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Irish Left Review of the Pipe

William Wall - Irish Left Review

Risteard O’Dohmnaill’s film The Pipe encapsulates the balance of power in this shambolic republic - on the one hand the not inconsiderable determination and strength both personal and communal of ordinary people, and on the other the massive force of the state as expressed by the police, the judiciary, the army, the navy, the transnational corporation, private security firms, government and much of the mainstream media. At one point the small farmers of Rossport and environs were being filmed by private security companies, observed from police helicopters and prevented from protesting by hundreds of Gardaí while their friends in the inshore fishery were being prevented from lifting their pots by the Irish Navy and private security firms - at a cost to the citizens of Ireland of over €14 million by 2010. The resources deployed against this brave community were and are shameful. Had the government refused to use police violence and to permit the illegal activities of the company’s agents, or had they even enforced the environmental protection laws, Shell would long ago have come to amicable agreement with the community.

The film itself is a beautiful piece of work. When I saw it recently at the Cork Film Festival it played to a sell-out house and when the director stayed behind for a question-and-answer session more than half the audience remained in place. Of course, the material is there - but not everyone could have risen to the challenge of documenting it.


The camera remains close during the protest sequences so that the audience feels intimately involved in the violence at the receiving end - the cameraman is jostled repeatedly. Many of the Gardaí are well-known and their names are heard repeatedly. Various protesters ask them to behave decently, to remember that they are part of the community too, not to threaten them or manhandle them, not to use violence. The outstanding moment for me was when a Garda officer, a superintendent perhaps, walked up and down in front of an unarmed crowd of peaceful sit-down protestors and told them through a megaphone that neither he nor his officers would be bullied. Behind him the police with their batons drawn.

There is straightforward beauty too. The aerial sequences sweeping over Killary Harbour are stunning, likely in their own right to bring tourists to Mayo. O’Domhnaill makes a simple point very well here: this is a truly beautiful, wild and unspoilt place. Shell is driving its pipeline through a protected ecosystem and changing the lives of the people who live there and depend upon it. The imagery moves from shots of still waters, sunset, ebbing and falling tides, waves breaking on pristine sand, to the same places now with giant platforms in the water, machinery on the beaches, trenches, fast boats tearing up and down at high speeds, enormous pipe-laying vessels anchored in the mist. The rupture in nature is paralleled by a rupture in community life. People whose daily lives revolved around the land, the shore, the sea now spend their time at community meetings arguing about strategy, manning roadblocks and protests, travelling to the European Court. Their houses are under surveillance. Their movements are tracked. People tramp across the common land that has been their right for generations. Shell assiduously sows division. Some fishermen are bought off. It’s hard to blame them. Fishermen have been beggared by our government’s neglect, they need all the money they can get. There is dissent about strategy, some people arguing for compromise (or the appearance of compromise) others standing out for the principle. The film does not shirk the fact that this struggle is searingly painful for the people of Mayo and, in particular, for the people of Rossport.

The role of the Navy is an interesting one. ‘The grey Fella’, as fishermen refer to the ships, are traditionally seen as friendly (unless you’re drift-netting illegally), and are, of course, always looked to in time of distress. Pat ‘The Chief’ O’Donnell greets the naval vessel with civility from his own boat and remarks that it is customary to do so. And he feels strongly that all of the mariners involved in the conflict - the merchant sailors of the pipe-laying ship, the navy and the fishermen share, or should share, a common bond because they are seamen. No such bond is recognised by the master of the pipe-layer and the life-saving role of the navy is turned on its head. The vessel is deployed as a simple threat, as the strong arm of capital, the enforcer against the fishermen of the coast, an extension of the repressive power of the state employed in the protection of interests more valuable than a mere fishing boat or the livelihood of the fishermen. Indeed Pat The Chief’s boat was eventually sunk by masked men, while he himself was held down, though these events occurred after the making of the film, and in April 2009, Willie Corduff was severely beaten by agents of Shell, probably Integrated Risk Management Services, the security company.

The central characters - they are so dramatic and eloquent that I think ‘character’ is a better description than ‘personality’ - Pat ‘The Chief’ O’Donnell and Willie Corduff carry the narrative. Theirs is the viewpoint of the film. We see them going about their daily lives in the places they love. Willie Corduff is a farmer. We see him picking cockles on the beach that will shortly be destroyed and virtually privatised by Shell and the security companies. Pat ‘The Chief’ works his pots on the line that Shell’s pipeline will take. The two central confrontations of the film revolve around these men - Willie Corduff was one of the Rossport Five who went to prison for their protest, their committal sought by Shell. Pat ‘The Chief’ manoeuvred his small fishing boat to block the activities of the pipe-laying ship. He too was arrested. The most radical voice in the community, the local school teacher Maura Harrington went on hunger strike.

For an audience unused to seeing the Garda as a violent body, some of the most shocking scenes concerned the attempt to prevent the company from accessing the site of the proposed oil refinery at Bellanaboy. The brutality with which these largely elderly (though far from frail) people were handled by members of the Gardaí brought gasps from the audience. Many of the people present were used to seeing this force applied to ‘radical groups’ who ‘infiltrate peaceful protests’ with the express intention of ‘provoking violent reaction’. They did not expect to see an elderly man batoned about the legs and head, or another picked up and thrown over a ditch. In this respect, the film made a clear point in a very accessible way: the forces of law and order are deployed by the state in the interests of capital, not of the people. Despite the applause, the audience leaving the theatre were subdued - a tribute to the power of the film and its challenge to how we organise society. But the broader question was left unanswered by the film. What political analysis is required to understand these forces? The most political of the Rossport group was Maura Harrington. Her views on tactics are covered but not her more political statements. I believe there is always a balance to be achieved between spreading a story to as wide a public as possible and challenging that same public to think critically. I feel O Domhnaill erred on the side of the former. It is, I suppose, a relatively minor criticism of a powerful film, but I would have preferred to see more of the politicians and their comments and something of the incestuous relationship between the Irish state and the multinationals.

To be fair, the film does not fall into the usual ‘Human Rights Film’ trap of identifying the victim and valorising their victim status. We do not feel sorry for the people of Rossport. We feel shocked by the behaviour of the state acting in our name against our fellow-citizens. There are no victims in Rossport. There are, instead, sturdy people fighting against an oppressive alliance of state and capital to be able to walk the fields and work the searoads that they call home. It is a political action and O Domhnaill makes this plain in the film. His interest is in the resistance, not the suffering.