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Letter from Prison: Shannon airport, civil disobedience and the anti-war movement in Ireland

category national | anti-war / imperialism | opinion/analysis author Monday June 28, 2004 19:06author by Info Report this post to the editors

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.



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].

author by Joepublication date Mon Jun 28, 2004 20:16author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Where would someone get a copy of the magazine?

author by Emmapublication date Mon Jun 28, 2004 21:05author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The Comhlamh office in Cork is at 55 Grand Parade.

author by Peadarpublication date Mon Jun 28, 2004 21:46author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Focus (not to be confused with the science mag!) is available in Easons.

author by Kevpublication date Tue Jun 29, 2004 00:19author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The only thing though is that the numbers involved in the antiwar movement have continued to fall and the IAWM (back under firm SWP control) is COMPLETELY against civil disobedience. I completely agree with what Fintan is saying but even the anarchists in this country seem to be all talk and not up to doing serious non-violent civil disobedience. How many people have actually gone to jail in this country while resisting the war? Not many - and almost all of them have been criticised or sniggered at by prominent antiwar types. Definitly they haven't been supported like they should have been.

I just don't think people in this country are willing to put themselves out.

author by anne bonnypublication date Tue Jun 29, 2004 15:03author address author phone Report this post to the editors

we shouldn't judge someone's commitment by how willing they are to go to prison for a cause.

i am willing to be jailed for what i believe in, but i don't have kids or any other major responsibility, ie. it's only me who'd be seriously affected

people who don't have a messiah complex (that's a dig at myself, not you) aren't morally inferior. they're probably more sensible: we can achieve more if we're not locked up.

i'm not having a go at fintan et al either, fair play to those who have served/will serve time

author by Fintan Lanepublication date Tue Jun 29, 2004 17:10author address author phone Report this post to the editors

This article was written in January and, to be honest, the context has changed, in the sense that the focus now has to be the rebuilding of the anti-war movement (while taking a much more positive attitude to civil disobedience). That said, I stand over the central argument in this article. However, we must rebuild first.

author by Joan - not anymorepublication date Tue Jun 29, 2004 23:10author address author phone Report this post to the editors

What does Anne Bonny mean by saying that it's probably "more sensible" to avoid going to jail for non-violent civil disobedience? I mean, who wants to go to jail? The people that have ended up inside have done so because of their principles and that should be respected. Would you make the same covert criticisms of the bin charges protesters who ended up in jail? And what about Mary Kelly and the Catholic Workers? Are you calling them 'insensible'? People end up in jail as a result of actions in defence of their communities (bin charges) or for opposing the mass killing of people (anti-war), not because they necessarily want to be in jail!! The sneaky implication that they are nutcases or 'not sensible' is beneath contempt.

Maybe you don't agree that civil disobedience is not a good tactic, well then argue your position on that, but don't do so by undermining activists who have well-thought out reasons for promoting or engaging in such tactics. Anyway Fintan's piece above is not arguing for such tactics on every occasion - he's clearly arguing the validity of marches and rallies as well. Try reading it a bit more closely the next time.

author by Ciaron - Dublin Catholic Worker & Pitstop Ploughsharespublication date Wed Jun 30, 2004 11:01author address author phone 087 918 4552 or 01- 492 6100Report this post to the editors

This is a good dialogue.

There's an old Eugene Debbs quote "While one person is in jail, we are all in jail!"
Jails should not be ignored and prisoners abandoned by our movement.

Jail is an occupational hazard in the Catholic Worker vocation. But not all CW's should go to jail....some of us cope with the environment better than others. Some CW parents are presently in jail or risking jail...but child rearing years probably shouldn't be prime time!

When you're prepared for death, you're ready for life. Gives you an existential freedom. if you're ready for jail, you're ready for freedom. There's very little else they can scare you with.

Nonviolent reisistance/trial/jail time can be the most empowering experience of you life or most disempowering experience! It's got
a lot to do with your spirituality (your business/total subjective territory) and the solidarity of your movement (our business/when our comrades are in jail/before the courts etc.)

I have been involved in nvda for 25 years seen a lot of good people come and go.......Some of the RTS 2002/ May Day 2004 boys and girls it will be the catylyst of their radicalisation and years of resistance and solidarity work. For others it will be the last time we see them....a lot of that has got to do with the solidarity (or lack of ) from us! How hard did we try to track them down and support them! And the same goes in the Demilitarise Shannon campaign.

I wrote a book about my 13 months in jail in NY,Texas, Oklahoma, Louissiana....it sold 2000 copies mostly in the U.S. and I came close to republishing a couple of years ago. My publisher has gone bankrupt. So this dialogue has motivated me to find a website and slap it up on the internet.

*Review of "Bomber Grounded Runway Closed" is a link on www.ploughsharesireland.org

When our perple are in jail, we don't need to be paralysed by guilt or threatened by them or defensively cynical about them or hero worshipping them or making excuses for ourselves.....we neeed to be in proactive solidarity with them.

If 1% of those who marched in Ireland (1,500) against this war were up for serious nonvioent reistance/consequent jail time and the rest (150,000) were in proactive solidarity...we would have demilitarised Shannon by now and nonviolently driven the U.S. military out of Ireland!

Related Link: http://www.ploughsharesireland.org/
author by Ciaron - ANZUS PLOWSHARESpublication date Wed Jun 30, 2004 11:50author address Check Anzus Plowshares section in the Chronology Section of 2nd. website for Background on 1991 B52 Action!author phone Report this post to the editors


Related Link: http://www.plowsharesactions.org
author by Katepublication date Thu Jul 01, 2004 19:12author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I agree completely that the Dublin marches have a limited impact. Like Fintan I wouldn't be against them but as he says what can they achieve 'by themselves'. We had 120,000 out in Dublin on 15th Februay and the government didn't bend. Big demos since (even if they were as big as 20,000) are often portrayed as 'failures' by the media because they don't measure up to the 120,000. I agree that we should continue with marches but not just marches. At the moment the anti-war movement (and the IAWM in particular) seems to have no strategy. Like how are we to stop refuelling? The marches 'by themselves' are obviously not enough. Time for a rethink.

author by Lolpublication date Fri Jul 02, 2004 17:29author address author phone Report this post to the editors

What a weird concept. According to the IAWM/SWP all we have to do is keep marching in Dublin and buying copies of the Socialist Worker. Their next project is the European Social Forum in London so be prepared for their efforts to suck the anti-war movement into that. Shannon? Irish complicity? It's too far from Dublin and doesn't suit the international strategy of the SWP. You see, the only strategy that interests the SwP is what helps to build for the 'revolution' and of course that means building the SWP. The issue of Irish complicity is irrelevant to them except insofar as it assists party-building.

author by anne bonnypublication date Mon Jul 05, 2004 13:48author address author phone Report this post to the editors

i clearly include myself with those i'm criticising, and clearly state i'm not having a go at those who have been locked up. i was playing devil's advocate. the only way we improve on our tactics is by debating them. no need to be such a reactionary

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