Letter from Prison: Shannon airport, civil disobedience and the anti-war movement in Ireland
The following article has just been published in the latest edition of Comhlamh’s magazine, Focus (Winter 2003/Spring 2004). Written by Fintan Lane while in prison back in January, it argues that anti-war activists need “to develop a strategy based on tactical diversity”. Might be worth a read as people re-assess things after the Bush visitation.
Title: SHANNON AIRPORT, CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE AND THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT IN IRELAND
Intro blurb: JANUARY 2004: LEADING CORK ANTI-WAR ACTIVIST DR FINTAN LANE WRITES FROM LIMERICK PRISON WHERE HE WAS JAILED FOR 60 DAYS FOLLOWING HIS REFUSAL TO PAY A E750 FINE IMPOSED BY JUDGE JOSEPH MANGAN AT TULLA DISTRICT COURT FOR HIS PART IN A MASS TRESPASS AT SHANNON AIRPORT.
The past eighteen months was a truly remarkable period for the anti-war movement in Ireland. As the Bush regime prepared for its invasion of Iraq, thousands of ordinary people mobilised across the country to oppose the impending war and to demand an end to Irish government complicity with the US war machine.
Tens of thousands marched in urban centres throughout Ireland and there were regular demonstrations at Shannon airport, which was, and still is, an important transit point for US troops and their munitions. At times, particularly during February and March 2003, the numbers on the streets were astonishing – on February 15th, for example, more than 100,000 people attended an anti-war march in Dublin. Alongside these mass demonstrations, individuals and groups also engaged in ‘direct action’ at Shannon and a US warplane was disabled on two separate occasions in early 2003. These actions by Mary Kelly and, in the second instance, by Deirdre Clancy, Nuin Dunlop, Karen Fallon, Damian Moran and Ciaron O’Reilly, were crucial in focusing attention on the misuse of Shannon and caused the government to militarise this civilian airport temporarily in order to protect US military assets.
In general the anti-war mobilisations of Spring 2003 were organic and self-generating, but the form of the movement and the tactics deployed were influenced heavily by organisations such as the Irish Anti-War Movement, the Grassroots Network Against War, the NGO Peace Alliance, and the Peace and Neutrality Alliance. In Cork and Galway, the movement developed under the auspices of the semi-autonomous Cork Anti-War Campaign and the Galway Alliance Against War.
The strength of mobilisation was impressive, but the government continued to facilitate the US military at Shannon and Bertie Ahern has attempted bizarrely to muddy the waters by claiming that he in fact opposed the war on Iraq. In truth, Fianna Fail and the PDs treated the anti-war movement with contempt. They ignored the temper of the country in the hope that the anger and concern were ephemeral. Moreover, demonstrations at Shannon were repeatedly met by huge and overwhelming deployments of Gardai, including riot squads, armed detectives, mounted police, and helicopters, in a determined effort to intimidate participants and quell voices of dissent. Indeed, on June 21st a march was blocked some distance from the airport and effectively broken up.
The wider anti-war movement remains strong in Ireland, but the numbers involved diminished considerably during the latter half of 2003 and a great many political activists turned their attentions elsewhere. Nonetheless, even with reduced numbers, the movement is vibrant and capable of mounting a concerted and effective campaign against Irish complicity with the US and other war machines. But how is this to happen? Many activists feel disheartened following the government’s dismissal of last Spring’s huge demonstration. Can peaceful protest and non-violent resistance change anything?
Yes, they can, but it is clear that the anti-war movement needs to move beyond just holding marches and rallies to embracing positively the tactics of mass peaceful civil disobedience. Civil disobedience has a proud and honourable tradition in anti-war and other social movements across the globe; it was central to the US civil rights movements, CND, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and, indeed, to the campaign that halted the building of a nuclear power plant at Carnsore Point. Civil disobedience is morally and politically justifiable when human lives are at stake, and it is certain that Shannon airport is helping to kill innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we truly believe what we have all said about the abuse of Shannon airport, then we must regard it as a US airbase on Irish soil, and act accordingly.
The Irish anti-war movement should certainly organise and build for occasional large marches and rallies in Dublin, but by themselves these marches are unlikely to end Irish complicity with the US war machine. However, as part of an integrated strategy focused on Shannon airport, these marches could be extremely important and could play a much more effective role than they do at present. A series of blockades at Shannon airport, complemented by street protests and other actions elsewhere, could form the basis of a workable strategy aimed at disengaging Ireland from the US war machine. Importantly, this would be about people taking action for themselves and would serve to strengthen the anti-war movement in the long-term. December 6th 2003 saw the first attempt to physically blockade Shannon airport and disrupt normal operations for the duration of the protest. It was a modest success, despite the heavy Garda presence, and it marks the first serious attempt at civil disobedience at Shannon airport by the IAWM.
It is clear at this stage that the anti-war movement needs to mainstream civil disobedience, but the jailing of anti-war activists is one possible outcome of such a development and it is crucial that support mechanisms are developed. Also, those already due to appear before the courts must be fully supported and not in a token fashion; Mary Kelly and the Catholic Worker Five did the anti-war movement more than a little service.
The challenge for anti-war activists in the coming period is to develop a strategy based on tactical diversity. This is a time for optimism and renewal. We cannot remain where we are, so we must move forward.
***Dr FINTAN LANE is a historian and former university lecturer, who currently works as a freelance editor. He has published extensively on Irish labour history. He is chairperson of the broad-based Cork Anti-War Campaign and formerly (at time of writing) was PRO of the Irish Anti-War Movement. [In fact Fintan is now a member of Anti-War Ireland, which organised the demonstration that met George W. Bush when he landed at Shannon airport].