Report on March 1st 2003 attempted mass direct action at Shannon airport

 Report written in the aftermath of the attempted March 1st 2003 Direct Action at Shannon airport which looks at what happened and what it means for the anti-war movement.


To the next time

Saturdays direct action at Shannon was foiled in its intention to get onto the airfield. But it demonstrated to the anti-war movements that such an action is possible to carry out and that is a major step forward. Indeed were it not for the week of 'its going to be violent' hype from the media, the bishops and even some other sections of the anti-war movements we almost certainly would have succeeded.

The major mistake the organisers made was placing too much trust in the comprehension skills of journalists. The second line of our plan of action read "This action will be an example of mass non-violent civil disobedience in the tradition of Gandhi's salt march." We presumed journalists would understand from this that 'non-violent' mean 'non-violent'. Astoundingly huge numbers of them decided 'non-violent' actually meant 'violent protest' and headlines to that effect were splashed all over the media.

Riot police at Shannon

Things turned to real farce at Friday lunchtime when Sinn Fein, the Green Party and the Labour Party released press statements saying they were staying away from the protest for fear of violence. To those of us involved in the planning the Sinn Fein fear of violence would have had us splitting our sides. But unfortunately there was little room for humour as we knew that many people thinking of going would presume Sinn Fein 'knew something' and wonder what possible level of violence we could be planning that would frighten Sinn Fein off!

The sheer level of hysteria which ran right down to suggestions that the army might shoot people seems a little unbelievable now after the event. But it's a game that those who oppose direct action can only play a limited number of times. The credibility of all those who added fuel to that fire is now pretty damaged -next time far fewer people are likely to be scared off.

Part of the GNAW march
Pic: Part of the GNAW march

Despite all this and the stopping and searches of coaches travelling to the protest over 300 people decided to take part in the Grassroots Network Against War action. As agreed with the IAWM we explained what we intended to do to all those at the meeting point and then left for the airport (even before all their coaches had arrived.)

We had expected most people with us would be joining the pink observer line rather then the white direct action line but this turned out not to be the case. At least two thirds of those with GNAW choose to march up to the fence with the white flags. Just short of the airport we had a final meeting to explain what the situation was one last time and to emphasise again that this was a non-violent action.

Marching to the fence
Pic: Marching to the fence, the front of the march

Approaching the fence we saw there were a couple of hundred Gardai waiting for us including the riot squad. The decision to publicly deploy the riot squad in the first line in this manner is very unusual. Normally at demonstrations they are sitting in vans, out of sight, on stand by. It was all the more extraordinary given that the vast majority of the population of Ireland oppose refuelling. The only conclusion is that the image of the riot squad confronting peaceful protesters was manufactured not for domestic consumption but to keep one man in a White House in Washington DC happy.

Arriving at the fence the agreed plan was put into action where the people carrying the white flags spaced themselves out at regular intervals and everyone else in the white line linked arms and filled in the gaps. We then slowly walked forward until we came into contact with the line of Gardai. We had hoped that at this point we would massively outnumber them and be able to simply walk around them. They were obviously worried about this as well as their senior officer was quoted before the protest as saying that it would be impossible to guard 7km of perimeter with 500 men but they would try their best.

In the event he needn't have issued this disclaimer as there was pretty much one cop for each protester in the white line. Plus they had enough to spare to have a cop every 5 metres or so running up either side of us and dozens more visible inside the fence. Still with two or three times the number if was obvious that many of us could have simply walked around the ends of their line.

Line of cops at Shannon


There was a long good-natured face off at this point. Its worth pointing out that our line up included several US citizens and Bob from Yale (Cork) who will celebrate his 84th birthday this week. When the IAWM march (with around 800 on it) passed us far from witnessing a violent fracas they were greeted by the sight of the white line doing a can can in front of a solid line of cops. They headed off up to the terminal building.

Shortly after they had passed we decided to try something different and basically got the whole white line moving parallel to the fence. Surprisingly this caught the Gardai on the hop and quote a few of them just stared at us moving off until their senior officers ordered them to follow us. This meant one end of our line suddenly found they were no longer facing a wall of cops but that there was only one every 5 metres or so. Seizing the opportunity people walked up to the fence or threw crude grappling hooks attached to hooks to the top of the fence and started to pull it down.

In the space of a couple of seconds the fence had started to peel off from the top and cops had come charging in, rugby tackling people to the ground, grabbing the ropes and generally shoving people around. However, as we expected post RTS, they were not keen to repeat scenes of peaceful posters being hit around the head with batons so the batons stayed in their pouches although some people were punched in the face.

Shannon protest

Most of the arrests happened at this point as cop's randomly grabbed people out of the crowd and threw them into vans. There were further arrests of the few brave souls who attempted to stop these vans moving off - despite the fact that a sea of cops surrounded them. But on our side at least things remained calm and we offered no violent response to this Gardai provocation.

We formed up and marched back to the entrance of the airport where we had a short meeting in the car park outside, to get details of all those arrested for the legal support term and to discuss how people felt about the action. Both here and on the coach back to Dublin the overwhelming feeling was very positive. Most people reckoned they felt more positive returning from this protest then any of the other ones.

Those arrested were taken to court that evening and are released on bail. Once again though their bail conditions exclude them from the entire county of Clare (and not just the region of the airport) which seems to be an outstanding attack on civil liberties. In cases of barring orders to prevent wife beating the offender is often told they have to stay 500m or less away. It seems that the state values protecting warplanes way ahead of 'protecting' battered women.

Post Shannon the anti-war movements find themselves in a difficult place. The direct action proved to be a catalyst, around which all the differences simmering in the movements surfaced, often in pretty ugly forms. Now that all this has been got out in the open we need to start a discussion of how we overcome these problems in the future.

Irish riot police at Shannon airport
Pic: Careful now

A few things seem essential. This includes a clear acceptance that although we disagree on tactics we must unite in opposing the war. The situation where some organisations used their media access to attack the plans of other groups should not be repeated. All they succeeded in doing was damaging the movement as a whole and damaging their own credibility.

Secondly those who opposed the action because they believed it to be premature or too public now have an obligation to spell out how they want such actions to be planned in the future and when they think they may become appropriate. GNAW will presumably continue to insist that the time is now and that mass actions should be called in a public format so that all those attending can be aware of and discuss the consequences. But its obvious to us that our action would have been successful if we had been joined by all those on the IAWM march. As well as building out own actions we should continue a dialogue with the IAWM and others aimed at building towards a mass action supported by as many sections of the anti-war movement as possible.

On Saturday is was obvious that even the few hundred of us there seriously stretched the ability of the Gardai to enforce the wishes of the government against the wishes of the Irish people. We aimed to get to the fence and we got there despite being out numbered by police. We aimed to pull it down and we failed, but not by much. We came close enough to demonstrate that this sort of action can work, it just needs more people to be willing to take part. That is what we need to build towards.

Originally written for, March 2003

Indymedia discussion of this article

WORDS Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )



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