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Voltaire Network >>
Faith of Our Fathers
Sovereignty and Sacrifice in Ireland - Suffering in iraq.
interview with Ciaron O'Reilly of the Catholic Worker and Pitstop Ploughshare action at Shannon Airport in February 2003.
mp3 22mins 43 secs
This weekend, Ireland is the site of much parading and rhetoric about independence, sovereignty and freedom, as many commemorate the blood sacrifice of hundreds of men and women who participated in the "1916 Rising".
Currently, Ireland facilitates the passage of 900 US troops per day on their way to an imperial war in Iraq, and back again (sometimes in bodybags, often wounded). CIA flights through Shannon and Baldonnell airports have been documented by consciencious citizens.
The Irish police harrasse and intimidate such citizens, and leave all planes (through a civilian airport in the case of Shannon), untouched or actively guard them.
A majority of the people of Ireland oppose the Coalition occupation of Iraq, but the Irish government they elect, prefers to sign away Ireland's supposed sovereignty, to Empire.
Is there any government that cannot be bought? any principle that is not for sale?
COR: In terms of disruption and state response, it was probably the most significant or impacting action done by civilians – in terms of intermediate consequences of the Irish army being deployed to Shannon and making overt what was covert – the militarisation of that airport. Three US companies where were transporting troops through Ireland to Iraq, pulled out of Ireland over the security issues in relation to the action. So, it was a very…probably the most dramatic, disruptive act…
RS: Lets be clear about what exactly the five of ye did; what exactly did you do?
COR: We made our way into the hanger by breaking a window, using the emergency bar on the initial door, and opening the next door, and then began working on the plane…After completing our work (it was about six or seven minutes), we formed a circle: we built a shrine with a Bible and a Koran, Rosary beads and Islamic beads and photos of Iraqi children under threat; and we also said the Rosary…hoping the police would join us in continuing the disarmament, ye know; but that didn’t happen, unfortuneately. We were arrested and taken to prison. We were in Limerick prison for between one and three months: Karen spent three months in jail.
We were inspired by a prophecy in the Book of Isiah, to “beat swords into ploughshares”, and every action, I think, one does, has an actual and a symbolic element to it, and I believe it is the symbolic element which is most significant: because the actual part of the action is the relationship between two pieces of metal – the hammer and the plane. The symbolic element of the action is what speaks to the hearts and minds of other people.
So, it’s continued to ripple. We still remain unconvicted for the action, and a major headache for the Irish government in terms of its sycophancy to the United States.
RS: I was thinking, another symbolism was the fact that you, the five of you, were prepared to give your lives, your freedom so that other people might not have to suffer.
COR: The biggest gift we’re given is our lives, and second to that is our freedom, so it’s a big gift for people to offer; and since we acted, we haven’t been completely free: we’ve been on bail for three years. Three of us are not from Ireland: we’re from the diaspora: Karen was from Scotland, Nuin was from the States, and I was from Australia. So, it has been a long haul, you know. We try and put that in the context of how long the war in Iraq has been going as well.
RS: Apparently, there was supposed to be a lot of security in Shannon at the time of your action, because that same plane you attacked happened to be attacked a few days earlier.
COR: Yeah, the plane was engaged, I guess, by Mary Kelly, I think on a Wednesday, and there were photographs of special branch officers with oozies around planes before we acted, so, security had been stepped up: and on the Friday night on the Late Late Show, the Transport Minister got on in response to Mary’s action and said, “Look, we’ve learnt from our mistakes: the area is totally secure: and the plane was completely repaired on Sunday evening; and we disabled it again on Monday morning. So, it was quite a sequence of events.
Then, Hass arrived on the Monday morning as the peace emissary to Northern Ireland Bush had sent over, and he was a former ambassador to the UN when the first Gulf War was on, so he was furious…
It’s kind of interesting to compare and contrast Bertie and Cowen’s response at Hass’ fury and (there was actually tv footage of it and they really looked like the squandered schoolboys getting a dressing down from their headmaster; and you contrast that to Ahern’s response to 100,000 people marching in Dublin and him cynically saying ‘I’m happy to see so many people supporting the government’s policy on the war. So, it did rock his socks a bit…
RS: Sovereignty’s a myth.
COR: Ah, it’s a joke…and it’s amazing that so many political parties over here define themselves in one form of nationalism or another, and…it’s a joke…They haven’t got an independent foreign policy: they’ve now got a US base in Co. Clare.
RS: There’s been two trials so far. The action took place in February 2003, the five of you were tried in March 2005, and again in October 2005, so can you tell us about what happened?
COR: Initially, we could have gone to trial in June 2003 in Co. Clare, in Kilrush, which is a very small town ; and we made an application – to get a fair trial, we should be taken out of the area that is economically dependent on the airport. It’s rarely given, that kind of change-of-venue application these days in Ireland and we were granted it.
And that brought us to Dublin which was a much more significant site for the trial, in terms of the government and the US embassy etc., so, that kinda delayed the case. We were then granted by the judge who was handling our pretrial hearings, discovery. It was fairly broad discovery: it was what was on the planes that pass through Shannon. The government didn’t want to give that up; either because i). they’re so sychofantic: they didn’t know: they hadn’t bothered checking any of the planes and hadn’t been informed about what was on them; or ii). they just didn’t want us to know and the public to know.
So, they put in a judicial review, and that slowed the process down quite a bit: it went right through 2003 and 2004, So, we finally came to trial in 2005. For a whole year we were banned from Co. Clare and had to sign on every day; and it became twice a week; and presently, it’s once a week, and they’re a bit more flexible now about us leaving the country.
RS: So the trial happened in March 2005.
COR: That’s correct; and the judge…when I gave my testimony (I was the only one to give testimony before the trial collapsed, and the first seven objections to my testimony came from the judge (which isn’t his job), rather than the prosecutor. When the prosecutor made an objection, the judge said “I’ve been waiting for you”; and then, he made a technical error (a legal error), by ruling out our defence; which we had a legitemate defence under Irish law – damaging property with reasonable excuse, which is, to preserve the life or property of another person.
RS: This is the 1991 Criminal Damages Act.
COR: That’s right; and he ruled on that without hearing legal argument…which is illegal, really. So, then, when that was pointed out to him, over the course of the weekend he decided that the case had been compromised due to ‘possible perceived prejudice’. , and put a gagging order on that being reported…which kinda became mute once our second trial collapsed.
the second trial went the full course, nearly. Everyone gave a testimony; and also other people like Jimmy Massey (a veteran of this war), Kathy Kelly (who was in Baghdad during the bombing), and Dennis Halladay and others. So, right at the end of the trial the judge went to make a legal ruling on our defence…where he made what we thought was an improper ruling; that he wasn’t going to let the jury ‘entertain’ the possibility that we may have had a lawful excuse. We felt that the jury should be the ones to decide that. He was going to rule that we didn’t have a lawful excuse, so, at that point we confronted the judge with his own history – that he had met President Bush when he was governor of Texas: he’s been invited to inaugurations.
RS: He was invited by Tom Delay, head of the House of Representatives who turned out to be in trouble…
COR: …he’s on corruption charges now. The, all that was very interesting, and…we argued that would be perceived prejudice and maybe he should never have taken the case in the first place. So, after some deliberation, he pretty much agreed to that, and the case collapsed. So, we’ve been given a July 5th date for 2006.
RS: Now, when that collapse happened, you had some indication which way the jury would have gone, didn’t you?
COR: I didn’t immediately go outside, but the jury didn’t know why it had collapsed, but about seven or eight of them apparently, expressed solidarity and support and affirmation. Whether that would have been the case after closing arguments where we didn’t have anything to say in closing, and the prosecutor could have ranted on for an hour and a half or two…whether those numbers would’ve held…but, it’s most likely we would’ve got a hung jury at least, if not acquitted.
RS: There was a nice personal touch, wasn’t there?
COR: The, we got a Christmas card from one of the jury, yeh.
RS: Now, you’ve been in Ireland since 2002 I think, and since your action in February 2003, you first had to contend with the government, who…you were saying it was Dermot Ahern who prejudiced your trial?
COR: Yeh, it was a Minister of Transport and Minister of Defence who said on media that we had assaulted and hospitalised a member of the Garda Síochána who was in the hanger during the action; and you know, when that guard got up twice now in court, on oath, he said we comforted him while he had a stress attack…Those government ministers made those prejudicial remarks on the media, and they’ve never been retracted.
SOLIDARITY AND THE LEFT IN IRELAND
RS: This was definitely a non-violent action anyway, but despite the government being against you and despite what was going on in Shannon Airport, how were you treated by the Left, or by just, people, generally speaking, in Ireland.
COR: Well, I guess, the authoritarian Left and the moderate Left who were running a fairly big anti-war campaign at that stage – a hundred thousand people marched within two weeks of us doing the action – and they did not mention us from the stage…or call for support for us while we were in prison. their objective was to marginalise us. I’m not sure what the reason was. I suspect it was that…they basically saw the war as a marketing opportunity for their political groups – that they weren’t that serious about opposing the war; and they saw us as some kind of political competitors; which eh, we had neither the interest nor the resources to compete with running the anti-war movement in Ireland.
The people who wee running it (both the authoritarian Left and the moderate Left) were very much against the politics of direct action :-):…it might be outside their comfort zone. I was quite surprised how few people were willing to be arrested against this war in Ireland…There was just maybe 50 or 60 I think. Considering that there’s 900 troops going through Shannon every day and they’re willing to risk their lives and legs and sanity to prosecute the war. The people who were willing to risk peril or arrest and loss of liberty were quite few in number. …The people who did risk arrest, there wasn’t much ritual for supporting them either…A lot of them were left quite isolated. A lot of our support came from Catholic Worker communities in the United States and our international contacts.
RS: This could be seen around the times of your two trials, especially the first one. Now, I know you tried to rally people around that as well, and you also do vigils at the Aviation Authority building in Dublin, and you make certain anniversaries like Hiroshima bombing. These vigils are there to try to mark symbolic dates and events as well, but is there a question about the apathy of people generally? Do you feel isolated in a world where people…have handed over their…they let other people make their minds up for them; and their thoughts are presented to them everyday in newspapers; in a media which ignore you?
COR: Yeh,…over the last three years we probably would’ve had about a dozen people who were…seriously committed to being in solidarity with us; ranging from musicians who put on gigs and other’s who’d supply transport and solidarity and finances and stuff. Yeh, people are very disengaged. I think the technique for social control now, is a lot more advanced than when I was growing up 20 years ago.
I dunno, in Ireland there’s a kind of a culture of resignation as well: I don’t know whether that’s to do with the weather or not :-).
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE IRISH?
RS: post-colonial anxt :-).
COR: :-) Yeh, that’s right…there’s a deep scepticism in the culture which can flip into cynicism quite easily; and cynicism is an easy way to avoid one’s responsibilities, really. People confuse it with being wise and sophisticated.
RS: So, it’s not a culture of risk-takers then? :-)
COR: Well, definitely not now: it might have been 20 years ago, I’m not sure, but it’s very materialistic and it’s very strange. I haven’t quite worked it out, and I’ve been here…I might not be that different to Australia when I go home…but
RS: Things are getting’ more globalized, aren’t they?
COR: Yeh, I think a lot of us who grew up in the diaspora had a pretty romantic view of Ireland in terms of resistance and solidarity and not taking any shit from the empire and all that kind of stuff, and there are those traditions still in Ireland.
I grew up with a consciousness very much about being Irish, and probably, one does that moreso outside of Ireland than in it. I mean, we experienced quite a bit of prejudice for having Irish names etc. I would’ve grown up in the Irish community in Brisbane, gone off to céilís and music nights and stuff. My father is from Clara, Co. Offaly, and my grandfather was part of the War of Independence and was actually on the run in North America – and I ended up in the same jail as him 70 years after he was in there, in Albany New York.
So, all those kind of radical, anti-imperial traditions were handed down. So, yeh, it was quite interesting running into Damien Moran who’s from the same county as my father and doing this action with him. His father actually had a mutual friend of my father, which is quite amazing.
So, it’s been interesting to live in Ireland – kind of deconstruct. You know, it’s as racist to romanticise a culture as it is to demonise it, whether it’s Irish or East Timorese or Aborigines or whatever; but it’s important to understand your culture and culture is there. Irish culture is in North America, it’s in Britain and it’s in Australia and it’s in Argentina…and you can’t dismiss it with a Plastic Paddy kind of approach. People are unculturated and it’s important to see the strengths and weaknesses of your culture.
RS: and one of the traditions is that Offaly is called the Faithful County :-)
COR: Is it really? :-). ‘Should know that. :-).
But this group who’re being sentenced next week; three of them are from the same family (the Gradys) and they’re very much Irish-Americans; and I found it very easy to relate to Irish Americans when I was in the States in the Catholic Worker movement, in the resistance movement. They acted on St. Patrick’s Day (the St. Patrick’s Day Four) in their occupation of a military recruitment centre.
So, If Ireland did speak out with some clarity and integrity on this war, it would have huge ramifications amongst the diaspora in Australia, the States and Britain. I don’t think Irish people realise that. They see themselves as small and insignificant. It’s a very strong cultural terms of reference and that doesn’t all have to be spent on making tourist dollars. It can be spent or waged or wielded in ways of political and moral integrity.
RS: Maybe they’re afraid of selling their social capital :-).
COR: Maybe :-). That’s why the Taoiseach will be there with his imperial tie with a bowl of Shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day in the white House.
RS: Yeh, maybe some Irish people are more interested in capital than social capital :-).
COR: :-)Right. :-(He got pretty high opinion in ratings today, Bertie ha…Yeh, growing in popularity. It’s just very…there’s no leadership at all from the churches or political parties in relation to the war. It’s just very cowardly and following trends: there’s hardly anywhere in civic society where the reality of 900 troops going through Shannon to kill and be killed in Iraq is being seriously addressed in the media or the churches or academe or the Union movement (?...subculture you know?).
RS: 330,000 troops went through last year wasn’t it?
COR: Yeh, most of the troops who have been killed in Iraq would’ve touched down at Shannon – people like Casey Sheehan: he was there on the 20th of March last year I think, and then, was dead a week later in Baghdad. His mother was with us here in December. It makes it very real when you meet the people who’ve lost people and…
STRATEGIES FOR RESISTANCE, ALTERNATIVES AND SOLIDARITY
I guess the Catholic Worker is always doomed. Daniel Berrigan would say, “Start small and get smaller”. It is this kind of prophetic minority and it is a vocation and it’s about how to live one’s life with integrity, how to be faithful rather than successful…which I guess was always a big thing for me. I’m 45 and I missed the 60s – people who were 18 in ’68 are ten years older than me. So, I had this felling when I was growing up that I’d missed this radical period and I also wondered what happened to all these people and did they sell out, and why did they sell out? So, the kind of consciousness of selling out or being compromised, has always been a big part of my psyche, given the age that I am – post-1960s…
RS: Apart from the Catholic Worker and people who are faith-based, there is a question of tryin’ to involve people – to basically get them to have faith in themselves and to resist; and resistance doesn’t necessarily have to take direct action, even though if a lot of people decided to take more direct actions in Shannon, the war would be made far more difficult for the United States; What other ways can people resist?
COR: Yeh, you hook up with people…what you do is you hook up with radicals in every tradition, whether they’re Buddhists or young anarchists or whatever. I believe in the basis of democracy, non-violence and direct resistance. So, it’s not about an attempt to convert anyone to our tradition. Most of our energy is into challenging people within our tradition to be true to it – not about trying to recruit more people – and be supportive of other people in other traditions…doin’ their thing.
…We’re basically being atomised as private consumers rather than citizens. People need to break out of that in whatever way they can; and move from being a passive consumer to an active citizen.
RS: Cindy Sheehan came here, Rose Gentle came here. They’ve taken their sons in their deaths and they’ve had faith in themselves now, and they’ve taken the issue forward to their respective governments: but also, there’s whistle-blowers as well, isn’t that right?
COR: Yeh, a lot of significant resistance is coming out of the military and military families now…but there have been people like Ed Horgan and Tim Hoorigan who've done a lot of consistent work around the flights going through Shannon (both the military and the CIA flights). So, I think a culture of non-violent resistance and solidarity with those who are before the courts, or who are arrested or in jail is basic to a serious movement; because a serious movement needs to confront power. It can’t dance around it or talk forever around it. It always needs (if it’s gonna have any integrity) some of their number to actually put their bodies on the line and say No – we believe, non-violently.
RS: So, for those who feel they’ve nothing to offer practically, solidarity is the very least anyway.
COR: Yeh, there’s not much resistance ‘cos there’s not much solidarity, and resistance is easier the more solidarity you have.
RS: You’re takin’ a break from it all now. Has it been difficult, the isolation?
COR: …It has been in some ways, yeh. I’m kind of in exile from my movement. My movement is mostly in North America and I’m banned from North America. So, I’m kind of in exile from my elders in my tradition and this kind of movement.
I don’t think any of the five of us thought it would drag out this long before we had a decision: and we came together quite rapidly – we came together eight days before we did the action; which isn’t ideal. Usually a ploughshares group prepares seriously for six months.
So, it’s been a really interesting time. Like, the other four people are all very different and very courageous and have a lot of integrity and no-one regrets the action. I’m pretty tired of organizing around it without a kind of general anti-war movement existing in Ireland. So, I’ve kinda decided (three of the others have already left the country) that I’ll go home for three months and connect with my family and then come back a bit more refreshed to do the third trial, and possibly a fourth trial. If we get a hung jury, I believe that the Irish government under the direction of the US government will put us on trial for a fourth time.
RS: I was gonna ask you are you hopeful, but obviously you can see a long path ahead of you.
COR: ah, you never know. I was in that court-room in ’96 when the Liverpool jury found the four women not-guilty of £2 ½ million pounds worth of criminal damage. It was great – the integrity of that jury - ,
RS: And if you are found not-guilty it’ll have incredible ramifications, not just for extraordinary renditions that are going through Shannon, but maybe even for its use as a warport itself.
COR: Yeh, if we’re found not guilty, it’s really a reflection of the quality of conscience of those twelve people, rather than our great technique or anything; and it’d be a great message to send to London and D.C. and to the Dáil.
RS: Ciaron O’Reilly, thank you very much.
COR: Thank you.
This is probably one of the firendliest interviews I’ve ever done. I’m proud to have facilitated. It might be compared or contrasted to the love-in interviews with Government ministers and establishment figures often heard on Irish radio (Sam Smith and Pat Kenny interviewing Michael McDowell, or Eamonn Dunphy interviewing Charlie McCreavy to site three recent examples – though I’m not slating all that they do).
As an atheist, I doubt I’ve ever met people more worthy of respect than many I’ve met in the CW movement and I couldn’t think of a relevant contrary question to ask. I did a neutral interview with Damien and Ciaron in April 2004 before I go to know where they’re coming from, and I’ll put that up anon – time willing.