Ireland on Trial
On February 3, 2003, long-time Catholic Worker and Ploughshares activist Ciaron O’Reilly and four other Catholic activists, Irish citizens Deirdre Clancy and Damien Moran, American Nuin Dunlop and Scotswoman Karen Fallon (both of Irish extraction), in a challenge to law, custom and the consciences of the Irish people, breached security at Ireland’s Shannon Airport and did extensive damage to a United States Navy transport plane en route to the Persian Gulf. Fully two years later, in an environment in which the fury of the US occupation of Iraq is perceived as little more than a sad fact, they were tried in Dublin on March 7. Their trial was aborted and they remain on remand until 28 October.
In early September 2002, the Bush administration launched the propaganda campaign designed to justify to the world its plans for regime change in Iraq. Ten years of severe economic sanctions, periodic bombings and a few hundred million dollars spent attempting to develop an internal insurgency had failed to unseat Saddam Hussein. Support for the sanctions was unravelling as international conscience was ever so slightly roused. The administration decided to go for broke.
The campaign began with a press conference where President Bush cited a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showing that Iraq was six months away from building a nuclear weapon, commenting, ‘I don’t know what more evidence we need.’ Like so much more that would be said in the coming six months, this was a fabrication; the IAEA report didn’t exist.
The hard sell was on. But across the Atlantic, in the Republic of Ireland, the administration of Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Bertie Ahern didn’t need to be sold. They’d already been bought. The burgeoning Irish economy, the Celtic Tiger, is substantially based upon large-scale investments by 570 American corporations, and Mr. Ahern is thankful for it. The temptation is substantial, given the poverty and emigration that had plagued Ireland in prior decades. Business at Shannon Airport on Ireland’s west coast had also picked up recently. The beginning of a 40% rise in business, touted as injecting €15 million into the local economy annually, was noticed in September 2002 by members of the Irish peace community, who’d begun ‘plane spotting.’ The new business they discovered was US military aircraft and commercial cargo planes on contract with the US Department of Defense. In October 2002, they began posting their observations and sharing their research via the Indymedia web site. Consternation grew.
Ireland is typically regarded as a neutral country, and this is deeply a part of the national psyche. They did not participate in World War II and are not a member of any military alliance. Military related flights cannot use Irish air space or refuel in Ireland without notifying the Irish government and giving assurances that the aircraft is unarmed, not carrying munitions or surveillance equipment and not involved in a military exercise or operation. A caveat in the policy does allow these restrictions to be voided on an exceptional basis with the expressed permission of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Furthermore, according to the Irish Constitution, ‘War shall not be declared and the state shall not participate in any war save with the assent of the Dail Eireann’ (the lower house of the Irish Parliament).
To be sure, throughout much of the Cold War, Ireland gave the US military ‘blanket permission’ to tranship troops and cargo (not munitions, nor surveillance material) through Shannon during peace time, provided they abided by the stipulations listed above. It was pragmatic and profitable, and done on the clear understanding ‘that permission would be subject to reconsideration in the event of a serious deterioration in the international situation.’
This policy was consistently adhered to until 1990 and the first Gulf War. Complicating the present debate, Ireland did allow US troops engaged in that military operation to overfly and refuel at Shannon. While this was deemed more acceptable by the public because it had a UN mandate and the propaganda was fierce, it may have marked an historic policy shift. The impetus for military engagement in that case came overwhelmingly from the US. Several peace offers were disregarded by the US under the rubric of ‘not negotiating with terrorists.’
Additionally, the Ahern administration, on two occasions, surreptitiously allowed the transhipment of heavy armaments through Shannon during the non-UN sponsored NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.
In November 2002, as the US military build-up in the Persian Gulf increased, so did business at Shannon Airport. Hundreds of American troops and possibly munitions were being transported daily through Shannon to the region. Twice during the month, when questioned by members of the Dail, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Brian Cowan refused to admit that any exception had been granted, or that anything exceptional was occurring. Shenanigans were at work behind the backs of the Irish public.
Shortly after, a permanent peace camp was set up outside Shannon Airport. Demonstrations were a regular occurrence. The issue was moving to the forefront of the Irish consciousness. Finally, on January 12, 2003, the London Observer published an investigative piece in which airport workers confirmed that armed American soldiers and transports that carry only weaponry were passing through Shannon.
The next day, Minister of Foreign Affairs Cowen issued a statement that barely addressed the public concerns. He affirmed that the US was using Shannon as a transit stop, without mentioning that the transit was to a ‘military operation.’ He claimed that none of the military planes were declared as carrying munitions. It appeared that, by turning a blind eye, the Irish Government had abandoned its longstanding policy.
This, then, is the heady context in which the ‘Pit Stop Ploughshares’ acted in the predawn hours of February 3, 2003. They cut a fence to gain entry to the airport. They then poured their own blood on one of its runways and set up a shrine consisting of candles, the Bible, the Qu’ran, rosary beads and Muslim prayer beads, St. Brigid’s crosses and pictures of Iraqi children, living and dead.
The group then took up a section of the runway using a mallet (the overrun at the side, so as not to actually endanger a landing craft). As yet undetected, they approached a hangar housing a US Navy transport plane. They spraypainted ‘Pit Stop of Death’ on the hangar door, pushed in a window to enter it and began beating on the plane with the mallet and household hammers. Thus did they attempt to enact the Isaiahan prophecy that when the nations submit to laws and judgments of God, the Spirit will be sent out among them, they will beat their swords into ploughshares, and they shall no longer war against each other, nor shall they study war any longer. (Isaiah 2:4). Finally detected by a lone garda, they peacefully submitted to arrest. In jail they initiated a fast and called for massive nonviolent civil disobedience.
On February 15, 2003, the dream came painfully close to realization. In an unprecedented global phenomenon, millions of demonstrators marched in over 300 cities. In Dublin, capital of a nation of only 4 million, 100,000 filled the streets in the largest demonstration ever on a foreign policy issue.
On February 24, 2003, perhaps emboldened by the outpouring of February 15, the US and Britain’s draft resolution on Iraq, widely regarded as a war resolution, was rejected by the Security Council. Nevertheless, on March 19, the assault on Iraq began.
Consequently, on March 20, Taoiseach Ahern and Minister of Foreign Affairs Cowen went before the Dail, one would think, to fulfil the constitutional requirement that its consent was necessary for Ireland to ‘participate in any war.’ Instead, they sought and received the Dail’s consent to a complex evasion of the law. Then, maintaining a studied omission of the fact that the troops, munitions and surveillance equipment passing through Shannon were being sent to a theatre of war, they requested that the government be allowed to maintain ‘the longstanding arrangement,’ allowing US troops and cargo to pass through Ireland. Finally, confounding reality, they asked for and received a determination from the Dail, that what was transpiring did not amount to ‘participation in any war.’ Irish neutrality had been publicly yet silently eviscerated.
Thus coaxed or coerced by economic pressures, Ireland has violated the law, the wisdom of custom and the conscience of its people to participate in a war that proceeds apace. 125,000 US soldiers passed through Shannon in 2003; that number was exceeded in the first nine months of 2004. By the end of November 2004, a thousand US troops per day were filing through.
Clearly, as this group’s statement attests, they have broken the law in large measure to uphold the law. For law, properly understood must be the application of reason, in the pursuit of truth as to that which is proper to the establishment of freedom and justice. However, law corrupted by power perverts reason to a debased rationality in pursuit of a mechanism by which the interests of power are protected and advanced. Given a period of incubation, it metastasizes into a self-contained ideology; it becomes, as it were, a new truth. Justice and freedom are defined by it. Such are the ongoing developments of neoliberalism.
Implicit in the Isaiahan prophecy is the possibility of a just international structure devoid of organized violence. Scripture avers that this is a hope to cling to. To do otherwise is to limit the potential inherent in human freedom and divine grace.
Such truths are written onto our hearts; conscience compels that they be defended— passionately. What is at issue are not legal structures in the abstract, or their present corruption. What is at issue is a monstrous assault against the Iraqi people by an imperial power— and Irish collusion in it. It is the Iraqi people who need to be defended—passionately.
This is the truth that the Pit Stop Ploughshares bore witness to. They’ve risked years of incarceration to give the powerful in Ireland the occasion to repent and retain their humanity and their nation’s dignity. If heeded, Ireland would be offering America the same gift in turn.
Carmen Trotta is a member of the New York Catholic Worker. This is an adapted article from The Catholic Worker January-February 2005.