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Notes on Shannon and Direct Action
Friday April 20, 2007 12:07 by Martin Clancy
This article consists of notes for a guest lecture in NUI Maynooth on the anti-war movement in Ireland at its highpoint between September 2002 and March 2003. The focus is on the use of direct action in opposition to the use of Shannon airport for re-fuelling by the American military, and the different arguments within the anti-war movement in favour of, or against, the direct action tactic.
There are six areas addressed:
Firstly what is direct action?
Secondly the actions of the anti-war movement in Ireland at its highpoint between September 2002 and March 2003.
Thirdly the different parts of the anti-war movement with reference to their stance for or against direct action.
Fourthly the arguments for or against direct action.
Fifthly the role of the mass media in the anti-war movement, which I will argue worked against direct action in favour of other tactics.
Finally I will ask if there was any success associated with direct action tactics in the anti-war movement, and if this is a useful tactic.
Direct action properly means making something happen, as opposed to seeking the courts make that something happen, or electing a politician to do it, or protesting or lobbying for or against a particular government policy.
It doesn’t simply mean militant action, though it is often taken to mean that. For instance the Black Panther Party, a left black nationalist group in the United States in the late 60s and early 70s was famous for two things: one a programme of free breakfasts for children, and two armed patrols which aimed to intervene in instances of police brutality. Both could be considered direct action. In the context of the anti-war movement direct action generally meant things like trespasses on the runway grounds, blockades, and damage being done to military aircraft. The concept of direct action was developed within the left of the socialist and labour movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in particular among anarchists and syndicalists, it was later, from the 1960s onwards, associated with the radical wings of the peace and environmental movements. That is the origins of the concept, the classing of a particular collection of tactics as direct action, the advocacy of those tactics, and some associated ideas. Direct action can be, and has been, used by a variety of different movements, for instance in the 1980s anti-abortion activists in the United States frequently took direct action against abortion clinics.
CHRONOLOGY OF THE ANTI WAR MOVEMENT FROM SEPTEMBER 2002 TO MARCH 2003:
September 4th 2002.
Eoin Dubsky spray paints warplane (prior to this Shannon issue had received minimal media coverage).
September 28th 2002.
Irish Anti-War Movement demo in Dublin (approx. 2,000 people, largest in a long time)
October 12th 2002.
IAWM Shannon protest, including mass trespass on runway grounds. (approx 400 people).
December 7th 2002.
IAWM march to US embassy (approx. 800 people)
December 8th 2002.
Grassroots Network Against War protest in Shannon (approx. 400 people)
Jan 4th 2003.
Shannon Peace Camp established night of 4th / morning of 5th . This was a camp nearby the airport entrance.
Jan 18th 2003.
IAWM Shannon Protest (approx. 2,000 people)
Jan 29th 2003.
Mary Kelly disarmament action. Damage done to American military plane.
Feb 3rd 2003.
Pitstop Ploughshares disarmament action. Damage done to American military plane.
Feb 4th 2003.
Shannon Peace Camp disbanded. Irish Army deployed at Shannon.
Feb 15th 2003.
100,000 march in Dublin.
Feb 22nd 2003.
3,000 march in Galway.
March 1st 2003.
IAWM and GNAW hold separate protests at Shannon
GROUPS WITHIN THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT:
GROUPS NOT IN FAVOUR OF DIRECT ACTION:
Irish Anti-War Movement, this was described in the Phoenix magazine as “set up and dominated” by the Socialist Workers Party. The Irish Anti-War Movement or I.A.W.M. was organised through a system of local anti-war groups. It was established in 2001.
The I.A.W.M. was initially opposed to direct action, but after a while, especially as it grew, a pro-direct action faction developed within it. This was to eventually lead to a split within the organisation. Though at least one set of protagonists in the split saw the issue as one more around democracy, that just direct action per se. This is a development which happened, for the most part, after the period we are considering here.
Peace and Neutrality Alliance or P.A.N.A., this was established in 1996 as a group to campaign for reform of the United Nations, and for a neutral and independent foreign policy for the Irish state.
N.G.O. Peace Alliance was established in 2001, as an alliance of NGOs, principally those working on development issues in the global South.
I’m not sure how the N.G.O. Peace Alliance and P.A.N.A. are organised, both seem to be platforms to which other organisations affiliate rather than being based around local groups or an activist membership. The biggest affiliates of P.A.N.A. for instance are Sinn Fein and the Green Party. These two groups seem small in practise, and have worked closely with the I.A.W.M. with the I.A.W.M. they organised the 100,000 strong demonstration in Dublin on February 15th 2003.
GROUPS IN FAVOUR OF DIRECT ACTION:
Grassroots Network Against War. Loose consortium of anarchists and radical environmentalists, with groups in Cork, Dublin and Galway, and a more tenuous presence in Belfast and Limerick. Set up in 2002, but grew out of a body established the previous year.
A small number of individuals influenced by Christian pacifist traditions. A smaller group within this was the Catholic Worker Movement.
Shannon Peace Camp was divided on the issue of the advisability of direct action in the particular time and context in which it existed.
Especially during February 2003 the division within the anti-war movement around the question of direct action was quite heated. For instance no speaker from the platform of the February 15th rally mentioned the fact that at that time five people were in prison for carrying out an anti-war action at Shannon airport, while later in the month a proposed mass direct action was denounced in the media by other anti-war activists.
ARGUMENTS FOR AND AGAINST DIRECT ACTION:
The arguments for and against direct action can be divided into two categories.
Firstly efficiency in regard to a particular issue, that is the straightforward question is this tactic useful or not in regard to opposing military re-fuelling in Shannon, and secondly in regard to the wider political agenda for a radical transformation of society shared by many, but not all, of the key activists in the anti-war movement.
ARGUMENTS FOR DIRECT ACTION:
(1) Direct action is an efficient tool. This is often, but not exclusively, associated with the view that we live in an undemocratic society, and lobbying and protest marches have a limited capacity to make change on any particular issue, coupled with the view that the capacity of the state for repression can be restrained by public opinion. This was the main argument in the context of the anti-war movement. It seems a little contradictory, so to expound the argument here is it is seen as possible to raise the political costs of a particular action for the state. Political costs in that the state must have legitimacy, must be seen as legitimate by the majority of the population, which influences the extent of repression it will employ, and makes repression not a positive option for the state.
(2) Direct action can get media attention, and will thereby contribute to influencing public opinion. This was not a central argument in the anti-war movement.
APPROPRIATENESS TO A WIDER RADICAL AGENDA:
(1) Direct action can be seen as a form of pre-figurative politics. That is organising in the here and now in a way that will help build the type of society you want to see in the future. So if the ultimate goal is a democratic, non-hierarchal society, direct action is favoured as it is perceived as being participatory and empowering, that is people creating something for themselves, as opposed to appealing to the government, as with lobbying, or protest marches, or electoral politics. From this point of view the numbers participating in direct action is important in defining something as direct action, it could be argued that if only a small number of people are engaged in direct action, most participants in a movement will experience it as indirect action, that is being passive while someone else sorts the problem out, that is then, in this argument, maybe little different from appealing to the government. To a degree, the same could be said about using direct action to attract media attention.
(2) Direct action can be seen as a symbolic challenge. For instance by raising the political costs for the state, in this context, the state is forced to militarise Shannon airport with soldiers and police so it can continue to be used for re-fuelling by the American military. This reveals the state as a repressive force. This was not a major argument in the anti-war movement.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST DIRECT ACTION:
(1) Direct action, or at least some forms of it, is too radical for many people, it will alienate supporters of the anti-war movement, and this drop in support will mitigate against success on the issue.
Sometimes this case was focused on specific groups of people, for instance alienating residents of Shannon, or alienating workers at the airport. A variant of the argument saw the task as building the movement first, drawing in the less committed, and then moving to a direct action strategy.
An associated argument is that direct action gives the media something to attack the movement for.
Sometimes this view was associated with the idea that mass popular opposition to military re-fuelling at Shannon would, in and of itself, ensure the end of the military usage of the airport.
(2) The costs , for protesters, associated with direct action will be too high. Before any demonstration with any prospect for direct action all kinds of possibilities were banded about, from ‘ring of steel’ exclusion zones preventing anyone getting any where near Shannon, to Army Rangers lurking in the bushes and the prospect of soldiers using live ammunition. Most of this was totally exaggerated but we shouldn’t underestimate potential costs such as injury, arrest, lengthy court proceedings, prison time, as factors inhibiting direct action.
APPROPRIATENESS TO A WIDER RADICAL AGENDA:
(1) A change in the consciousness of large numbers of people is the most important thing that can come out of the anti-war movement. Direct action alienates some people and is elitist, focused on small groups of activists, substituting themselves for the movement. What is necessary is to concentrate on large family friendly events, designed in such a way as to make participation easy and cost free. These events, such as protest rallies in major cities, or public meetings, are intended as having an educational role.
A perhaps unspoken premise of this argument is that military re-fuelling at Shannon could not be stopped, or that this was not a priority, as it being stopped, would, surely, result in a change in consciousness.
THE MEDIA, THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT, AND DIRECT ACTION:
A survey into participants in the February 15th 2003 anti-war protest asked people where they heard about the demonstration. (1)
Respondents were also asked to rank the possible sources of information as “the most important source” or just “a source” .
39.7% of respondents identified either television, newspapers or radio as “the most important source”.
This compares with 13.2% who said posters, 1.5% leaflets, and 5.9% e-mail, and no one identified the internet as their main source, so that is 20.6% for whom anti-war movement created media was the main source.
In the “as a source” rankings newspapers came in at 51.5%, radio at 45.6%, and television at 55.9%, each form of media only being out done by friends, which 60.3% of respondents identified as a source of information about the demonstration.
Clearly the mainstream media played a major role in mobilising people for the February 15th demonstration. This is underscored by the fact that, in answer to another question, none of the respondents could successfully name the three groups responsible for organising the protest march.
There was considerable positive media coverage of the February 15th demonstration in the days preceding it. For instance the first page of the ‘Weekend Review’ section of the Irish Times of Saturday, February 8th, was mostly focused on the anti-war movement and worldwide day of protest the following Saturday. On Friday the 14th the Daily Mirror had the full page front headline ’Make Love Not War’ with details of the demonstration being the exclusive content of pages 1,2,3, 4, 5,6, and 7. The same paper’s editorial read: “it is only through people power that we can stop a war at this crucial stage when a diplomatic solution is still possible”.
Those are just two examples.
The influence of the media is actually underscored when we consider the independent efforts of the protest’s organising groups, which included 10,000 large colour posters, a quarter of a million leaflets, and 60 to 70 public meetings in the preceding two months. (2)
So it was a pretty considerable organising effort, and was still outstripped as a source of information by the media.
On the other hand the media was markedly hostile towards direct action.
For instance, the Irish Times, which carried several positive articles on February 15th before the event, pulled a commissioned opinion piece on civil disobedience and the IAWM’s planned mass blockade of Shannon airport of December 6th 2003.
The editor rejecting the piece said the Irish Times could not be "associated with and assist in mobilising for a call to break the law a step too far!". (3)
This was a matter of the same organisation calling a protest over the same issue with the same newspaper taking a completely different stance, the only difference was tactics, and the editor clearly referred to those tactics.
This was not an isolated phenomenon.
For instance both the Pitstop Ploughshares disarmament action, and the March 1st attempted mass trespass, received extremely hostile coverage in the media.
So to conclude if the media played a large part in the anti-war mobilisation, in terms of being a source of information as to when and where demonstrations are happening, as we saw in the survey of February 15th participants, it follows that the media’s hostility to direct action must have mitigated against the success of a direct action strategy.
DIRECT ACTION: SUCCESSFUL OR NOT?
Does the experience of the anti-war movement suggest direct action is an efficient tactic?
Around the 25th of April 2003 three commercial airlines which carry U.S. troops through Shannon resumed using the airport. Each had pulled out in February following direct actions, and each returned in a context where the prospect of direct action had considerably diminished.
On the other hand none of the plans for mass direct action at the airport were successful in reaching their limited objectives, ie to blockade the entrance, or to trespass on the runway grounds.
Also as we have seen there is an apparent contradiction at the heart of the argument for direct action, that is it appears premised on the idea that the state will not respond to popular opinion on an issue, or popular opinion expressed through protest rallies, but that popular opinion is a sufficient force to dissuade the state from resolutely cracking down on activists employing direct action. This contradiction is perhaps resolved through the idea that repression imposes a political cost on the state, and therefore that the state is given a choice in regard to what price it wants to pay, the price of a concession on a particular issue, or the price of a loss of legitimacy through repression. This is sometimes coupled with the idea that repression will actually benefit a movement, by drawing more people in to it on the grounds of concern over civil liberties. However it is perhaps hard to see how this would force a change on a major issue. The classic examples of successful direct action happened in contexts where one side needed the active participation of the other, and so successful direct action could be achieved by denying that participation, as in the withdrawal of labour in a strike, or in the refusal to pay taxes, as with the water charges in Dublin in the mid-90s, or the Poll Tax in Britain.
However direct action in other contexts has been successful also, and on issues which, it would seem, were fairly major. For instance environmental direct action movements in Britain in the 90s saw the government’s road building programme severely curtailed, and halted the introduction of genetically modified field crop tests. However both those instances were in situations where there was also considerable public opposition to the state’s plans.
One solution to this conundrum is the idea of ‘big camp and small company’, this was put forward by one of the founders of Nine Ladies anti-quarry protest site in the Peak district in England. This is the occupation of a piece of woodland threatened by a planned quarry.
The idea here is to carry out major direct action, a large protest camp occupation, against the plan’s of a company small enough that the financial cost of dealing with the occupation is prohibitive. In the context of this discussion we might see a form of ’big camp and small company’ as carrying out a considerable amount of direct action on an issue relatively minor to the state, in that context, the political costs of repression would be greater than the cost of concession. However the bind is the more minor the issue the harder it is to motivate and mobilise people to take action over it.
On the other hand the main argument seen in the anti-war movement in 2002 and 2003 against direct action does not seem to hold water when tested against the experience of that movement in that period. That argument is that direct action will alienate people from the movement and leave an isolated ’hardcore’, but the evidence from anti-war activity in the 2002 and 2003 period is the opposite, the movement grew after actions.
(1) O’Callaghan, Cian, Collective Action Theory and Irish Anti-War Protest, Unpublished MA Thesis, Department of Politics, University College Dublin, 2003.
(3) Shannon Warport ‘No More Business as Usual’
Peace Activist VS US Military Jet:
Another Five go airside in Ploughshares action at Shannon airport
Ireland Says ‘No to War’ as over 130,000 Protest:
Grassroots Network Clarify ‘Direct Action’ Call:
Irish Anti War Movement:
Reflections on the Anti War Movement in Ireland:
Planned Direct Action is Premature:
Shannon, at the end of a long road:
‘IAWM National Assembly Fails to Reflect the Diversity of Anti War’