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George W. Bush won’t fondly recall this weekend’s close encounter with Ireland–and the feeling is mutual.
On the eve of his arrival the normal Irish hostility to Bush had settled at the level of a disgruntled murmur rather than an angry roar. But Bush himself turned out to be the best cheerleader–or, rather, roarleader–that anti-war activists could have hoped for: while numbers at demonstrations were only middling (10,000-plus in Dublin was the most we mustered, a small fraction of what Ronald Reagan attracted in the now-forgotten protests of 1984), the radio phone-ins and Sunday newspapers suggest a new level of bitterness toward Dubya. Boston may be the next parish west, but John Kerry must wish Ireland had its own electoral votes, because he’d sweep them in a landslide.
The president roused Middle Ireland from its indifference mainly with a nasty, tetchy performance in a pre-journey TV interview on RTE’s Prime Time, and with the White House’s crybaby reaction to it–including refusing the relevant journalist, Carole Coleman, a previously agreed interview with the First Lady. Resentment was already simmering here about the costly and over-the-top security arrangements for the visit, with many residents around Shannon Airport and Dromoland Castle refusing to use the special ‘passes’ issued to them by the police, and newspaper readers horrified at images of all the Irish army’s tanks rolling in convoy through Clare, as though Al-Qaeda were planning to form battle ranks with its own armoured divisions moving in from Galway. Join the security paranoia and the media petulance together and the weekend’s inevitable headline, used at least twice by tabloids, is "Chicken George".
Coleman is perhaps the least likely journalist to find herself in the midst of this sort of flap. ("Savaged by a sheep" is the phrase that springs to mind.) Reporting from Washington for RTE for a few years now, she’s never appeared particularly interested in the place or in her work. She’s the sort of foreign correspondent who is content to find her line in the local mainstream media, regurgitating wisdom about the world as seen by CNN and the Washington Post. To be sure, as the US media has found a small amount of election-year aggression, her work has reflected that, albeit faintly and soporifically. But the White House would have felt safe to assume that her 12 allotted minutes with the president–something of a tradition for the national broadcaster in the event of such a visit–would consist of softball questions about our nations’ historic links, the peace process blah blah blah, stuff even Bush could handle in his sleep.
Instead, Coleman looked like she’d downed six cups of coffee to steady her nerves and launched an aggressive-if-slightly-vapid line of questions about the deadly consequences of the Iraq invasion, interrupting Bush when he waffled or wandered. Bush wagged a finger at her and interrupted her back. By the time they got to her pointed question about whether he felt he was guided by God, he finished his evasive stammerings about his "personal relationship with the Good Lord" by declaring "that doesn’t make me a better person than you"–and you could tell he didn’t mean it: he hated her.
Some people, to be sure, reckon Coleman went over the top. But many saw a mad-eyed belligerence in Bush that was surprising in light of his June ‘statesman’ act. Then came the bullying attacks on Coleman, including the withdrawal of the Laura Bush interview–and even US network veterans reckoned the White House was throwing its weight around against a puny opponent in an astonishingly ugly fashion.
And if that weren’t enough to steam Dubya up good, a lucky photographer at Dromoland got a picture of Bush in his underwear closing the curtains for beddy-by time, before 10pm–i.e. 5pm Washington time, after a short day’s travel–and the tabloids ran it with glee. (Irish police were reportedly carpeted by US secret service for the security lapse.) And Bush’s final press conference was held up 20 minutes because ‘AmBush 2004′ protesters rather inadvertently blocked press buses en route to the castle.
These Bush troubles and the reporting of them have inevitably led to accusations and breast-beating about ‘left-wing media bias’. Is there any need to tell Counterpunch readers that these are complete and utter bollocks? (Yours truly is particularly sensitive on the subject since I was dropped from the Irish Times after a series of political arguments) Irish media are of course marginally better than US media at reflecting the views of the vast majority of the earth’s population about the Bush administration and its foreign policy, but the difference is marginal. And as in the US, those who shout about ‘left-wing media bias’ have much more access to the media than anyone left-wing: Coleman’s predecessor in Washington, Mark Little, writes painfully pompous best-sellers about how Ireland misunderstands the US, and ex-US diplomat George Dempsey has written another similar polemic built around a handful of debatable citations. Both of them are feted with enormous uncritical interviews across the media (though also, of course, with challenging reviews). Dempsey got 10 easy minutes on Ireland’s most popular radio show on the very morning of Bush’s arrival.
The next day, Bush still in situ, a ‘Republicans Abroad’ representative recited an absurd list of distortions about the US ‘achievement’ in Iraq, from electricity to education, and the interviewer came up with no more than "But accepting all that"
Without doubt, the media here stifled genuine debate about Bush–beyond the pathetic ‘Democrats Abroad’ level–and suppressed information about protest. Perhaps the most pernicious example of this was one that most media consumers would never know about. RTE, as host broadcaster for the Dromoland summit, was responsible for providing footage for use by other broadcasters, including US networks. On Friday evening as Air Force One touched down, despite widespread international-press interest in protests (the only story, really) RTE offered no footage whatsoever of that evening’s airport march and rally, attended by more than 1,000 people who braved the menacing security arrangements and a typical spitting rain. (One intrepid CBS producer, on seeing this omission, did manage to grab a crew and get some last-minute, end-of-protest video for that network.) Was this a case of RTE losing its nerve after the Coleman debacle? RTE’s only shareholder is the Irish state, and with the government reportedly siding with the White House on the interview, it’s not surprising that the broadcaster might try to be on its best behaviour. At any rate, the result was that most people around the world had no chance to see the Irish protests on television.
Some of the popular disquiet about the Bush visit has been nationalistic. ‘Our’ broadcaster bullied by the White House. ‘Our’ army at the disposal of a foreign power. ‘Our’ police commissioner dressed down in his own country by the US secret service. We were temporarily living the reality of ‘occupied territory’.
In the end, ‘our’ security forces, perhaps touched by this sort of nationalist pride, were much less hostile to anti-Bush protesters than anyone who was water-cannoned on May Day this year, or bludgeoned on May Day 2002, would have been prepared to forecast. Perhaps it was a case of ‘Mission Accomplished’: the latest May Day confrontation, and the frightening pictures of a thoroughly militarised County Clare, had scared away all but the most hardened protesters. The priority, to minimise most people’s sense of their capacity to participate in radical action, was already in place by the time we began to arrive in the area. The 6,000 police and army personnel looked bored, at worst, and one cop shouted out "Thanks for the overtime!"
It was not entirely a case of good-cop-good-cop: on Friday afternoon police raided a ‘Peace Camp’ several miles from the airport and burst protesters’ balloons–literally. The good-humoured anarchists video’ed the event and proceeded to demonstrate shorn of several hundred black balloons (though some of the stash survived the Garda boots).
By Saturday afternoon the unthinkable was happening: cops chatted with protesters as they walked together along the various roads near the airport. At one point I found myself driving, caught behind a group of demonstrators, and a cop was outraged at my cautious attempt to drive past. "This is your protest!" he declared, rather mysteriously. (My front-seat companion was a Palestinian cameraman, and I was browner after a dusty, sunny day, so perhaps he took us both for visiting Arabs.) "I have to protect your protesters!"
Riot police did make a fleeting and passive appearance, tolerating the handful of folks who danced past their lines. More bizarrely, at one point Irish army APCs drove toward a group of protesters, who quickly got over their fear and bafflement, clambered on top and sprayed the vehicles with graffiti. Some over-enthusiastic anarchists proceeded to regale the rest of us for hours about how they "captured two tanks".
In the absence of truly massive mass protest in Clare (numbers never exceeded about 2,000), such creativity was the order of the day. Former Irish army commandant Ed Horgan, now a committed peace activist, brought a boat into Shannon estuary with two comrades, and all three were arrested for their efforts. Horgan’s bail conditions reportedly included a 20-mile exclusion zone around the airport, which if enforced rigorously would have meant he couldn’t go to his own home.
Even with Bush gone, Shannon remains the focus for many anti-war activists here. More than 10,000 US soldiers pass through every month, going to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. Cargo planes refuel too, as has a jet believed to be used by the CIA snatch-squads ferrying ‘high-value targets’ around the world.
So it’s with good reason that a sign pointing the way to the local McDonald’s was carefully amended to read ‘SHANNON D I E THRU’. Shannon is an important link in the chain of corruption and brutality that runs from the boardrooms of America, through the White House, and into the oil fields of Iraq. Breaking that link would give encouragement to others resisting the Empire, and it would weaken the chain.
If passionate creative effort could build a successful movement, we’d have won by now. A wonderful 20-foot long Iraqi flag was lovingly inscribed in Arabic, "We don’t want occupation, we want peace"–and was a favourite with that Palestinian cameraman. A guy who planned to lead a contingent walking from the surfers’ beach at Lahinch, more than 20 miles away, found only one friend willing to join him, but trudged along strumming his guitar anyway. A slightly larger group carried a Guatanamo-style cage, complete with orange jumpsuit, and demanded access to Bush to make a citizen’s arrest for war crimes. (Bananas were thoughtfully hung on the cage bars for the intended prisoner.)
Perhaps most successful of all, at least in attracting media attention, was ‘MacBush’, in which the final scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth was enacted between the village of Clarecastle and the castle at Dromoland, where Bush was staying. Protesters advanced on the castle carrying cardboard cut-out trees, Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane–each tree bearing the name of a dead Iraqi civilian. Caoimhe Butterly, well known for her brave activism in the Israeli-occupied territories, was Lady Macbeth, warning that "all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand", and Catholic Worker Ciaron O’Reilly was in US-army fatigues as Banquo’s ghost. (See www.indymedia.ie for more details and great images of the weekend events.)
But for all the sense of tragic importance and occasional high spirits among protesters, there was a sense that we had been successfully boxed in by the authorities. Condoleezza Rice, in an interview with Irish journalists prior to the visit, had reminded Irish protesters that they were enjoying the benefits of democracy, of the sort soon to be visited on Iraq. But as one leaflet doing the rounds put it, we had simply reached the "Free Speech Compound", where our protests could echo off the 12-foot cement walls.
Maggie Roynayne of Global Women’s Strike pointed to the walls, to the helicopters, police horses and dogs, the weapons unseen but no doubt ready for us, and asked, "Is this democracy?… We don’t accept any of this as normal!"
For once, the activist’s sentiment seemed to be shared by most people in Ireland.
HARRY BROWNE is a journalist and lecturer in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology: firstname.lastname@example.org