A jury has found two anti-Shell protesters not guilty of violent-disorder charges after a nine-day trial in Castlebar Circuit Criminal Court.
Gerry Bourke (50) of Aughoose, Pollathomas, and Liam Heffernan (30) of Kilnagear, Belcarra, Castlebar, were both charged with violent disorder following a protest at a Shell compound at Aughoose, Pollathomas, on June 23, 2013.
The two men pleaded not guilty to the offences, and following a trial before Judge Petria McDonnell, the jury of eight women and two men took less than two hours to unanimously find them both not guilty.
Following the verdict, both men hugged each other and thanked the jury before embracing family members and supporters who were present in Castlebar Court House.
The trial heard that up to 70 protesters entered the compound and were accused of causing damage to equipment on the site. It was submitted that the protesters refused to leave the compound when asked to do so by security officers, and that a ‘running battle’ ensued, forcing security to retreat to an inner compound on the site.
Mr Bourke and Mr Heffernan were also charged with criminal damage, but they were cleared of this charge after the prosecution withdrew the charges halfway through the trial.
‘It is madness’
In the second week of the trial, both Mr Bourke and Mr Heffernan gave evidence in their defence and described why they were involved in the protest and their concerns about the Corrib gas project.
Mr Bourke – a father of three – told his senior counsel, Mr Brendan Nix, that he farmed 200 metres from the gas pipe and claimed that the last ten years have been a nightmare for him and his family. He explained that he lived in the ‘kill zone’, which he said was how the area was described at a Bord Pleanála oral hearing into the project.
“It has been a ten-year nightmare,” he said. “One of Shell’s own people eventually admitted at the oral hearing that we would have 30 seconds to leave our home if there was an explosion. What they proposed we should do was to find a ditch and go around it and we’d be safe. It is a nightmare that is what it is.
“Nobody came to us to ask what we thought. At all the meetings we were told what was good for us. Nobody cares for us and we are living with this torture. It is on your mind the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. It is madness.”
In relation to the protest on June 23, 2013, Mr Bourke said that the tunneling for the underwater pipeline through Sruwaddacon Bay was taking place at the time, and that when the tide was out, the sand could be seen ‘bubbling up’. He said he contacted Mayo County Council about it but claimed nothing was done about it.
When cross-examined by Mr Pat Reynolds, BL for the prosecution, he denied he was violent in the compound but admitted removing the perimeter fence to gain access. When asked by Mr Reynolds if he ‘belted’ the fence with a wooden stake, he denied this saying he was opening the fence.
Liam Heffernan explained that he got involved in the protests in 2011 citing social, economic and political reasons. He told his senior counsel, Conor Dignam, that he met with local people opposed to the project and claimed their civil liberties had been eroded.
He also claimed the project was of no economic value to the country, as the State received no royalties from the gas.
Mr Heffernan also denied that he was violent on the day of the protest, saying that he did not act with malice on the day. When asked by Mr Reynolds about clashing with a security officer, he said the security officer tried to grab him as he walked up the compound and he went past him.
The trial before Judge Petria McDonnell had originally been pencilled in for three to five days but prolonged cross-examination of witnesses and numerous interruptions due to legal argument ensured the trial ran on far longer than expected.
It was a fiercely contested trial with Mr Nix, Mr Dignam and Mr Reynolds regularly clashing over their interpretation of the law and what evidence should and should not be presented before the jury.
During his closing speeches to the jury Mr Reynolds asked them to ‘park’ any views they may have of the ‘Shell to Sea debate’. He made a number of references to famous protests in the past, including the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil-rights march in Alabama, arguing that what happened at the Shell compound was not a protest, but ‘the intimidation of security officers who were outnumbered’ and ‘the wanton destruction of property’.
Mr Dignam rejected this suggestion, pointing out that the historic incidents referenced by Mr Reynolds were all breaches of the law, and that protest figures like Gandhi were acting illegally.
Mr Dignam said his client had joined the Corrib protests out of concern for the local community and claimed what occurred on June 23, 2013, did not amount to violent disorder.
Mr Nix told the jury his client has been treated with contempt and asked them to consider why ‘good people’ like Mr Bourke would get involved in protests like this.
After less than two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a not guilty verdict. They were thanked by Judge McDonnell for their attentiveness throughout the trial.