Iraq: No to war in Iraq – The Irish anti-war movement and Shannon airport

The use of Shannon airport in the west of Ireland by the US military has become a very controversial issue. As part of international and commercial agreements, Shannon has been used by military powers for more than forty years. However in the heightened atmosphere surrounding the war on Iraq, the majority of people in Ireland are opposed to the use of Shannon by the US military.

No to war in Iraq. Ireland.

The Irish anti-war movement and Shannon airport

It is likely that a significant portion of US troops now stationed in the Gulf stopped off and were facilitated at Shannon. It was reported during the mass anti-war demo in Dublin on 15 February that 19 planes carrying US military used Shannon airport.

Inevitably Shannon has become a major focal point for the Irish anti-war movement and the different tactics that respective sections of the movement want to use has provoked a major discussion. One of the most used commercial carriers by the US military, World Airlines, has stopped using Shannon and has re-diverted to Frankfurt. That decision followed the downgrading of Shannon’s security status by the US after anti-war activists broke through the perimeter fence at the airport and inflicted some damage on an aircraft. That incident said a great deal about the amateurish methods of the state – the protesters broke into the airbase because security was literally asleep! Whether World Airlines decision to pull out of Shannon was based on real concern for security or was as a result of US administration anger with the Irish government’s inability to ’police’ the anti-war protests is an open question. Whatever the case, since then two other carriers, who only operated five shipments over the last two months, have also pulled out of Shannon. Notwithstanding these developments, Shannon is still a significant hub of military activity.

Opposition to the use of Shannon was one of the key reasons for the massive turnout of 150,000 on 15 February in Dublin. The broad feeling is that Ireland should not be involved in this war or war preparations. The anti-war sentiment is strong but as yet is not under pinned by a strong, organised and active anti-war movement that has a clear programme and tactics and as a result the arguments of the pro-war political establishment can have a certain effect. Since 15 February the coalition government has had a dual approach to the anti-war movement. Fianna Fail (the main right-wing partner in the government coalition) argues along the lines, ’we are all anti-war, we must work through the UN and Iraq must co-operate with the inspectors’. The Progressive Democrats (the other party in the government coalition) puts a more strident right wing position. Its line of reasoning goes something like the following, ’those leading the anti-war movement are propagating a hard left anti-American position and ordinary people are being duped into a movement that in effect will strengthen Saddam Hussein’. Another aspect of the attack on the anti-war movement has been to try and scare people that US investment in Ireland could be badly affected if Ireland took a strong anti-war stance (and in a time of economic downturn). While this argument has not cut across people’s opposition to war, the fear that banning the US military from Shannon will result in jobs losses locally has had an impact in the Mid-West region.

The Socialist Party has argued that the best way to force the US military out of Shannon for good would be for workers in the airport to refuse to work on any planes carrying military personnel or equipment.

The Socialist Party has also attempted to answer the fears of workers by stating that any jobs in Shannon placed under threat should be safeguarded by state investment. Steps towards the intervention of the state to protect jobs and conditions in Shannon would find a wide public welcome, as working people are opposed to war and also want to see jobs ensured.

We have also pointed to the hypocrisy of the right wing parties, whose policies have resulted in many job losses over the last years. It is they who are in favour of the privatisation of key airport services that of course would result in more job losses.

Direct action tactics

Unfortunately it is difficult to see industrial action by airport workers against the US military build at the present time. There are several reasons for this, including the ferocious pressure the workers have come under from the airport bosses. The press have repeated management arguments that claim jobs will be lost if anti-war protests and actions continue. Unfortunately the unions representing airport workers in Shannon have not given a clear lead and plan of action in the face of this onslaught.

Undoubtedly another factor that makes it more difficult for anti-war industrial action to take place is the consequences of direct action tactics that have been employed by some sections of the anti-war protesters since the start of the year.

A peace camp that was established in January outside the airport did serve to focus attention on what was happening at Shannon. At a certain stage even airport police were on friendly terms with the campers and some expressed sympathy with their views. In the dead of night, on two separate occasions, activists broke through the security fence to protest. On one of these occasions a plane was damaged using a hatchet. Most people did not have any serious problem with these actions, which was shown by the fact that 15 February took place after these incidents. However in the airport and around the local area these actions created tension and distance between the activists and the workers, as management began to put the latter under pressure. The actions of the anti-war individuals who broke into the airfield were undoubtedly well intentioned and we did not condemn them. However it is a fact that their actions certainly did not help develop the idea of industrial action by the airport workers themselves.

15 February has indicated the huge potential to build a mass, active anti-war movement. As of yet this potential has not been fully realised. Post 15 February the political establishment went on the offensive.

The Socialist Party has argued that the task of the anti-war movement was to concentrate on the key issue, which was that the Irish government is supporting a war for oil which will result in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi people and on that basis to go about the job of building a mass movement in the communities, schools, colleges and workplaces. Building such a movement is the only way the demand for action on Day X will be delivered on. If action was organised, particularly through the unions, it is possible the issue of industrial action in Shannon could be brought back on the agenda at a certain stage.

The political establishment and the media were obviously stunned by the size of the 15 February demonstration and the widespread anti-war mood it represent. They were soon looking for an opportunity to attack and divide the anti-war movement and unfortunately were given that opportunity post 15 February by the actions of a very small loose alliance of anarchists and environmentalists called the ’Grassroots Network Against War’ (GRAW). Completely misjudging what 15 February meant, and the stage the anti-war movement was at, this group called for direct action on Shannon on 1 March to force the US military out.

Mass action

The Socialist Party has on many occasions advocated mass direct action. However when you are involved in a struggle to build a movement, tactics have to be adopted that are appropriate and serve to bring the movement forward. The GRAW publicly called on people to come to Shannon on 1 March to pull down the perimeter fence and engage in a trespass of the runways. Given that the state had fortified the airport, including the deployment of the army, what in reality they were calling, if implemented, would have led to a serious confrontation with the state. On the one hand, nobody believed the tactic they proposed would shut down the airport but, on the other hand, it gave an opportunity for the establishment to divert attention away from their support for war and helped them to tarnish the anti-war movement as out for physical confrontation that jarred with the general mood of people. It is ironic that not long after the popular and massive 15 February demonstration of 150,000, the anti-war movement was put on the defensive by the establishment and the key weapon they used was the version of direct action proposed by the GRAW.

The Socialist Party is part of the ’Irish Anti-War Movement’ (IAWM). The IAWM decided to also call a demonstration on the same day in Shannon because we felt it was necessary to have an alternative for any people who would go along to protest but who would not want to participate in the GRAW’s version of a direct action protest. As it turned out, the GRAW protest was of little consequence. They had 250 people facing off the police, riot police, police on horses and water cannon trucks. Very little happened, nobody gained access to the airstrip but ten people were arrested. The IAWM held a demonstration of just over a thousand people, which marched past the GRAW’s protest to the terminal building, held a rally and disbursed peacefully. This was very important given that the establishment had tried to tarnish and diminish the IAWM as being bent on physical confrontation with the state. Publicly, what was demonstrated was the difference between a small group who had the wrong tactics, which were shown to be unworkable, and the IAWM, which is more in tune with the public mood and which, if it builds on a democratic basis in working class communities, it has the potential to become a mass campaign.

In the week running up to last Saturday, the political establishment and the media seriously tried to drive a wedge between the mass of people who are opposed to war and the organised anti-war movement around the issue of physical confrontation at Shannon. To a degree they were successful in that some of the organisations that are seen as part of the broad anti-war movement, including Labour, Sinn Fein and the Greens, disgracefully withdrew support for the IAWM’s protest and encouraged people not to attend. In that context, the turnout and disciplined nature of the IAWM demonstration served to cut across the offensive by the establishment and also exposed the three parties mentioned above in the eyes of the best activists.

The Socialist Party has a proud record of mass struggle. We led the anti-water charges campaign in southern Ireland in the 1990s, employing various tactics and methods of direct action, and play a key role in the anti-bin charges struggle today. We are always careful to pursue tactics that are in tune with the mood of people and the different stages of mass struggle. On many occasions we have engaged in mass direct actions. We will do so again and quite possibly in the course of this movement against war. But given the present stage of the anti-war movement, some forms of direct action at Shannon would not build the movement but in fact would give the political establishment an excuse to try to attack the protesters and would divert attention from the real issues.

We hope that the GRAW assesses what has happened over the last few weeks and review their approach and tactics. The events at Shannon, and particularly the role of Labour, Sinn Fein and the Greens, which buckled under the pressure of the media and the establishment should also be considered and openly discussed by people in the IAWM and the full lessons drawn.

A successful, mass anti-war movement has to be based on the mass actions of working class people and youth. It is these forces that will stand resolutely against war and who will clearly refute the arguments and maneuverings of this pro-war government.

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March 2003