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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Iraq

This Saturday, when Ireland takes its place among the nations of the world and thousands of its people march through Dublin and Belfast against the coming war, five of the island’s most honourable activists will be forcibly missing from our ranks.

Deirdre Clancy, Karen Fallon, Nuin Dunlop, Damien Moran and Ciaron O’Reilly are still in jail after their early-morning incursion onto a runway and into a hangar at Shannon Airport on February 3rd. The five of them are charged with criminal damage to a US Navy cargo 737 ? a plane that was already in for repairs after a hatchet-attack a week earlier by another activist, Mary Kelly.

Their actions, launched from the ‘peace camp’ established at the airport, have seriously discomforted the Irish government, whose commitment to Ireland’s military neutrality is now barely nominal. Tens of thousands of US troops en route to the Gulf have stopped at Shannon ? most of them aboard chartered civilian aircraft ? and it became obvious in January that the US had been flouting aviation rules that required it to request permission to land munitions at the airport. After Irish officials spent several days playing word games about whether unloaded sidearms constituted weapons, the permissions began to be requested, and were duly granted.

After nearly a week in custody, Mary Kelly accepted the onerous bail terms set by the district court in Ennis, Co Clare. Ciaron O’Reilly and Karen Fallon have been refused bail, while the three others who are still incarcerated refused to comply with terms that included a personal surety of about $3,000 each; twice-daily appearances at a designated Garda (police) station; staying out of Clare; agreeing not to confer with each other before their trial; and steering at least one mile clear of the US embassy in Dublin. (One of them, Dunlop, is a US citizen, but it’s fair to say she’ll neither be seeking nor receiving consular assistance.)

Moran, the youngest of them at 22, is a seminarian, and the five have described themselves as representing the Dublin Catholic Worker. The burly Irish-Australian O’Reilly – at 42 the oldest of the bunch and, with his dreadlocks, its media icon ? has longstanding connections with Phil Berrigan’s Jonah House in Baltimore, and spoke, electrifyingly, on a platform with Dan Berrigan in Dublin last summer. He and the other four who are still in jail fasted for five days before their last court appearance. They’re due before the judge again on the 21st.

In a country that is ostensibly secularising, and which was never too keen on mixing enthusiasm with religion anyway, the Shannon activists’ commitment ? which smacks of actual belief ? has been surprisingly popular, despite some government and media spinning against them. The papers particularly enjoyed O’Reilly’s response to the question of whether he was the group’s ‘leader’: “The Holy Spirit led our group.”

There has been a suggestion, too, that once they had breached the fence they indulged in ‘bizarre rituals’, including daubing “Pitstop of Death” in their own blood. The implied criticism is hard to sustain in light of half the population’s continuing adherence to a weekly ritual in which wine is transformed into human blood, and bread into flesh. (Moran’s own court account of the action mentioned nothing more bizarre than a good old-fashioned recitation of the Holy Rosary.)

The government is deadly serious in its propaganda against the group. When Kelly damaged the Navy plane initially, it was announced that the taxpayer would be forced to foot the half-million-plus dollar bill for repairs. (No one mentioned that a military contractor charges that much to change a washer.) The party line turned more sinister when the next, embarrassing incident occurred. State broadcaster RTE reported that the group of five had “overpowered a member of the Garda”; the Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern denounced the “so-called peace campaigners” for using violence, and transport minister Seamus Brennan and others echoed his anger. We were told via the broadcast media on various occasions throughout the day of their arrest that the policeman in question had received medical attention and even that he was hospitalised.

However, when the five arrived in court that evening there was no sign of any assault charges, and their lawyer turned angrily on the government for its “wild allegations”. (Sources close to the defendants suggest quietly that the single Garda sergeant guarding the plane may have had an early-morning panic attack when he was awakened by five peaceniks going about the Lord’s work.)

In the meantime, another court action against the ‘peace camp’, where a large majority of campers weren’t involved in any ‘direct action’, forced the camp off airport property. One of those campers, linking the struggle for peace with that for justice in the Middle East, was Caoimhe Butterly, a young woman only recently returned from a courageous year bearing witness in and around Jenin, where she was wounded by Israeli soldiers. Now forced out of Shannon, she is planning to go to Baghdad.

The government says the US military build-up to date has been in accordance with UN resolution 1441, passed when Ireland served on the Security Council. An actual, unmandated shooting-war, spokesmen suggest, might just be another story. One of the main charter operators, World Airways, has already switched its stopovers from Shannon to Frankfurt, and key EU states are making anti-war noises; but once the bombing starts, the smart money is on the Irish finding a ‘nuanced’ way of doffing the cap to our political and corporate sponsors in Washington, and letting the planes continue to land at Shannon.

Arguing against bail for the Catholic Worker group, Garda Inspector Tom Kennedy told the district court: “On the basis of the information given to the court, these people see it as their right and duty to interfere with aircraft landing at Shannon.” Now that the Irish army has moved in to protect those aircraft, anti-war ‘direct actors’ may have to look elsewhere.

HARRY BROWNE writes for The Irish Times and is a lecturer in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology. He can be contacted at harrybrowne@eircom.net

 

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Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne

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