February 15 2003 anti-war march in Dublin and plan for March 1st at Shannon

Report on the massive anti-war march in Dublin February 2003 and the plans for the March 1st direct action at Shannon airport that developed out of the meeting that morning.

Incredible turnout at Dublin anti-war march - but what do we do now?

Saturday 15 February saw the largest demonstration in Dublin in two decades and by far the largest anti-war demonstration in Ireland ever. The crowds were impossible for one person to count but estimates of the turnout range from 80,000 (Gardai), to 100,000 (TV3, Irish Times, Irish Independent) to 130,000 (Indymedia.ie) to 150,000 plus. Whatever the actual number this and the opinion polls published on the same day demonstrate that opposition to the war in Ireland is overwhelming.

The Dublin march (for this was also one in Belfast which drew around 15,000) started at the usual location, the Garden of Remembrance at the top of Parnell Square. Generally most marches fit onto the open area of patio in front of the gates there. This did not. It spilled out onto the road and then back around the wide roads of Parnell Square and down to O'Connell St. That was one jam-packed solid mass of people. From the Parnell statue on down O'Connell St. it was less dense but it still was fairly packed with people waiting to join the march on both sides of Parnell Street itself and all around the base of the statue. And from a high point near the statue I could see that the waiting crowd filled both sides of O'Connell St. right down as far as the newly erected spike.

Moving through this mass was difficult so that was the best view I was to get all day. Another indication of the size of the march was that although, as usual, the left parties had mass-produced placards topped with their party name I hardly saw any of these all day. The enormous turnout had caught everyone by surprise. The crazy optimists of Friday who talked of a turnout of 30,000 were revealed as deep pessimists, just a lot less pessimistic then those of us who though 10,000 was a more advisable figure to speak of in advance of the day.

If there is any reality to the claim that parliamentary democracy works then it is clear that the government had no choice but to end the refuelling of US warplanes at Shannon and to oppose the US drive for war in the UN. Perhaps this is what will happen but my advice is not to hold your breath. Mondays Irish Independent quotes unnamed 'government sources' on its front page who say even if Bush goes to war without a UN mandate the government will continue to allow refuelling to take place at Shannon. This despite the fact that polls shows well over 70% oppose refuelling in those circumstances! The Irish Times had also been quoting similar 'government sources' last week.

Even to an anarchist who realises the Dail does not represent real democracy the course the government is heading on seems crazy. The pandora's box the government are opening by continuing to refuel US war planes is neatly illustrated in the statement by an Irish Times columnist covering the march that the 'Irish Anti War Movement' (IAWM) chairperson, Richard Boyd-Barrett (who is also a leader of the Leninist 'Socialist Workers Party') could "now make a plausible claim to be the Real Taoiseach". If the government so obviously ignores the will of the people and allows refuelling to continue then a very sensible conclusion would be for those who took part in the march to draw revolutionary conclusions.

Here though is the weakness of the bulk of the Irish anti-war movements. They want to 'Stop refuelling at Shannon' but they have not only failed to start a discussion of how this can be done if the government refuses to end refuelling, they have actively worked to isolate those who have started such a discussion. Roger Cole of the Peace And Neutrality Alliance (PANA) is widely quoted as saying at the rally that US planes should be driven out of Shannon as St Patrick drove out the snakes. But in reality PANA like the IAWM have refused to back direct actions at Shannon and seem therefore to imagine that the snakes left because they were politely asked to. Despite formal requests to the organisers in advance of the march there was no speaker to explain the point of view of those of us who argue for direct action.

If, as it appears likely, the government refuses to stop refuelling then direct action is the only road left to those who oppose the war. People are very open to this argument, on the demonstration we were distributing papers and leaflets obviously arguing for direct action and got an eager response from the crowd. Regularly I was surrounded by people literally queuing up to the material. On the march itself the Direct Action blocks chants 'They have bombers, we have axes, they kill children, we smash planes" in support of those jailed for smashing up war planes at Shannon got a good response.

But we still need to recognise that this is a new argument for the vast majority of those who went on the march. Winning them over to not only support for but also participation in direct action requires a major effort by all who are serious about opposing the war. This is a need that goes far beyond 'party loyalty' and the positions that people have adopted in public to date.

Before the march there was a national meeting of the direct action block to discuss where we should go. Two very important things came out of that meeting.

The first was that we have moved beyond the stage where small groups of people clandestinely organise to scale the fence and disarm individual planes. Those who have done so already had played a heroic role and contributed massively to building the anti-war movements. But now we need to be much more ambitious and to seriously aim at an action involving thousands of people tearing down the fence and entering the airfield - thus forcing it to shutdown on safety grounds.

The second was that we recognised that to mobilise this number of people we have to dispense with trying to keep our general plans secret from the forces of the state. We are not trying to outwit them; we are seeking simply to outnumber them to the extent that they cannot stop us taking action.

[NOTE: In fact although the majority at the meeting voted for something similar to the two points above this was intended as an indicative vote and did not mean a decision had been reached - this proposal is to go back to each local group first. The misreport above is entirely my fault]

From this it was decided to make a very public call for direct action at Shannon airport on March 1st. And that we would publicise the form of this action, the plan is simply to march up the approach from the gate, form an enormous line along this road and walk to and dismantle the airport perimeter fence. Once the fence is down we will advance into the airfield so it has to be shut down but (for safety reasons) we will not go as far as the runway. This action will be non-violent (apart from anything else the presence of the army with live ammunition makes this a requirement!) but will be militant. Those taking part in it will be risking arrest and perhaps physical attack by the forces of the state. But if there are thousands of us doing this they cannot stop us.

Only a few hundred people are, in any sense, part of the Grassroots Gathering network that is calling for this action. So it cannot succeed unless the thousands of others who are part of the various anti-war movements and those who have not aligned themselves with any group take part. Already the IAWM has indicated that they will mobilise for a demonstration at Shannon at the same day. Right now they don't intend to take part in the direct action but perhaps between now and then they will become more open to this.

Other forms of direct action are also possible. In particular the enormous demonstrations should give greater confidence to workers at the airport who do not want to be part of the supply chain for Bush's war. With SIPTU having adopted an anti-war position they are in a strong position to emulate the anti-apartheid Dunnes Stores workers and refuse to handle any war related work at the airport. Whereas thousands are needed to stop refuelling at the airport in a mass action the individual action of a relatively small number of airport workers could achieve the same thing. If this happens we must be prepared to support these workers not simply from short-term reprisals but also from longer-term job losses which the government might try and impose as punishment.

It is likely that war will officially start soon after March 1st. Time is short if we want to have an actual impact on the war and not simply be content with collective washing of hands. Direct action at Shannon has already had an impact both in terms of grounding aircraft and forcing World Airlines to transfer 17 flights out of the airport. If the government refuses to sop refuelling then March 1st will give us the chance to show we do have power, and in acting for ourselves take a major step towards tacking Ireland out of the war.

Written for the WSM website, February 2003

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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