Report on January 2003 anti-war protest at Shannon airport during which roof tops of the airport were occupied.

Mass demonstration at Shannon Warport

 


With preparations for war stepping up some 7,000 US troops a week have been flying though Shannon Airport. Alongside them are a growing number of US cargo aircraft some of which can also be used a bombers. On Saturday 18th January thousands of people travelled from around the country to protest at the military use of the airport and to oppose war in Iraq.

Anti war banners on roof of Shannon airport
Pic: Protesters occupy airport roof

Demonstrations have become a regular feature at Shannon over the last year and just a week before a permanent peace camp was started at the airport gates. Direct action has been a feature of almost all of these demonstrations, most successfully when a large section of airport fence was torn down and some 150 people got into the airfield. On another occasion a lone activist (Eoin Dubsky) scaled the fence and spray pained a UAF Hercules that was on the ground with anti-war slogans. He then turned himself in and is using his court case to highlight the military use of Shannon. This has played a major part in forcing the media to cover the military use of Shannon - the opening of the peace camp also generated huge amounts of media coverage and public debate.

The demonstration started at a shopping centre in Shannon town a couple of kilometres from the airport gate. Coaches had travelled from all over the country. The demonstration was far larger then anyone expected and was a good bit bigger then the last anti-war march in Dublin. As usual there were disagreements about the numbers who took part, I estimated around 2,000, RTE (state media) reported 1,500 and one Socialist Party member claimed to have counted 2,900. In any case this was at least three times bigger then any of the previous demonstrations.

 

Crowd at start of Shannon demonstration
Pic: A full view of the demonstration as it left Shannon town

We marched up the airport road stopping at the peace camp at the gates to allow some of the peace campers to address the crowd. While this was going on I went to the side fence of the airport with a few others where Tim H. pointed out two planes at the terminal. One was from one of the airliners used to transport US soldiers to the Middle East. The other was more mysterious as its tail colours had been stripped. Tim had tried to look up its registration number but could only tell from it that it was a (former?) Afghan airlines plane. This simply serves to highlight not only the volume of US military traffic going through Shannon but also how no one knows what these planes are carrying.

 

 

 The demonstration then marched up the airport road to the terminal building where there was the standard attempt to enter the terminal, as always prevented by the Gardai. The organisers then started up the speeches (with the usual speakers) but the PA was very underpowered so most people were unable to hear them. As usual the Gardai were also refusing to allow even very small children to use the toilets in the terminal building, something that was causing some distress to their mothers.

The Irish Labour Party at Shannon anti-war protest
Pic: Even the Labour Party were there in numbers!

The demonstration was called by the SWP created 'Irish Anti War Movement'. It opposes direct action but on the bus on the way to Shannon we had been told that on this occasion they had no wish to try to prevent others carrying out such actions. The reality though was that although there had been some discussion of possible direct actions in advance of Shannon (and more on the bus on the way down) no real preparation work had been done. And on the day itself despite a couple of attempts to get a large group together to discuss this nothing concrete was organised.

Grassroots anti war banner
Pic: The limits of preparation - at least banner had been prepared!

As it happened the 'direct action' aspect of the demonstration developed spontaneously. Aer Rianta have reacted to the presence of anti-war plane spotters at Shannon through a long program of harassment which included shutting down the public viewing gallery at the Airport. At the edge of the demonstration a few people used the staircase onto the roof of the two-story building to get a view of the crowd. The Gardai appeared and ordered them down at which point they realised they had accidentally begun a direct action reclaiming the viewing space.

The movement of the Gardai onto the roof attracted the attention of many other people in the crowd who also felt they had come to Shannon to do more then listen to a few speeches. But the Gardai stopped them joining those already on the roof simply by blocking to spiral stairs.


Pic: Gardai block spiral staircase but protests have found another roof

At this point some bright spark noticed that the adjoining one story building also had a flat roof. A group went around the side of it, scaled a drainpipe and appeared with banners facing the front. Lots of others who had been stuck at the bottom of the spiral staircase then ran around the side to join them. At this point four Gardai with dogs charged into the crowd who were trying to scale the pipes, the dogs bit a couple of people as they were driven back.

Gardai attack protesters with dogs
Pic: Gardai with dogs attack protesters

This made those on the roof pretty angry with the result that some milk was spilt over these cops and a lit flare thrown down onto the ground nearby. The dogs went apeshit but the crowd calmed down and backed off, many people finding others ways to climb onto the roof. One particularly daft cop tried to extinguish the flair by stamping on it and was only stopped when one of these his dog had been trying to bite minutes before explained that he was only going to manage to set his trousers alight.

Protester with flare
Pic: Protester with flare on the airport roof

Meanwhile a sound system transported in shopping trolleys had arrived at the base of the buildings and started playing. This apparently didn't help people hear the speeches that were still being made over by the terminal door but when this was pointed out to them they "turned down/off the music for quite a while before starting it up again." After 30 minutes or so those who had climbed the roof and hung anti-war banners over the sides come down without further interference from the Gardai.

The roof top protest was a bit scrappy but demonstrated that the idea that direct action is needed to stop the use of Shannon has grown in popularity. What was very much missing on the day was any proper attempt to organise this sentiment and create an action in which a large number of those there could participate.

 


Pic: Sit down in support of roof top protesters

As the crowd drifted back to the buses a second action was organised. On the way in it had been noticed that there was a poorly guarded gate that appeared to offer a way through onto the tarmac, near the two military planes already mentioned. A group of about 30 people tried to charge through the five cops at this gate. Some eight or nine made it but found themselves charging into a dead end. Half a dozen of these kept going into a warehouse but were then trapped there by the police. At the gate we thought they might be arrested and attempted to block a Gardai van gaining access by sitting in front of it. But as it turned out that although they had their names and addresses taken they were allowed to leave without arrest after 20 minutes or so.

The major success of the day was the number of people who turned up at Shannon for the demonstration. Providing a sensed of momentum can be kept going there is no reason why future demonstrations should not continue to grow as more and more people decide it is time for them to come out. The direct action, although very scrappy in this case, is vital to this sense of momentum. Not everyone was happy with it (one man was shouting that he wanted the TV cameras to be on him and not on the rooftop protesters!!) but this is a reason for making the arguments for direct action clear to all that are attending these demonstrations.

Democracy delivers bombs
Pics: A final message from the rooftop

The next major event is the February 15th anti war marches in Dublin and Belfast. The Dublin organisers are hoping for an attendance of 10,000. For those who see direct action as essential to the ending the war we should make sure not only that we are there to make this argument but also that we build for the demonstration itself. As the movement gets larger it will become harder and harder for the parties that founded the IAWM to simply determine strategy.

It is probable that the Irish government will continue to ignore public hostility to refuelling at Shannon. The argument that mass direct action in some form, whether that be airport workers refusing to handle military planes or 5,000 people going onto the runway, is the only thing that can stop refuelling will be easier and easier to make. But we need to see our role as making that argument and not simply improving the planning of the actions themselves.

Originally written for the WSM web site

 

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )

  


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