Exclusive Interview: Pat O’Donnell, anti-Shell campaigner

View from the wheelhouse
Miriam Cotton (2009)

Mayo fisherman, Pat ‘The Chief’ O’ Donnell, has been a vocal objector to the present configuration of the Corrib Gas project. Last year he was instrumental in preventing Shell from laying its disputed pipeline in Broadhaven Bay. Below are excerpts from an interview in which he claims he was held at gun-point and his boat scuttled, near Rossport, Co Mayo, the night of 12th June.
MC: Miriam Cotton
POD: Pat O’ Donnell
POD: I was in the wheel-house and Martin [O’ Donnell, crew] was relaxing and the next thing I heard a noise behind me on the deck.
MC: That’s how you first realised the intruders were present – when they were already in the boat? They must have crept up very silently?
POD: Yes they did, they’d come up alongside the boat in a RIB. The first two rushed into the wheelhouse and they had guns – they backed us up against the cabin. They were pointing the guns at us. It’s hard to believe. The other two were looking around a while and they seen the hatch and went down below. I knew there was trouble in store. There were all sorts of things going through my head like were they going to kill us, were they going to throw us overboard – what was next, like. Then when I seen the two going down…and they were down there maybe twenty minutes or more – I don’t know exactly. The navigator was behind the two who stayed with us so I couldn’t get a glimpse of the time- but they came back up eventually and they stayed there then for well over an hour. And the next thing the engine cut out. I knew at that stage anyway that there was water coming into the boat because the boat started rolling slowly – ‘twas heavy in other words. After the engine conking they stayed maybe another five or ten minutes and the next thing they started going into the RIB and they fucked off then out to sea – straight north.
MC: So how long did the whole episode last?
POD: The whole thing lasted about two and a half hours roughly. They left about four o clock. You see, when they left I checked – I went down the ladder to see – I knew there was water but I wanted to see how bad it was. Water was coming up, like, so I decided then to abandon ship. I told Martin to get his lifejacket and I went up to get the small little life raft on top of the wheelhouse on the outside, so I went up and I cut it off and took it down to the deck and we launched it and it took us a long while to inflate it. I wasn’t panicking because in a situation you don’t panic if you can manage not to. So after about …I suppose by the time we had the lifejackets and life raft down and inflated and the whole lot – maybe fifteen or twenty minutes had passed. Before they had left I caught a quick glimpse of the navigator coordinates so I had a rough idea of where we were. I put Martin into the life raft first and then I climbed in with him and tried to push the raft away from the boat as quickly as possible. I knew she was going to sink and I was afraid she would pull us down with her. I was footering around in the raft until I found the packet with the paddles in it – small little paddles – so I started rowing like hell then to get away from the boat and that took me about maybe about ten minutes to get maybe 15-20 yds away – they were small little blades. So when we got away from the boat I got out the hand held VH and I put out a Mayday [received by Malin Head] and that’d be about half past four. I think the coast guard said it was about half four….
I just wanted them to rescue us as soon as possible…I thought the most important thing was for them to get a lifeboat launched and get out to us. So [having also rung the Garda station] the Ban Garda in Belmullet asked my name and I gave it to her – and Martin’s name – and I told her that the boat was sinking and that it was attacked in the night. She said she would make a note of it. And then Malin Head got back to me on the VHF and they wanted to talk to me on that so I finished my conversation with the Garda station. The Rachel Mary was steaming to the fishing grounds west of where we were.
MC: The Rachel Mary being?
POD: A fishing boat owned by myself and skippered by John Healey. So they were steaming west and they’re putting a spin on this too that the thing was planned between myself and the skipper of the Rachel Mary. But we were just doing our work they way we always do – and this is what we’re up against and this is saddening me. In fact he never heard the Mayday – his radio was on another channel at the time. He’d seen the boat in the water and knew it was in trouble – that it was low down below the water line. He nearly ran us down in the life raft. Martin was inside and I was out – and I stuck my head out and blew a whistle. One of the lads heard me and they came out onto the port side and they picked us up. And while that was all happening…
MC: So it was them who actually got you out of the water?
POD: Yes. Immediately after them was the Garda in their RIB. And immediately after that was the life boat. In fairness they were fast I must say from once I put out the call for the lifeboat. So the next thing was the lads were making a cup of tea for us…but what is surprising is I told the Garda station that these attackers had gone straight north. And instead of the Garda RIB heading straight north to try and find them they came up alongside us and escorted us in. There is no justice here! You know what they are saying now? The Garda are saying now that they don’t believe this , that when they went out there they didn’t see anyone. The attackers were about half an hour gone. These RIBs make about 40 knots at least, so you are talking about – they’d have been gone about 15 miles straight north. Instead of our boys heading straight north when I gave that information to the station, they just went out to the scene, turned around and came up alongside us. The Rachel Mary did take us all the way to the pier. The Lifeboat crew tried to take us off the Rachel Mary but the sea was too rolly – we were afraid there would be a bit of damage done so they decided to head back in with us on the Rachel Mary. But they took us up to the lifeboat station. I was all wet from the rowing – I had been down on my knees and there was water all over the place. They gave me trousers, a pair of socks and a jacket. Martin I’d say was suffering between the fright and the whole lot, perished with the cold and with hypothermia – they put one of them tin foil sheets around him and put him in the ambulance. So he was treated for that and I was treated for shock. We landed at Castlebar at the hospital. We might have been a couple of hours there or an hour and a half – all time is gone out of my head. But I couldn’t believe when we were released from the hospital – when we were discharged, just outside the casualty door we met four detectives.
MC: What time was it then, roughly?
POD: About half-past nine.
MC: So there were four detectives waiting for you?
POD: And a uniformed Garda. They were nothing short of aggressive. They knew us. They never once asked us for our wellbeing. It was all ‘we need you to make a statement’, ‘we need you to give us your clothes’ – this, that and the other. We were terrorised by these people. Martin is quiet like and I had to get angry with them – they were wanting my clothes and I says ‘these are not my clothes to give you. These belong to the RNLI.’ They didn’t explain why they wanted the clothes. I says, ‘I cannot give them to anybody, I have to give them back to who they belong to.’…we were in shock and I says ‘that man is suffering from hypothermia’. ‘We’re in no condition to talk to anybody’, I says.
MC: You were in shock as you say, but from the history of this whole campaign there is some mistrust towards the gardai?

POD: You can’t you see – they twist everything. In January 2007, my other boat The Rachel Mary was attacked – criminal damage – windows smashed and the wheelhouse. I reported that to the Garda station in Belmullet. I made a statement. Nothing became of it.
… I was pulled out of my jeep in October 2006 by two lorry drivers. They tried to pull me out of the window to beat me. I went in and I made a statement to the gardai in Belmullet backed up by a witness. The DPP decided not to prosecute – they said it was a civil matter.

Nobody that has been attacked has ever got anywhere. There were two complaints to the Garda Ombudsman that were recommended, in fairness, by the Garda Ombudsman for prosecution. They went to the DPP and recommended that these people be put before the courts and put to jail…It is Shell’s law – from the very top.
MC: There are some people who have the impression that you are not pursuing the proper channels ?
POD: Let me give you another example. Myself and my brother and Patrick Coyle and another fellow – four of us. The shit was beaten out of us on the road at Ballinaboy early one morning by the cops. My teeth was knocked out, my nose was bursted. My brother had three stitches in his eye and Coyle was concussed – he was knocked out. Three of us ended up in hospital and we started to pursue a civil claim. The guards must have found out because the next thing was they were claiming that we assaulted them.
When they presented the evidence of the attack that we were supposed to have made on them – the whole incident was missing.
MC: What footage did they have of what you were alleged to have done?
POD: No footage at all. There were seven minutes missing from the Garda video. [The Gardai routinely film and photograph people and activity in the vicinity of Shell’s sites in Mayo.] Garda Greg Burke said ‘Oh well it was a windy morning and the strap on the camera must have turned off the button’. We had a camera expert back from England – it cost us 1800 euro – to bring into the court in our defence. In his evidence he said that he got an identical camera and he tried with all his might to hit the button with the strap and he couldn’t turn it off – he said deliberately or otherwise, the button had to be pushed with a finger. And Judge Mary Devins, she still went ahead with the case and on that evidence she still wouldn’t throw it out. … She said the guards were inconsistent in their evidence but that she had no choice but to acquit the defendants – and she said that some of the defendants were up here for one purpose and that was to get media attention. It cost us about 1500 or 2000 euro each to defend ourselves.
…They have it in for me you see. If a person won’t go away…the thing is they battoned us when they came in first with the Gardai. They hospitalised us. They brought us before the courts and they put me and my son into jail. And I told them above on the road a long time ago ‘the only way they’ll get fuckin’ rid of me is with guns’. That was two years ago and it’s taken them this length of time to actually produce the guns. The state are working with Shell all the way to the very top. None of us is functioning normally because of this thing. If they had just built the thing frigging right – put it out at sea and leave the people of these parishes alone everyone would be all right. We’re all going to die before our time – the level of stress is so bad. The easy thing to do is to sit down and accept their money – take whatever they give you and be a good boy. Don’t say anything and let Shell get on with their business. We have nobody to talk to. Nobody in this country is going to listen to us.
The full transcript of this interview will be available shortly on www.mediabite.org