Ploughshares Acquittal

A Miracle in Dublin

Christopher Carey

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation; and there shall be no more training for war.
Isaiah 2/4

It was the stuff of miracles. After more than 100 Ploughshares actions and trials around the world to protest war and the arms race, a jury in Dublin in late July, acting from moral law and conscience rather than legal tomes, acquitted five Christian peacemakers of criminal property damage. The decision to acquit the Pitstop Ploughshares is a significant breakthrough in peacemakers’ efforts to highlight the immorality of the war in Iraq.

The facts were simple. In February 2003, the five Catholic Workers – Australian Ciaron O’Reilly, American Nuin Dunlop, Scotswoman Karen Fallon and Irish citizens Damien Moran and Deirdre Clancy – broke into an airport hangar at Shannon Airport in Co. Clare. There they followed the biblical injunction of Isaiah, and symbolically ‘disarmed’ a US military C40A logistics supply plane by beating on it with hammers and pouring their own blood over it. They then erected a shrine to the war dead in Iraq and knelt in prayer awaiting arrest. The police were called and the five were charged with criminal wilful damage.

Shannon Airport had been dubbed by them ‘a pitstop’ for the 36 000 US troops who had already passed through in the first six weeks of 2003 on their way to war in Iraq. Part of the aim of the action was to highlight the use of Shannon as a military base. This fact was largely unknown to the Irish people. But they also sought ‘to put the Irish Government on trial’ during the subsequent court case. In other words, they would seek to turn the case against themselves for criminal damage on its head and ‘charge’ the Irish government for its complicity in the US/UK war machine.

The Irish Constitution guarantees the neutrality of Ireland. Yet by 2003 Shannon Airport had become a virtual US base for which the government receive E15 million in annual rental. More than 300 000 troops have passed through in the past year alone en route to the war. Hundreds of body bags and thousands of injured soldiers have returned through Shannon Airport en route back to the US.

To make a moral case for a defence of ‘lawful excuse’, the five argued that the protest was necessary in order to prevent worst crimes taking place. These included the continuation of an illegal war, the bombing of children, the destruction of the earth and the environment, the death of innocents. This approach to peacemaking flows not just from scripture and Catholic moral law but also from international law. In 1946, the war crime’s Nuremberg Tribunal stated, ‘Individuals have international duties which transcend the international obligations of obedience. Therefore (individuals) have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring’.

In previous Ploughshares trials in the US, Canada, Australia and several European countries, the jury has rarely been allowed by the presiding judge to hear any moral arguments about the underlying reasons for the protest action. The issue has been decided simply on a basis of law – as if the law had no moral base and all law was of equal importance. Previously, with two exceptions, juries have found hundreds of peacemakers guilty as charged. Nearly all have been imprisoned, some for several years. Ciaron O’Reilly has twice before served prison terms for Ploughshares actions.

In the Dublin case, the judge allowed some moral argument to be presented. This was a significant legal breakthrough. It meant that the morality which should underpin good law could be examined along with legal definitions.

The five agreed they had caused damage to the US Navy plane. But they argued that their moral consciences demanded an initial law breach in order to effect a greater good, namely the saving of lives, lands and property in Iraq. This constituted a lawful excuse and enfleshed a greater moral principle than mere damage to property. They also wanted to protect people, especially the old and the young in Iraq, who were already vulnerable after a decade of economic sanctions. The five also feared for the young US soldiers and were concerned that Shannon Airport itself might become a terrorist target. They also hoped to motivate others to act against the war and Ireland’s facilitation of the military build-up. Such thinking sits very well within the Catholic Church’s moral teachings.

At the trial many outstanding international experts gave testimony including Denis Halliday, former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, and Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness and a true prophet of our time. Kathy gave evidence that economic sanctions in place since 1992 had dismantled Iraq’s water and sewage infrastructure as well as its health service. Official UNICEF data showed that at least 500 000 Iraqi children under 5 years had died as a direct result of the sanctions. Each of the five defendants also testified to their commitment to non-violence, their Christian faith and peace and justice for all in Iraq.

It took the jury less than three-and-a-half hours to find the five not guilty of criminal damage. In effect, the jury agreed that to damage an American military plane in these circumstances could not be considered a crime. Morally, the lives saved potentially out-weighted the property damage. The sobbing from relief and joy in the courtroom was audible as the judge discharged the defendants.

According to their solicitor Joe Noonan, the decision of the jury to acquit makes legal history. There are two recent international precedents in the UK where juries have preferred to acquit in the face of an official government stance they find unconvincing but this was a first for Ireland. Given the power and resources of the Irish state, the fact that the peacemakers had been pursued for three and a half years through two previously aborted trials costing hundreds of thousands of Euros, the verdict was a miracle.

And a wonderful moment to savour.

Nagasaki Day, 9 August 2006

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