Direct Action against War - the battle for Shannon Airbase

Direct Action against War - the battle for Shannon Airbase

All over the world millions of people have mobilised against the war in Iraq. These mobilisations were biggest in countries like Britain, Italy and Spain where the government supported the war but the population was against it. Southern Ireland also saw a massive demonstration on February 15th when around 10% of the capital's population marched through the city of Dublin.

Article from Black Flag in 2003.

The turnout on these demonstrations has been great but in reality they have had little effect on the war. The governments concerned have simply ignored them. in Ireland however anarchists promoted direct action against the war machine. Specifically action was directed at driving out the commercial airliners who had been flying tens of thousands of Gulf bound US troops through Shannon airport in the west of the country. Three of the four companies involved pulled out before the war began as a result. World Airlines, which had brought in over 8,300 soldiers, pulled out in early February. North American Airlines and Miami Airlines also announced they were quitting Shannon because of concerns about security at the airport at the end of February.

The acting head of the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, Jane Fort, blamed the “threatening" behaviour of protestors for their decision to leave:

Quote:
"The combination of two back-to-back incidents of real destruction would prompt any company to ask if it would put people in harm's way, people who might be working on planes or riding on planes."

Ireland might be expected to be something of a sideshow with regard to the war. Yet because of our dependence on US capital and our geographic location on the edge of Europe we have been given an opportunity to strike a blow against war that we hope can provide real inspiration for those elsewhere.

Our economic dependence on the US (Ireland is by far the largest per capita receiver of US investment in Europe) means that we have a ruling class slavishly chained to the interests of the US government.

Our geographical location has made us relatively essential for the war effort. Official government figures revealed that some 20,000 US troops were flown through Shannon airport in the opening weeks of the year. This amounts to over 40% of the US ground troops heading for the Gulf, showing the importance of this airport in the US military supply chain.

Direct Action gets the goods

Over half a dozen successful actions have taken place at Shannon airport ranging from a large scale breach of the fence in October to physical attacks on planes as the build up to war escalated.

Shannon has long been a target of Irish anti-war movements for it has been used to refuel US military planes as far back as the Vietnam war. During the 1991 Gulf war many of us marched around Dublin demanding ‘no refuelling at Shannon' - to no effect. In the years since many things have changed. not least the growth of a libertarian network and a direct action culture, "Reclaim the Streets" events have been the most visible manifestation of this, growing in a couple of years from one hundred participants to over a thousand.

As elsewhere the questions anarchists faced was how to help organise this new movement into forms that could take effective action. A couple of years back Irish anarchists in the "Workers Solidarity Movement" (WSM) initiated the first of a series of conferences, the Grassroots Gatherings, aimed at bringing together the new groups of activists who could be described as libertarian in the broadest sense of the word. With the build up to war in Afghanistan it seemed obvious that this was the time to move from the traditional passive opposition to the refuelling of war planes at Shannon to taking direct action. At the first Grassroots Gathering it was decided to call a protest for December 15th.

About 70 people took part, far less than the 3,000 at the Dublin anti.-war parade around the same time. There were no passionate speeches from politicians and only one paper seller. This was a direct action protest not a carnival. Some people infiltrated the terminal but a solid phalanx of airport police and Gardai meant that any mass entrance was impossible. It turned out that as the protest was in progress a jet loaded with US marines had landed. A protest took place outside the terminal with the outlines of bodies being drawn on the ground, slogans chanted etc. A minute's silence was observed for the dead of the war and then word filtered through that US marines were re-boarding their plane.

The protesters proceeded to the fence near the plane to let the US marines know what we thought of them and nervy airport police and Gardai became more aggressive. Some of the barbed wire atop the fence was pulled down. One courageous soul legged it across the margins towards the plane but was tackled to the ground and arrested. There was a stand off for about 20 minutes and then we withdrew in an orderly fashion, the message given and a marker put down.

A report written shortly afterwards observed

Quote:
"What we could have done with 3,000 people will remain in the realms of speculation until those opposed to war realise that direct action is the way forward."

This was a challenge to the other anti-war movements in Ireland as well as ourselves, one that we have yet to meet. Demonstrations started to become regular from that point on including further demos at the terminal building and incursions onto the runway.

Pressuring the IAWM

These protests were still small, again around 70 people. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) controlled Irish Anti War Movement (IAWM) continued to prefer marching around Dublin to taking action at the site where the Irish state was directly aiding the US war effort. Pressure was put on the IAWM to help organise major protests at Shannon that could shut the airport for a period of time.

In October the pressure paid off when the IAWM finally organised a demonstration there. As they had greater resources over 300 people attended. However problems arose almost immediately on arrival.

Many of us thought we had agreed to hold a mass meeting at the gate to discuss tactics for the day. But when activists began to gather SWP stewards with the megaphones announced that we were going to start marching to the terminal This resulted in bad feeling afterwards both from those who wanted direct action to happen (and would have liked a chance to organise it properly) but also from those who did not (who wanted to argue against it or at least that there should be a clear division between the two groups).

It became clear that the IAWM aimed to confine the demonstration to a very tokenistic effort to enter the terminal building and the usual speeches from the usual politicians. Meanwhile some of those who had travelled to Shannon to engage in direct action held a small meeting of their own. They decided that as we marched out of the airport they would go to the perimeter fence and start to shake it.

Some two and a half-hours after the demonstration had started we were told that as the buses were leaving soon it was time to march back down to the airport entrance. On the way back about a dozen people crossed to the perimeter fence. When they started to shake it, the fencing rapidly fell away from the supports and within seconds a 50m section was down. The Gardai grabbed one activist standing near the fence but as they did so another jumped through the fence and entered the airfield.

After a stunned few seconds she was followed by half a dozen more and then seconds later another 20 or 30. As the Gardai took up the chase, more and more people streamed over the fence until about half the protesters had got through and the other half were watching from just behind it.

Inside the thirty or so protesters at the front made it to a point near the tarmac where a UPS plane was parked. It was decided for safety reasons not to move onto the runway and instead everyone sat down on the grass and started to chat and sing.

As more Gardai arrived they initially concentrated on stopping this group moving any further into the airfield by standing in front of us. Meanwhile other Gardai, some with dogs, concentrated on intimidating those between us and the fence into leaving the airfield. A third group of Gardai pushed a group of fifteen or so who had linked arms back to the fence.

With most of the protesters back behind the fence the Gardai then concentrated on those sitting on the grass. They grabbed a number of people from this group and threw them into vans, concentrating on those they thought were organisers. If they hoped this would intimidate the others it failed to work, as they said they would only leave if those arrested were released.

Meanwhile on the other side of the fence a group of a dozen or so blocked the airport road, bringing traffic to a halt, and demanding the release of the prisoners. This action was actually opposed by the SWP who ordered their more eager members off the road. Inside the airfield two fire engines were brought up and the Gardai moved back a little, making out that they were going to use water cannons, but when the activists still failed to move they moved back in again.

At this stage the vans carrying the prisoners were driven off and the activists on the grass decided to head to the police station to support those arrested. Within minutes of us arriving they started to release those arrested.

They hadn't been charged but were told a file was being sent to the DPP and that charges might arise from this. Months later, after the March 1st action the cops finally decided to prosecute these people.

On the buses back to Dublin a debate was organised over events on the day. This was probably useful to clear the bad feeling that resulted in the failure to debate tactics in advance. But it also revealed some pretty deep divisions over what direct action was and how the taking of such actions could be decided. If the movement as a whole was to grow (and here I include both those involved in the IWAM and those who choose to remain outside it) then these questions need to be resolved, at least on the level of agreeing to differ.

That day was our first real success. For the first time there was a trespass at Shannon that involved dozens of people. It also revealed just how vulnerable the airport was to such tactics: there are miles of perimeter fence and it would take hundreds if not thousands of police to protect it from a large demonstration.

Tactical Questions

The question of tactics was really a question of how best to stop refuelling at Shannon. Some, including many of the far-left parties, seem to think it is just a question of mobilising a large number of people to march up and down and listen to speeches. Others, including the anarchists, argue that the government will continue to ignore such mobilisations because of the depth of its affiance with imperialism. In that context what is needed is larger and larger numbers of people willing to engage in mass direct action against the war.

As it was increasingly dear that the IAWM intended to talk tough about Shannon but do nothing beyond the usual protests, those involved in the Grassroots Gathering realised there was a need to seriously organise to get more people to Shannon protests. A Grassroots Gathering meeting in Belfast resulted in the formation of the Grassroots Network Against the War which called a demonstration for December 8th.

This was successful in that 350 or so people took part. But beyond this nothing much happened - the Gathering had decided to leave it up to affinity groups to organise their own thing on the day, but with a couple of exceptions these were never formed. This and a substantial police presence meant that people ended up standing around wishing something would happen but without the organisational structures needed to get things going.

Saturday 18th of January saw a second IAWM demonstration at the airport at which around 3,000 people took part. These numbers represented the first real possibility of a successful mass action, but the IAWM took a position of not taking part in direct action and no real organisational efforts had been made by the "Grassroots Network Against War" (GNAW). We had hoped to meet up on the day but even this didn't work out and we proved unable to even march as a block up to the terminal.

Spontaneous Direct Action

The day was somewhat salvaged when the ‘direct action' aspect of the demonstration developed spontaneously. Aer Rianta have reacted to the presence of anti-war plane spotters at Shannon through various methods including 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-storey building to get a view of the crowd. The Gardai ordered them down at which point they realised they had accidentally reclaimed the viewing space.

Then some bright spark noticed that the adjoining one storey building also had a flat roof. A group went around the side, scaled a drainpipe and appeared with banners facing the front. Lots of others ran 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.

Those on the roof responded by dousing the cops below with milk and throwing down a lit flare. The dogs went apeshit but the crowd calmed down and backed off, many people finding other ways to climb onto the roof. The roof top protest came to a voluntary end after 30 minutes or so. The protest was a bit scrappy but showed that more people were willing to engage in direct action, to shut down Shannon. What was very much missing on the day was any real attempt to organise this sentiment and create an action in which a large number could participate.

As the crowd drifted back to the buses a second action was organised. A poorly guarded gate appeared to offer a way through onto the tarmac, near two military planes. 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. When they kept going into a warehouse, they were then trapped by the police. Thinking they might be arrested, those at the gate attempted to block a Gardai van gaining access by sitting in front of it. But as it turned out they were allowed to leave without arrest after 20 minutes or so.

Striking a blow for peace

As well as the large scale protests, both individuals and small groups were planning their own actions. These were to have a very direct effect on the issue. On January 29th Mary Kelly, who had been arrested on the December 2001 demonstration at the airport, entered the airfield. She found a US Navy Boeing 737 on the runway and whacked the nose with a hatchet, putting the radar out of action (and according to the state, causing 500,000 Euros worth of damage).

In the early hours of February 1st five activists from the Catholic Worker organisation entered the airfield and began to tear up the runway. They then discovered the US military jet damaged by Mary Kelly in a hanger and smashed up the more sensitive external equipment with a hammer. Some time later the WSM received an angry email from Fort Worth in Texas which claimed to be from one of the US repair crew who had worked on the plane. It turned out they had just finished fixing up the plane the evening before the new attack took it out of commission again.

The direct actions before March 1st had been fairly minor, involving no more than 150 people. They had been organised either in secret or by small groups of friends at the protests themselves. Not surprisingly many people felt that this was less than ideal, Some party political hacks took the opportunity to label these actions 'elitist' or bizarrely to claim that while they would support mass direct action they couldn't support these smaller actions.

Mass Direct Action

The two consecutive failures to organise ourselves seriously - and the two missed opportunities they represented - did however give us the kick up the arse we needed. Proper planning was got underway for the next demonstration. As it became obvious not only that war was imminent but that opposition was overwhelming a debate began in the GNAW about organising a mass action whose details would be publicly announced in advance. It was reckoned that it would now be possible for thousands of people to take part. However disagreements within GNAW began to surface. The need to agree to a single plan sat unhappily with some of the groups which meant that commitment to any decision was either half-hearted or in one case withheld.

But on the morning of February 15th a meeting in advance of the 100,000 strong march that day, started to devise plans for a publicly announced direct action on March 1st. The plan. that was later agreed was simple. One group would form a line facing the fence, march over to it and attempt to tear it down. Another group would stand behind them as observers in solidarity. Full details are still online at http://grassrootsgathering.freeservers.com/gnaw.html

Within a day of the plan being made public two of the remaining three troop carrying airlines announced they were pulling out of Shannon citing security concerns. The small but highly effective disarming actions along with the threat of another mass trespass had obviously caused ructions amongst the companies making profits out of the war. A successful mass action at the airport on March 1st just might drive out all military traffic before the war was even underway.

Action or Excuses?

We recognised that for cynical party-political reasons and straightforward control freakery some would still oppose that plan. But with war imminent, March 1st represented the last chance for such a mass action before its outbreak. We did not expect to win over the die-hard 'law and order' brigade but we did hope that those claiming to be from revolutionary organisations would recognise that this was the moment to act (or at least not to get in the way!).

Alas that is not how things seem to be. The so-called revolutionary organisations told us that the action would be 'premature'. But with war expected to formally break out only days after March 1st, the question was 'if not now, when'? There was a further range of miserable evasions that did their authors no credit. With three troop carrying airlines already gone from Shannon they asserted that such actions cannot work! They muttered. darkly about state repression, soldiers with guns, armoured cars, plastic bullets and the special branch. What should we conclude from this, that we should avoid effective opposition in case a cornered state strikes back?

Worst of all perhaps was the argument that direct action will alienate people from the anti-war movements. This ignores the fact that a good part of the movement building in this country happened through the publicity following direct actions, in particular the physical attacks on planes at Shannon. A more poisonous aspect to this argument was that the direct actions would somehow stop workers in Shannon striking against refuelling. The sad truth is that while all of us would welcome such action as the most effective in stopping refuelling there was little evidence of it being about to happen.

Some people in GNAW had been talking to Shannon workers and it was clear that there was little or no talk in support of ant-refuelling strike action. With the war just days away, to put all our eggs in the 'workers must strike' basket seemed foolish, to say the least. Particularly if it meant failing to take action that had been proved capable of driving out the troop carriers.

We did say this to the workers at Shannon: If they took strike action against the war then the mass of the population would support them. Those of us in the anti-war movements will owe them solidarity. Beyond this the vast majority who oppose the war should be open to the argument that any loss of income at the airport should be made up by the state or that equivalent jobs should be created in the area.

On the other hand if the Shannon workers continue to agree with their bosses in insisting that war work is essential for jobs then where will that leave them after the war? This war is all about the same forces of corporate globalisation that are privatising and slashing airlines and ground services across Europe. Militancy and public solidarity are the only weapons Shannon workers have to defend their jobs in the long term, sacrificing both for short term gain (won at the expense of those who will die in Iraq) was no way forward.

After March the 1st GNAW activists initiated a letter signed by hundreds of Irish trade unionists to the Shannon workers asking them to take some sort of action and pledging our support if they did so. Ironically this was the first such attempt to formally engage with Shannon workers despite all the previous talk from the Trotskyists. We knew that direct action in Shannon had worked. Each and every action catapulted refuelling into the headlines and ensured that people talked about Irish involvement in the war at work, at school and in the pub. And these were small actions. Now we were talking of an action that should have involved thousands.

Media Hysteria!

In the end the March 1st direct action at Shannon failed to get onto the airfield. But it demonstrated to the anti-war movements that such an action is possible 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.

A major mistake had been placing too much trust in the comprehension skills of journalists. 'Non-violent action' became 'violent protest' and headlines to that effect were splashed all over the media. Things turned to real farce 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. Sinn Fein's new-found fear of violence would normally 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 seems a little unbelievable now after the event. But it's a game that our opponents can only play a limited number of times. The credibility of those who added fuel to that fire is now pretty damaged - next time far fewer people are likely to be scared off.

Despite all this and the searches of coaches travelling to the protest, over 300 people decided to take part in the GNAW action. The IAWM had also decided to hold their own march there at the same time and, as agreed, we explained what we intended to do to all those at the meeting point and then left for the airport building ahead of their march.

We had expected most people with us would be joining the pink observer line rather than the white direct action line but this turned out not to be the case. At least two thirds chose to march up to the fence with the white flags.

Taking Action

At the fence 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 in southern Ireland. Normally at demonstrations they are sitting in vans, out of sight, on standby.

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 outnumber them and be able to simply walk around them. (Before the protest their senior officer had said it would be impossible to guard 7km of perimeter with 500 men but they would try their best).

Unfortunately, in the event 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. There was a long good-natured face of at this point. Our line up included several US citizens and Bob from Yale (Cork) who celebrated 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.

Shortly after they had passed we decided to try something different and got the whole white line moving parallel to the fence. Surprisingly this caught the Gardai on the hop and quite a few of them just stared at us until their senior officers ordered them to follow. 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 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.

Most of the arrests happened at this point as cops randomly grabbed people out of the crowd and threw them into vans. There were further arrests of the few 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.

We formed up and marched back to the car park by the airport entrance where we had a short meeting, to get details of all those arrested for the legal support team. Both here and on the coach back to Dublin the overwhelming feeling was very positive.

Those arrested were taken to court that evening and released on bail. The bail conditions excluded them from the entire county of Clare (and not just the airport). In cases of barring orders to prevent wife-beating the offender is often told to stay 500m or less away. It seems that the state values protecting warplanes way ahead of 'protecting’ battered women.

The Future

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 is out in the open we need to start a discussion of how we overcome these problems in the future.

A few things seem essential. Firstly, we must accept that although we disagree on tactics we must unite in opposing the war. Organisations using their media contacts 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 should now 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. As well as our 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 March 1st it 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 got to the fence despite being outnumbered by police. We aimed to pull it down and failed, but only just. We came close enough to demonstrate that this sort of action can work, it just needs more people to be willing to take part.

Two weeks into the war and it had been announced that 120,000 US reinforcements on their way to the Gulf would be using Shannon as a refuelling stop. Routine and constant harassment of plane spoilers at the airport became the rule. Even small demonstrations are faced with massive police mobilisations, including the stopping and searching of coaches en route to Shannon,

Conclusions

The protests outlined above scored a maior success in forcing the hidden issue of refuelling to the top of the agenda. Before this it had been an open secret, known to activists but not discussed in the media. The actions at Shannon transformed that situation. This in itself is a considerable victory – it’s very hard to organise people to oppose something they are unaware of.

A vote has been forced in the Dail (the southern parliament) to enable refuelling to continue. This should effectively bury the lie of supposed Irish neutrality. It is now clear that the southern Irish state has never been neutral and has always allowed its facilities to be used by the US military in particular. This will help move the debate from the nationalist dominated terrain of 'neutrality' to the more libertarian ground of anti-militarism.

To date the direct actions have had a fairly limited impact on the war - although airlines were driven out of Shannon. The reality is that only a couple of dozen people were the core organisers of these and now over 20 have been arrested, tried and in some cases done time for their role. Well over a dozen are actually banned from the whole of county Clare for the next two years. And the state now takes the threat seriously enough to diffuse the sort of action that the couple of hundred we could mobilise to date can offer.

In terms of the original groups of organisers and in particular the Grassroots Gathering we have succeeded both in raising the issue and demonstrating that direct action is an effective way of stopping refuelling. We now have to recognise that being able to build on this requires that we convince far, far wider forces in the anti-war movement that they also need to be willing to act.

This is not impossible. The outbreak of war has widened the acceptance of the need for more militant action. The strategies open to the rather cynical Trotskyist parties that were forever claiming to be 'for direct action, but not this action' have pretty much been exhausted. So the Irish SWP for instance has suddenly woken up to the need for 'mass civil disobedience'.

The immediate aftermath of March 1st and the outbreak of the war saw a move towards more local actions and internal work to both increase the numbers involved in GNAW and improve communication and organisation. Talks have started about calling another mass action in the future - but this time where we have much more preparation time to organise ourselves. If, as is likely, we continue to learn from the problems that have arisen we can look forward to greater success in the future.

The general model however has been shown to work. In countries where libertarian movements can claim thousands or tens of thousands of adherents it should be possible to organise similar actions on a far, far larger scale. Above all else GNAW demonstrated that if we take ourselves seriously we can move from complaining about the tokenism of the left's opposition to the war to demonstrating an alternative. A mass movement organising action against both refuelling and Anglo/US military bases in the European countries could have a very serious impact on the ability of the Bush/Blair army to wage more wars.

Posted By

Fozzie
Jun 23 2021 13:48

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  • Some time later the WSM received an angry email from Fort Worth in Texas which claimed to be from one of the US repair crew who had worked on the plane. It turned out they had just finished fixing up the plane the evening before the new attack took it out of commission again.

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