War and Peace in Ireland

Dublin, Ireland.

Australian-born Ciaron O’Reilly of the Dublin Catholic Worker community often remarks wryly that while the Irish are abundantly familiar with the concept of “direct action”, the notion of “non-violent direct action” is a bit more alien.

O’Reilly and four of his comrades — Deirdre Clancy, Damien Moran, Nuin Dunlop and Karen Fallon (the first two Irish natives, the others from the diaspora) — did their bit to address that historical ignorance when they damaged a US Navy C40A aircraft that was parked in a hangar at Shannon Airport in February 2003. Shannon, which they call the “Pitstop of Death”, is one of the main transit points for US troops and equipment en route to Iraq.

For the past week, the “Pitstop Ploughshares” were the defendants in a dramatic trial in Dublin — a trial that crashed even more dramatically on Monday. Their high-powered lawyers were fighting to convince a jury that the five acted in the “honest belief” that they were protecting the lives and property of other people. The judge accused O’Reilly (the only one who has got a chance to testify) of trying to use the court as a political platform, and wouldn’t allow some defence witnesses and evidence to be heard by the jury. Finally, after legal argument, the judge sent the jury home — a good-enough outcome in the circumstances, though the five accused must wait to see if the State tries again later this year.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s most famous practitioner of violent “direct action”, the Irish Republican Army, is working through its worst internal and public-relations crisis since it went on ceasefire more than a decade ago, and it too involves the administration of “justice”.

The pre-Christmas Belfast bank robbery widely believed to have been pulled off by its members did little to tarnish the IRA’s reputation among its supporters, despite government and media efforts to generate outrage over republican ‘criminality’. But the killing in late January of a young man named Robert McCartney has been a very different story. The drunken thugs who battered and stabbed McCartney to death on the street and also butchered his friend (a miraculous survivor) after getting annoyed with them in a Belfast bar were members of the IRA — and they used that status to intimidate witnesses and destroy forensic evidence.

There the story might have lain, except that Robert McCartney, from the republican Short Strand enclave east of Belfast city centre, had five savvy sisters who weren’t going to be pushed around so easily. Their passionate insistence on justice for their brother’s killers found establishment politicians and media who were eager to take up their cause, and no amount of evasion and “what-abouts” from the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, could quieten them.

The women’s demand that eyewitnesses and suspects come forward to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI, the post-peace-process inheritor of the duties of the erstwhile Royal Ulster Constabulary) was always going to be hard to answer for republicans, who have not yet fully recognised the PSNI’s legitimacy. But under pressure from the McCartneys, who were guests of Gerry Adams at Sinn Fein’s recent party conference in Dublin, the republican leadership has, on the face of it, given in, advising people to at least give statements to the North’s police ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan. Sinn Fein suspended seven of its members, “without prejudice”, for suspected involvement in the McCartney killing.

Then, in the last few days, the IRA made (what was treated like) an explosive revelation. It had carried out its own investigation of the killing, “court-martialled” three of its members, and was prepared to “execute” them — but the McCartney family had nixed that, insisting on a proper public proceeding through the state authorities, the IRA said. Although it was now harder to accuse the IRA of sheltering McCartney’s killers, the grim revelation has been greeted with howls of outrage. Here was proof, the pundits said, that the IRA still holds to the “theology” that says its army council is the only legitimate government in Ireland. It is of course proof of nothing of the sort: “armies”, self-styled or otherwise, generally do regard themselves as the primary authority for dealing with abuses by their own members. That why, for example, Abu Ghraib torturer Charles Graner was tried in a military court Stateside and not in an Iraqi judicial process.

Nonetheless, this sort of promise of “rough justice” from an organisation that is on a long ceasefire and supposed to be preparing to disband is obviously disquieting, even if the announcement may have been calculated to prevent a “freelance” execution. (The IRA has in fact been involved in many local killings and punishment attacks during its ceasefire.) The McCartneys’ commendable rejection of a kangaroo court handing down the death penalty keeps the pressure on republicans to work with and through the Northern Ireland judicial system. There is some irony in the fact that the McCartney women are now on the guest list for St Patrick’s Day, this Thursday, at the White House, where perhaps George W Bush will be able to convince them of the benefits of secret tribunals and capital punishment.

Meanwhile, down in Dublin, Ciaron O’Reilly, with a four-foot-long garden pickaxe pulled out of the exhibit bag and placed on his lap, was telling the jury that he damaged an American plane not to “piss off George Bush” but to “enflesh the prophesy of Isaiah by beating swords into ploughshares”. The peace activists’ trial attracted an extraordinary array of peacemakers from across Europe and the world. The Americans were the most striking contingent: Kathy Kelly from Voices in the Wilderness was here, and Kelly Dougherty from Iraq Veterans Against the War. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton came from Detroit and, from the east coast, 13 members of the Grady family (it sometimes seemed like 30), a few of whom had to scoot back to upstate New York to face new federal charges for an action at a military recruitment center — an action that a state jury has already failed to convict them on. The name “Berrigan” falls frequently from their lips.

Irish anti-war activists have moved among these beautiful visitors, soaking up the passion and peace that emanates from them, considering and reconsidering our own commitments, tactics and attitudes. In a country that has only recently shaken off one sort of Catholic power, we wonder are we ready to admit another. (It came as some assurance when one defendant assured us that the Catholic Worker movement is full of Atheist Slackers.)

And as Sinn Fein hovers between the ways of war and peace, it finds that, so far, its voters are prepared to keep the faith. As I write, we’re learning the results of a by-election in the Republic, for a parliamentary seat in a county just north of Dublin. Sinn Fein’s candidate, though a long way short of being elected, has increased his vote from about 9 per cent in the last general election to more than 12 per cent. This is a considerable mark of electoral defiance given the frenzied demonisation of the party since the peace process collapsed in December. (A truer test will come in the North with the elections to the British parliament in May, when, it is rumoured, the McCartney sisters may run again Sinn Fein.)

North and South of Ireland’s border, in the jurisdiction ruled by war-criminal Tony Blair (who has just applied a pickaxe to civil liberties) and the state led by war-accessory Bertie Ahern (he’s the guy next to Bush with the bowl of shamrock), the cries for justice continue to sound.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. Contact him at harrybrowne@eircom.net


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