of fracking for those in Leitrim in 2011 was followed in 2012 with a meeting in a remote primary school in county Mayo between what Donal O’Kelly described as ‘the luminaries of the anti-Shell campaign’ – including John Monaghan – and a group of Love Leitrim campaigners.

The meeting was facilitated by Leitrim-based artist-activist Sorcha Fox. In O’Kelly’s words “it was Sorcha Fox who had been down at AFRI events in Rossport in County Mayo and got to know people and just said ‘I have to get these people together in the room so they know each other’.”

In the resulting five-hour meeting, in the words of Eddie Mitchell, ‘our minds were opened to a community much further down the track”. Here, Mitchell talks about the importance of that initial exchange between the Corrib/Rossport campaign and the Leitrim anti-fracking campaign and some of the lessons he drew from it.

Learning from this campaign that was much ‘further down the track’ was to prove invaluable. The lessons were myriad and diverse but included three major themes: coping with divisive strategies from without; handling internal division; and messaging and dealing with the media.

A. Divide and Conquer

One of the consequences of the hard fought Mayo campaign against Shell was the division and conflict sewn between members of the local community, and the repression brought to bear on campaigners by police and private security. Promises of ‘development’ and local jobs versus the desire to preserve local farming and fishing lifestyles pitted neighbour against neighbour. And when political avenues were exhausted, direct action tactics were employed to prevent construction works – that were in turn violently repressed, compounding the division and acrimony.

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Fracking campaigners were acutely aware of what had happened in Mayo and at every step sought to prevent the same thing happening in their communities. Here, Meg Rybicki and Lucy Maunsell, of the North West Network against Fracking, talk about the importance of the connection to the Corrib campaign (known as Shell to Sea) for them and share some of the ways that they incorporated the lessons learned into their own campaigning work.

One of the main reasons that fracking campaigners avoided similar major confrontations was because they weren’t defending a fracking site. Although southern campaigners were present when the threat of drilling was imminent at a site just across the border in Belcoo in Northern Ireland in 2014, there was never actually an identified site to defend in the Republic.  Nevertheless there were other ways in which they needed to show restraint, such as when the offer of €20,000 was made to local community groups by the corporation involved, Tamboran.

Eddie Mitchell again:

Meg Rybicki here comments on the way she handled the same issue:

“Luckily we’ve been told about how Devon Energy operated -the CEO of Tamboran started off at Devon Energy…they’ve got thousands of environmental citations against them. And these are the gold-plated, robust regulations he’s talking about”.  Meg Rybicki

B. Divisions Within – The Futility of Control

While ways of countering external tactics intent on splintering the campaign was an important part of the advice from the Corrib, managing internal campaign dynamics was just as important for our interviewees.

Campaign Poster – North West Network Against Fracking

Donal O’Kelly had witnessed the damage some of these dynamics had caused to the campaign in the Corrib. “With people being squashed under this fist of oppression coming down on them, it’s inevitable that this splintering happens..there is a certain generosity of spirit needed.” He goes on: “Some of the advice that came from the Corrib was not to “try to have one big organisation with a few people in charge – and when differences emerge, let it be and agree to differ…because in the resistance to Shell in the Corrib there were splits into different strands of how you do it, and some of them were pretty bitter, but it’s nearly inevitable that that happens.”

‘It’s inevitable that fracturing happens in community resistance campaigns’ Donal O’Kelly

In this clip Eddie Mitchell shares more of the community organising advice that came from the Corrib, including some reflections on managing splits in campaigns and what, for him, is an essential ingredient for successful campaigning: bringing as many people along as possible.

C. The Mainstream Media – Bias and Manipulation

A third, related lesson for our interviewees taken from the Corrib campaign was the role of the mainstream media in portraying the campaign in a negative light and perpetuating and deepening divisions.

According to Donal O’Kelly, “it was very hard for them to counter the whole media bias against them”. So much so that O’Kelly and others were involved in organizing a series of three major events called Airing Erris – all livestreamed to big audiences and focused specifically on calling out the media bias against the challengers to Shell in the Corrib.

Eddie Mitchell was very aware in the early days of the campaign about “all the bad PR they had got [in the Corrib] and people were already saying ‘that this was another Corrib’” – there was a reluctance on their part to be pigeonholed as protestors.

Here, Love Leitrim fracking campaigners Jamie Murphy and Dervilla Keegan reflect on what they learned from the Corrib campaign and how they incorporated that in to their own campaign strategy, particularly in relation to the media. (RTE is the Irish state broadcaster )

Although the battle against Shell in the Corrib proved highly destructive, and ultimately failed to block gas coming ashore on North West Mayo, in terms of generating community expertise and experience that would then nourish the roots of nascent resistance campaigns elsewhere, it proved to be an invaluable asset.

Connection 2 – Jessica Ernst and the Warnings from North America

The connections between the Irish fracking campaign and both individuals and campaigns in North America were wide-ranging. Some of those connections that stood out most for our interviewees included: the work of Tony Ingraffea from Cornell University – mentioned as being both crucial for conceptualizing fracking and understanding what a solid prohibition must include; the work of Theo Colborn looking at the effects of benzine on public health was also highlighted; the visit to a small Irish town by Greg Palast – award-winning investigative journalist and author of Vultures’ Picnic – was remembered as important; as was the brave work of Dr. John O’Connor on exposing the health impacts of the tar sands in Canada.

Love Leitrim Marchers.

However, it was the connection with former industry insider turned anti-fracking campaigner, Jessica Ernst, that made the strongest impression on our interviewees. Her visits to Ireland and public interventions in the debate in key places at key times bolstered the campaign in important ways.

Turning Point

For Love Leitrim’s Nuala McNulty, there was a precise moment in the campaign, at a meeting in the Rainbow Ballroom of Romance in Glenfarn, when she felt an intervention by Ernst helped the campaign to reach a major turning point.

The importance of having somebody like Ernst with the authority of being a former industry player to convince certain sectors in the Irish political landscape was highlighted by several interviewees.

“That was a turning point in the campaign, we had all of the landowners on board after Jessica spoke”. Nuala McNulty

Local Organising.

McNulty also spoke about some of the advice she took from Ernst in terms of local organizing:

Lucy Maunsell reflected on travelling extensively with Ernst on her speaking tours and hearing the advice she gave in numerous locations, particularly on managing difficult campaign relationships and alliances.

“It’s such an attack on your being”. Lucy Maunsell

Both Maunsell and Rybicki also highlighted the importance of having as broad a spectrum of people involved in as broad a range of campaign actions as possible.

Public Health

One of the major contributions of both Ernst and other North American allies was to strengthen the emerging focus of the Irish campaign on public health.

For Eddie Mitchell “we became aware quite quickly that we needed to re-frame things from our point of view, and eventually we realised that our concern was a public health concern. Although there are a lot of environmentalists, people who think we should be talking about climate change and things like that – but our concern was really about the effect on our community”.

Scott Coombs of Love Leitrim talks here about the importance of the connections made with Ernst and the New Brunswick Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eilish Cleary in the context of re-focusing the campaign on the issue of public health.

The role of Concerned Health Professionals of New York was also highlighted by Jamie Murphy and Dervilla Keegan in strengthening the campaign’s public health arguments.

“It wasn’t scaremongering….we’re going with what’s happening in other places” Jamie Murphy

Ernst’s interventions in the public debates as someone with industry experience, her advice in relation to community organising and campaigning, and the scientific research and quantifiable data on health impacts coming through from Ingraffea, Colborn and the Concerned Health Professionals were just some of the ways that the Irish connections to North America helped to strengthen the campaign and prepare the ground for the national ban.

As well as participating in the celebrations in Ireland to mark the Global Frackdown event, Ernst will also be speaking at locations in the UK this October.

Jessica Ernst returns to Europe for a UK Tour – October 2017.

Connection 3 – ‘The Australian Model’ – Annie Kia and Lock the Gate.

A third international connection highlighted by our interviewees was the one with Lock the Gate – the national alliance of grassroots groups resisting the coal and unconventional gas industries in Australia.

Annie Kia, a Lock the Gate coordinator, visited Ireland in 2013. Both her public presentations on her campaigning experience in Australia, and further research and study of ‘the Australian model’ of community organising, provided useful insights that were then incorporated into the Irish fracking campaign.

Meg Rybicki here reflects on some of the lessons learned, particularly in relation to the challenge of appealing to the wider public and the implications of this for messaging and working with the press.

“They had to realise that backlash could start…the media is so captured” Meg Rybicki

Finally, Rybicki and Maunsell went on to reflect on some of the creative actions they used to recruit supporters – always seeking to appear respectable and likeable, even when camped out at road-side protests.

As well as the three connections covered, there were also a number of other encounters organised by campaigners. They included representatives of mining-affected communities in Latin America, including the Conga No Va campaign in Peru; Nimmo Bassey talking about the destruction wrought by Shell in Nigeria; and family members of the victims of the Bhopal-Union Carbide disaster in India. As well as being inspiring and energising, our interviewees talked about how useful their visits were for sharing stories of resistance in much more difficult political contexts, and for flagging future threats.

Pre-election actions in Sligo/Leitrim. North West Network against Fracking.

Campaigns are complex and multifaceted and there are lots of things that make them successful, not least the persistence and determination of campaigners and the political environment they find themselves in. But what came across really clearly in this campaign was that the connections generated to other struggles contributed in very significant ways to the success of the campaign in Ireland.

At a time when activists and campaigners working on extractive and climate issues are constantly looking at how to make effective connections across struggles and build stronger movements, they provide us with some valuable insights into ways of doing this.

Until We Win

From what we’ve heard there a few things that stick out as being particularly important.

Communities that are further down the track in their campaign experience have a great deal of expertise. Oftentimes this expertise has been developed through hard-fought battles with incredibly powerful foes that have left their communities severely damaged. However that experience, when passed on to others, is gold dust to budding campaigners.

It is the direct contact between frontline communities that is most powerful. In the words of Donal O’Kelly: “I always think that that’s the crucial thing, to try to get people to meet, to talk…The truth and honesty of somebody’s testimony is really apparent in their eyes…that makes a deep impact in the listener…I think it’s the best way to learn”.  Sorcha Fox’ instinct right at the start of the fracking campaign that she had to get the Corrib campaigners in the same room as the fracking campaigners was a seasoned activist putting this important general principle into practice to great effect.

People coming from communities that were fracked, their advice was so different from the NGOs – Jessica Ernst told us that ‘Many fleas make big dog move’ -i.e. you need to have all those people doing all those little things.”  Eddie Mitchell

There are certain phases in a campaign when support and connections across campaigns are particularly important to steady the ship in the face of what Lucy Maunsell described as ‘the trauma of such an attack on your being’.  One of the major benefits of the international networks, according to Maunsell, is that “they can calm you down and tell you what’s happening and tell you what you’ve got to do – you need that because the oil companies have done this twenty times before and they know”.

Connecting across struggles is a powerful weapon against corporate spin and manipulation. Being able to counter the claims from multinational corporations of ‘gold standard regulations’ and ‘jobs and prosperity for all’ with evidence from experiences in other places was another important overall function of connecting across struggles, highlighted by our interviewees and put in to practice to great effect in the Irish campaign.

While NGOs can be allies, they can also be liabilities. Eddie Mitchell captured one of those liabilities succinctly: “the ENGO comes in and it is like a peacock. ‘I know about climate change and I know about this and that’ and then they give all of this advice and then they leave. They might come back in six weeks time but in six weeks nothing has happened. And that is the problem. You can’t build a house without having people there to build it.”  While Mitchell and others agreed that there is a role for NGOs in facilitating dialogue and exchange across struggles, he was adamant that they must also know when to step back and allow communities to develop their own capacities and resilience…”You can’t do anything for them, they have to build it”.

And finally, when communities do develop their own capacities, they are politicised for good.  In the words of Lucy Maunsell, “I’m educated, I can’t be uneducated….that’s the beauty if it…..We are like a standing army.”  This process of politicisation through participation in their own local campaign provides a well which can be drawn upon when the next local battle comes around, or indeed to support battles in other places from afar, such as the other communities (maybe in the global South) where Tamborin might move on to next.  This broadening of perspective and solidarity will be key to building the broad-based social movement we now so urgently need to push for a just transition away from fossil-fuels so that no community has to face such traumatic ‘attacks on their being’.

Thank you to the communities of Leitrim and Sligo and the activists of the North West Network Against Fracking and Love Leitrim for their warm hospitality and collaboration.