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The poor get punished, while the rich get privileges: a note on the Mayo pipeline

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Criminal and deviant behavior can be understood as political, because people with political power, like the ruling class, are in a position to exercise legal restraint and political control (Sumner, 1990). According to Christie (in Scraton 2007), crime does not exist but is created through a method in which certain acts are created as criminal. Deviant acts are seen as negative and a breach of established social rules.  However, crime and deviance are invested with meaning by the predominant culture and the political-economic regime which is imposed as the rule of law. 


Guards force digger through crowdAccording to Michalowski (1985), the economy shapes state law and decides what crime is and what is not and what constitutes acceptable behaviour for individuals.  An individual’s social class, education level, biology, mental and emotional development and race can determine their development and the likelihood of criminal behaviour. The power to criminalize these individuals takes the focus away from the reason why these individuals commit crime in the first place and places the focus on the crimes they commit. Even when no political motive is involved, the act of labelling a crime can divert the attention away from underlying forces. If society looks at black young people as muggers, there will be less acceptance of movements which say that young black men are being discriminated against (Gilroy, cited in Muncie et al 1996).


For someone to be labelled deviant, their actions must be seen as contravening social norms and others must agree that this is not acceptable. If a person is not powerful enough to make the deviant label stick we overlook it. Many people in society don’t take any notice that the corporate economy kills more people than are killed due to crime on our streets. The crimes of the poor are looked upon more negatively and seen as more worthy of our attention. Violence is entirely associated with the actions of the poor in disadvantaged areas (Liazos 1972).


People’s lives are violated every day in society due to the workings of institutions; the latter put an end to more lives than the murderers we read about in our newspapers. We do not recognize these events as violent as they are not immediately destructive. We tend to focus more on the deviant behavior of what society deems as deviant: the poor and powerless in society. We look at the violence committed as political rebellion in riots and focus on the actions of the rioters, but ignore the violence against the people who are rioting. Criminal law is used by the ruling class to promote its own interests, for example by making the behaviour of the working class look much more harmful than white-collar crime (Beirne and Messerschmidt 1991).


According to Chambliss, crime is a response to the life circumstances of a person’s social class. Crime distracts the attention of people in disadvantaged areas from their exploitation, focussing it towards other members of their community and preventing them from looking at the capitalist class or the economic system (Chambliss, cited in Beirne and Messerschmidt 1991).

Studies of prisons and prisoners focus on prison subcultures and rehabilitation of the prisoner. Very little attention is paid to the political and economic conditions which keep people incarcerated. According to Liazos, the majority of prisoners would see themselves as political prisoners because their criminal act was due to the social conditions and inequality they face on a daily basis and not as prisoners who are troubled and psychopathic personalities (Liazos1972).

As Quinney put it, crimes of accommodation occur where people from the lower and working-class commit crime as a response to oppressive conditions of capitalism and domination by the ruling class. These crimes are committed as a way of survival within the capitalist system and also a political act of rebellion.  Some criminals and their crimes can be admirable figures in the whole class struggle (Quinney 1977). Look at what happened in Britain in theAugust 2011 riots: the protest over the police shooting of Mark Duggan in North London changed into criminal damage, violence and theft in many towns in the UK. One explanation for these riots was that they were partly due to the recent elite scandal over bankers and politicians (Birch and Allen 2012).

Young (August 2011) commented that these riots were political; the young people in the riots were looting not shoplifting. When people get together to break both law and social convention, they are acting politically. Poverty was a major factor for the people involved in the riots, as 64% of the rioters lived in the poorest areas and 42% depended on free school meals. People involved in the riots stated they did so for free stuff. People from poor areas have not got many ways to fight back against the inequalities that they experience. One rioter stated that he stole a television so he could throw it at the police due to the ill treatment he had received from the police throughout his life. Rioting is one of the few options marginalized people have to make people listen to them (Young, December 2011). “Rich people don't riot because they have other forms of influence. Riots are a class act" (ibid). As Quinney argued, crimes of domination appear to be the real source of societal harms, but are not criminalized because they benefit the ruling class.

Protest in Mayo

Ruling class theory states that the law is defined by the ruling class in a way which benefits them. This ruling class (capitalist class) dominates and exploits the state as a way to maintain capital growth and the protection of its economic power. The state is seen as a way for the ruling class to impose and guarantee the stability of the class structure and is informed with the ideology of the ruling class. (Chambliss 1995). An example of the Irish state supporting the interest of the ruling class can be seen when Shell sought to build a gas pipeline from a field in Ballinaboy, County Mayo, 80 kilometers offshore. Planning permission was granted for a 400-acre site. Around this time the government introduced new compulsory acquisition orders (CAO) which allowed pipes to be laid in private land over the objections of the owners.  The amendment to the Gas Law gave these industries permission to enter the land under the new CAOs (Lynch, cited in Leonard 2006).

Shell pipeline in County Mayo

The development does not benefit the community with employment as the jobs are specialized jobs. Neither does the project offer much benefit to the national economy.  This is because of the deal the Irish government made with Shell whereby the Irish Revenue receives minimal royalties from the oil and gas and 100% of the operation’s cost can be signed off against tax for 25 years. This deal was made by then Finance Minister, Ray Burke, and Bertie Ahern: the former was jailed for corruption and forced to resign from office while under a tribunal investigation for political corruption (Keohane and Kuhling 2010). 


Five locals spent 94 days in prison for their campaign against the pipeline. These five men felt that the pipe which was planned to run beside the homes of families in the area could have health risks to the people in the community. A campaign called Shell to Sea started to stop the pipe being laid down in Mayo. Protesters blocked access to the entrance to the Shell site. On a number of occasions there was scuffling between Gardaí and protesters, and there is footage from protesters of Gardaí throwing several protesters off the road and down into ditches (Leonard 2006). It is assumed that the protesters were trying to block the road, but the manner in which they were treated looks disproportionate. Another incident was when the Gardai brought a HIMAC digger, jeep and cabin down the lane belonging to Mr Paddy McGrath who had not giving his consent to let them onto his property.  The Gardai forced their way onto Mr McGrath’s property while injuring some of the protesters (ibid).  


This campaign has been going on for the past seven years, costing the state over €16 million on policing the protest - not including the cost of paying wages to Gardai who are policing the area (The 16/11/13). Protesters have been harassed, intimidated and severely beaten by private and state security forces, arrested on spurious charges, tried, prosecuted and jailed indefinitely (Garavan et al, cited in Keohane and Kuhling 2010).


Overall, it seems clear that the ruling class are in a position to dominate the economy and use their power to determine which actions are ‘criminal’ and which are not. Powerful individuals who are in a position to control society ensure the focus is on the crimes of the poor and label them deviant while their own destructive activities can go without any attention.  




Beirne, P. & Messerschmidt, J. (1991) Criminology. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: USA.

Birch, S, & Allen, N (2012). 'There will be burning and a-looting tonight': The Social and Political Correlates of Law-breaking', Political Quarterly, 83, 1, pp. 33-43, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 23 January 2014.

Chambliss, W. J. (1998) Exploring Criminology Macmillan: New York

Keohane, K. & Kuhling, C. (2010) The darkness drops again: a recurrence of the Táin foretold in the 'Corrib Gas Giveaway'. Irish Journal of Sociology, Vol. 18(2), pp. 107-25.


Leonard, L. (2006) 'Moral Framing in a Resource Dispute: The "Shell to Sea" Campaign in North Mayo'.  Vol. 95, No. 380, pp. 375-86  Irish Province of the Society of Jesus

Liazos, A. (1972) 'The Poverty of the Sociology of Deviance: Nuts, Sluts, and Preverts', Social Problems, Vol. 20 (1), pp. 103-20 University of California Press


Michalowski, R. J. (1985) Order, Law and Crime. Random House: New York. 

Muncie, J. & McLaughlin, E. (1996) The Problem of Crime. Sage Publications: London.

Quinney, R. (1977) Class, State and Crime. Longman: New York

Scraton, P. (2007). Power Conflict and Criminalisation. Routledge: London. 

Sumner, C. (ed.) (1990) Censure, Politics and Criminal Justice Open University Press: Milton Keynes.


Young, G. (5, December 2011) Indifferent elites, poverty and police brutality – all reasons to riot in the UKAvailable from  Assessed on 23/01/14. 


Young, G. (14, August 2011) These riots were political. They were looting, not shoplifting. Available from Assessed on 23/01/14.


Graham Cambridge is a youth and community worker in Cork city currently on the MA in Criminology at UCC

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