“They won’t actually get put in prison, will they?” Call it a postcolonial hangover, but Irish people have a healthy skepticism about high-minded concepts such as “an independent judiciary”. So when you mention to ordinary friends and colleagues that the five Catholic Worker activists arrested in February for damage to a US Navy plane at Shannon Airport — an action previously described here in CounterPunch— are going to face trial for their actions, the response is often based on the implicit belief that the Irish government will somehow avoid making prison-martyrs of them. Sure, they’ll have to be prosecuted — the Yanks would expect no less — but not locked up; that would be a national embarrassment, not to mention a focus for dissent.
It’s a nice thought, and quite possibly accurate. But listen to the Pitstop Ploughshares group for a few minutes and it becomes obvious that they’re not putting their faith in any such nod-and-a-wink “Irish solution”. Indeed, by pressing for a jury trial on the criminal-damage charges, before the Circuit Court, they’ve pushed up their potential sentences to 10 years, and by thus raising the prosecuting costs for the state, they may have made a harsher punishment that much more likely.
So it was sighs of relief all around the other day when they won a small but significant victory: their trial date has been postponed from June 24 until at least October, on the basis of insufficient “discovery”, and perhaps even more importantly the venue has been moved, from picturesque Kilrush, Co Clare, to Dublin. The defendants might have relished trying to convince a jury from the environs of the airport — where there is considerable, and quite possibly increasing, economic dependence on military stopovers. Their lawyers reckon they stand a better chance with “peers” who haven’t been bombarded with stories about the destructive effects of protest on the local economy.
They still face a considerable fight. We have written here previously about the characteristic Irish Catholic allergy to religious enthusiasm, and about the extraordinarily prejudicial coverage and commentary from the state broadcaster and government ministers that followed the Ploughshares arrest. (The government was particularly pissed off because spokespeople had been so sanguine about Shannon Airport security after a similar breach about a week earlier; activist Mary Kelly, from the Atlantis community, faces a separate trial for that action, and is back in court in the next couple of weeks.)
The immediate spin on the Ploughshares group was that they had ‘overpowered’ a policeman during their wee-hours action, though no assault charges were subsequently proffered. “We prefer to say he was ‘overwhelmed’, like the centurion at Christ’s tomb,” says defendant Ciaron O’Reilly, at 42 by far the oldest of the group and, as a veteran of US and Australian actions and prisons, its obvious ‘ringleader’. He says that in the tradition of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”, the group ministered to the policeman, who was shocked and worried about the consequences for his livelihood of the three women and two men running around with wire-cutters, inflatable hammers and blood for splashing on runways.
When the burly, dreadlocked Australian O’Reilly speaks, it’s with utter conviction, but every third sentence is a joke. He imagines, for instance, setting up a pacifist wing at Portlaoise prison, where unreconstructed paramilitary prisoners are still held. “While the Real IRA and the INLA are doing their military drills, I could be doing tai-chi.” He and the other four defendants are, by dint of their intelligence, passion and wit, the best argument that a “just cause” acquittal is possible, especially if they’re allowed to speak their minds in the witness box.
Three of them, including O’Reilly, are diaspora Irish. American Nuin Dunlop has zealously blue eyes and a ready laugh, and has learned her politics young from Catholic Worker comrades in the US and here in Ireland. Scotswoman Karen Fallon is a smokier, edgier character, visibly angry at the injustices meted out to the people of Iraq: “I did what felt right for me at the time, and it still feels right for me. I don’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks.”
Dubliner Deirdre Clancy is seriously and deeply engaged with the ethics of her action and its personal consequences. She says matter-of-factly: “When you know the truth, sometimes you have to either act on that knowledge or go crazy.” And seminarian Damien Moran is the clean-cut country boy who carefully weighed the successes and failures of ‘pressure’ politics before his crawl under the perimeter fence; he should appeal to any mammies on the jury. None of them underestimate the seriousness of what they’ve done or what they face; as bail conditions were being argued, they all spent at least a month in jail between February and April.
With his Berrigan mentors O’Reilly was accustomed to months of preparation for non-violent direct actions. At the Shannon ‘peace camp’ the Ploughshares 5 came together and planned their action in a matter of less than two weeks. There was and is something ad-hoc about their alliance. Rumour has it that after their arrest, when they were asked to state their religion, one of the five began to explain her pagan, wicca influences, before a quick elbow prompted her to declare “Catholic!”
Nonetheless their relationship remains visibly strong– thankfully they were able to lose the initial bail condition that they could not confer with each other. (They still have to stay out of Clare, stay a mile away from the US embassy and sign on every single day at a police station, a duty usually only imposed on accused murderers.) They will tell anyone who wants to listen that their February action was a matter of bearing ‘prophetic witness’, and of making the point that not only had the war against Iraq’s people been going on for 13 years, but that its escalation into more bombing and killing was an obvious fait accompli. “There was very little option to ‘influence’ the governments,” O’Reilly says. “At that stage it should have been obvious to anyone that they were just marketing a pre-determined decision.”
Of course in February there were millions of people who still hoped the relevant governments were amenable to influence. O’Reilly notes with some resignation that, at the Dublin February 15 protest, attended by more than 100,000 people, the then-still-jailed activists were never even mentioned from the stage.
On June 24, instead of facing trial in Kilrush, the Ploughshares group are walking from an ancient pagan and Christian well in Kildare right up to Dublin’s Leinster House, where parliament sits. There they will stage an overnight fast. But they know that’s just the first stop, and they’re ready for what lies ahead. “We want to take the spirit of the action into the courtroom,” O’Reilly says, “and, if necessary, back into the prison system.”
See also www.ploughsharesireland.org
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 firstname.lastname@example.org