Shannon - at the end of a long road

Report on the 12 April 2003 Shannon demonstration which was only attended by about 470 people, many of these being from the political parties that make up the IAWM. The movement that could mobilise 100,000 ends up leading 467 into a protest pen at Shannon as in the background military flights taxi for take off.



Shannon - at the end of a long road


April 12th 2003

 Although for many it must have seemed that the US/Iraq war was almost over Saturday 12th April saw another anti-war demonstration at Shannon airport in Ireland. The airport has been used to re-fuel hundreds of US war planes en route to the Gulf. According to Phoenix magazine "many flights have been carrying substantial quantities of depleted uranium (DU) warheads".

This protest was organised by the 'Irish Anti War Movement' which despite the name is not an umbrella group for all anti-war groups in Ireland. The IAWM opposes direct action at Shannon; its chairman Richard Boyd-Barrett has used his access to the media to attack anti-war groups who have carried out such actions. The IAWM's strength is in organising large marches and similar demonstrations. The largest of these saw around 100,000 take part in Feb 15th in Dublin but since that date number have fallen off considerably. The Shannon demonstration was only attended by about 470 people, many of these being from the political parties that make up the IAWM.

Libertarian attendance at the demonstration was the smallest of any Shannon demonstration since December 2001. There were three anarchist flags, the Cork Peace Alliance banner and perhaps 20 or so activists from Grassroots Network Against War (GNAW). This can partly be explained by the number of libertarian activists arrested at previous protests at the airport and the subsequent banning of some of these from Shannon. But this is only part of the story, as importantly was a feeling that the demonstration was pointless as nothing was likely to happen beyond the usual march to the terminal and speeches from the same old cabal of minor political leaders. Note that not all of us felt this way (which is why 20 were there).

Riot and mounted gardai at Shannon airport
Pic: Riot and mounted gardai with the march in the background

The level of Gardai harassment had if anything intensified since previous protests. One of us actually counted 298 individual Gardai on duty, at least 36 of whom were wearing riot gear. This huge presence would have made any effective action beyond a blockade (and there was no traffic) very limited indeed. As well as the riot cops there were also dog and mounted units, a helicopter over head and at least three water cannon on duty. The 200 or so army personnel also meant to be guarding the airport were nowhere to be seen, and its probably the case that there were even more Gardai out of sight waiting to be deployed when they were needed.

Both individual cars and buses travelling to the protest were stopped at Gardai roadblocks and searched. It's hard to see any point to this beyond straightforward harassment as a can of spray paint is about the most exciting thing they ever could have found en route to any of the demonstrations. The point was rubbed home on arrival in the carpark when a secret police (Special Branch) man was seen sending two uniformed cops over to check the driving license of one GNAW activist. They seemed to be mostly interested in checking if the address on the license was still his home address. Given the secret police raids on the homes of other people involved in GNAW earlier in the year this was obviously intended to be intimidating as was the personal escort provided by a couple of secret police men for that individual throughout the day.

Smiling Gardai
Pic: Happy Gardai thinking of the overtime

Now an overwhelming percentage of the population actually agrees with the anti-war movements and opposes refuelling at Shannon - this has been shown in several polls. So what we have is not only the government refusing to follow the will of the majority, it is actually spending millions harassing and intimidating those who dare to continue to protest. These Gardai who so eagerly check the boots of cars for spray paint are the same ones who have refused to check the huge military planes landing under their noises. Well no surprise there for an anarchists, what is surprising is that the liberal and left anti-war movements seem to be simply accepting this.

Saturday was another example of this acceptance. On their way up the SWP contingent was nosily chanting 'One solution, revolution', setting off flares (on quiet bits of the road) and at times breaking into a run. On arrival at the terminal along with everyone else they obediently marched into a protest pen. This pen, quite a bit back from the terminal, had obviously been pre-agreed with the organisers as the sound equipment was set up there when we arrived. This form of corralling protest is very common in the US but new in Ireland, yet outside of a few making sheep noises no protest was made as we were herded in.

SWP on the run at Shannon
Pic: Some SWP members have been complaining that I never include photos of them. Here they are looking dynamic.

The 'important' bit of the day followed. The speeches from our political leaders! And yet again Richard Boyd Barrett, Kieran Allen, Joe Higgins and Patricia McKenna got up to give us a speech about how outraged they were about the war. At least Sinn Fein have the decency to occasionally rotate who is doing the speaking amongst their TD's, not worth a lot though from the party happy to shake Bush's hand as the bombs rained down on Iraq. To underline the impotency of it all, over the heads of the crowd we could see an enormous military charted cargo plane taxing for take off. Not one of the speakers even pointed it out. To add a bit of interest the organisers had broken up the speeches with songs after every couple.

I wandered over to the barrier to chat to another 'direct action' activist. Amusingly the top cop on spotting us sent four more cops down the inside of the barrier to stand either side of us. He must have been worried that we were going to do a solo run across the barrier and through the line of uniformed Gardai and two lines of riot police between us and the terminal! Behind us someone started spraying painting something about Fianna Fail and the PD's on the footpath and a couple of Gardai were sent over to take the spray can off them. A row ensued in which it emerged that it may not be an offence to spray roads or footpaths after all, the cops kept the can but no one got arrested.

Military charter takes off from Shannon
Pic: The huge plane in the background is an Atlas cargo charter used by the US military to transport supplies

We left soon after this and walked back down along the enormous line of Gardai that stretched from the terminal to the gate. As four of us walked down we were followed by a Gardai community relations van which we had earlier noticed ferrying the secret police types around. It stayed about 50m back though so we couldn't see the passengers. There were two moments of light relief. One cops mobile phone went off and we were amused that his ring tone of choice was the theme tune of the 'Itchy and Scratchy Show' from the Simpson's. We thought of asking him what he made of Chief Wigam but thought the better of it. Right at the end there was a large clump of cops across the footpath. As we approached they all turned to us and watched as we passed through them. One spoke up and said 'thanks for the overtime', rubbing his thumb across his fingers in the familiar gesture for cash. I think he meant it as well!

It seems quite likely that, at least for now, that will be the end of the IAWM. So the movement that could mobilise 100,000 ends up leading 467 (I counted) into a protest pen at Shannon as in the background military flights taxi for take off. The speakers told us of course that this was 'not the end'.

At this stage it looks like the government won the battle of Shannon, at least for now. Up to now Irish aid to US wars has been a dirty little secret. During the Afghan war the government was trying to deny there was any military materials or men bound for that war coming through Shannon. The US Marines in desert camouflage spotted during the December 15 2001 protest we were told were coming back for Christmas from West German bases, as we all know these are surround by extensive deserts. Through the dedicated work of the anti-war plane spotters and the Dubsky court case the reality was blown wide open for the Iraq war. We knew tens of thousands of troops were pouring through Shannon.

Water Cannon at Shannon, Ireland
Pic: Water cannon crewed by SIPTU members at Shannon

But getting this out in the open was never more then a first step. The point was to stop it. And here is where the government's victory lies. If we had failed to mobilise anyone because, for instance, the media refused to cover the story then there would be hope for the future. But the movements managed the February 15th march when some 100,000 marched through the streets of Dublin, This was in the context of a series of militant direct actions at the airport which saw over a hundred trespassing and three separate attacks on military planes.

On February 16th the state must have been worried. Its worst nightmare of massive mobilisations against refuelling had happened. Polls where showing an overwhelming majority opposed the war. A small minority had already decided to defy the law and take direct action at the airport to stop refuelling.

But Bertie and co kept their nerve. They gambled that they could split the movement by attacking the direct action wing as 'violent' and demanding that the respectable wing distance themselves from it. The Green Party had already revealed it was vulnerable to this sort of pressure when Trevor Sergeant moved from supporting Mary Kelly after she had disarmed a US Navy jet to attacking the Catholic Workers who disarmed the same jet just a few days later*. The secret police were presumably telling McDowell that they reckoned that even those trotskyists whom he so hated were unlikely to actually do anything.


Peace protester at Shannon


War without end

Pic: Peace flags

They gambled and won. For the most part the anti-war movements reacted to the government ignoring the huge Feb 15 march and the fine speeches by organising more marches and more speeches. When a small minority in Grassroots Network Against War took the only logical route and called for mass civil disobedience at Shannon things went like a dream for the government. They played the violence card and won big time, not only did the NGO's and respectable parties queue up with the bishops to denounce the planned 'violence' so too did McDowells trotskyists. Gleeful laughs must have echoed around government buildings on the last day of February when the news came through that Sinn Fein was telling people to stay away from Shannon the next day for fear of violence.

All that was left for them was the show of force that awaited us on March 1st. Lines of riot police and rolls of razor wire were a show not for the 300 who turned up to take part in the action, nor even for the 800 or so who marched past for the speeches at the terminal. It was for the 100,000 who marched in Dublin. On the one hand 'there is no smoke without fire' - a naked show of state preparation for violence simply adds to the idea that there is violence planned. But on the other it showed just what the state had waiting in the wings for those who might feel frustrated and inclined to act.

Mounted police In ireland
Pic: A repressive line up

Personally after March 1st I began to feel that we had lost. The state had called our bluff. The IAWM had shown it was unwilling to take even the mildest form of direct action - what a fuss about a fence. And it was clear that the state was now mobilising at a level that GNAW could not hope to counteract in the short term. There were problems with GNAW which will be discussed in the period to come but our chief problem was that we were too few, too late and on our own were not capable of convincing and organising the numbers required.

In advance of the war there was a lot of 'look at how big the demonstrations are before the war' talk that was intended to imply that the outbreak of war would make them bigger. I reckoned this was unlikely. The demonstrations before the 1991 Gulf War in the US were bigger then those during it. Before the First World War millions demonstrated, it took three years of horrendous bloodshed before opposition once more reached the pre-war peak. This isn't surprising, when war breaks out all those who opposed it because they reckoned it was bad for the national interest will end up backing 'our troops'. As it is many of the 100,000 who marched on F15 will wonder why they bothered. They marched, the government ignored them and that was that. The (wrong) lesson that many may take is that marching is a waste of time.

Speech at Shannon
Pic: The 'dear leader' rallies the troops

The disruption that could be caused by demonstrations was another possibility even if it was clear that the IAWM was not going to organise it. I hoped, and argued with other people within GNAW, that the revolutionary groups might finally act and at least block roads on the day itself. In the end that was another humiliation as we were marched up to block the road at the British embassy to the familiar chants of 'One solution, revolution' only to discover that it had already been arranged to have the Gardai divert the traffic. Later in the week a blockade of the Dail would turn out to have been arranged to end a few minutes before the TD's were actually due to leave.

We could have called the governments bluff. All we had to do was show them that allowing refuelling to continue was going to meet with actual resistance (rather then something designed to look like resistance). Out of the initial arrests at Shannon last year there were no charges - obviously the state hoped the issue was just going to go away. They were then willing to arrest and process ten or so at a time, probably aware that this was a good percentage of those who had declared a willingness to act. But could they have survived arresting 100's or even 1000's in order to allow refuelling to continue. We have not only let a real opportunity slip through our fingers, the government has also managed to bring refuelling into the public sphere. It is perhaps fitting that the last GNAW action at Shannon to date was based on finally burying the well rotten corpse of Irish neutrality.

Riot cops in Ireland
Pic: Riot police protect the terminal 

"Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe:
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures."

Written for WSM site, April 12th 2003

WORDS Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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