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Report on Anti-War Ireland public meting in Belfast

JM Thorn 

14 September 2006

On 12 September the Irish anti-war group, Anti War Ireland (AWI), held its first meeting in Belfast.   Around thirty people packed into a room in Jury’s Hotel to be addressed by a panel of speakers, which included two of the recently acquitted Pitstop Ploughshares Five (PP5).  The meeting was very much sold on their presence on the platform, with posters advertising the event prominently featuring a picture of the PP5 celebrating their acquittal outside the High Court in Dublin.  Belfast was just one meeting in a series that the AWI had organised throughout Ireland to promote the PP5 and build support for its future activities.  A meeting of about 75 people was held in Dublin and a smaller meeting in Derry. The specific objective of the Belfast meeting was to launch a branch of the AWI in the city.

The first speaker to address the meeting was Ciaron O’Reilly of Catholic Worker and the PP5.  He said that there was a great sense of joy and celebration among anti-war activists over the PP5 action at Shannon. It had brought the war to public attention and had forced four companies to pull out of the airport.  Ciaron also claimed that their action had caused “major disruption” to the deployment of US troops to the Gulf in the build up to the invasion of Iraq.  He said that their subsequent acquittal on charges of criminal damage in the courts had vindicated their action.  This demonstrated that there was no popular support fir the war; the problem faced by anti-war activities was that there was no popular opposition either. 

Ciaron went on to outline the political background to the “War on Terror”, placing in the context of the end of the Cold War and the need for the ruling elites in the West to find a new enemy to justify spending on defence.  He reminded the audience that Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden were both former allies of the US.  His own anti-war activism and involvement in direct went back to the Gulf War in 1991, when he was living in the US.  He was one of a group of Catholic Worker members who broke into a US Air force hanger and damaged a B52 bomber.   For this he was jailed for thirteen months. Upon his release, he was deported to his native Australia.   Back in Australia he became in involved in East Timor solidarity work.  Once again this campaign involved direct action, most notably in England where a group of women from the Ploughshares group broke into an aerospace factory in Liverpool and damaged Hawk jets that were bound for Indonesia.  Ciaron went to England to support the campaign that led to the acquittal of the women by a jury. It was this model of action and campaigning that was deployed in Shannon. 

Ciaron then described how the PP5 went about planning and executing the direct action that resulted in damage being done to a US Navy plane based at Shannon airport.  He said that the protestors were acting out of a Christian commitment, describing members of the PP5 as  “Christian Anarchist Pacifists”.  According to Ciaron the true roots of Christianity lay in anarchism and pacifism.  He then went on to describe the subsequent trials of the PP5, the first two being ruled mistrials and the third trial in which they were acquitted.  Ciaron ended by stressing the strategic importance of Shannon airport as the main gateway for US troops going to and from Iraq.  He said that the focus of the anti-war movement should be on the demilitarisation of Shannon, and that this could be achieved through further direct action.  To this end Catholic Worker were planning a “surprise action” within the next few months.  He did not say what, only that the nature of the action was secret and by necessity would involve just a few dozen activists. 
The next speaker was Deirdre Clancy of the PP5.  She said that when they were in Derry the previous day for another public meeting they were shown around the Free Derry Museum.  This served as a reminder of Ireland’s recent history of torture and internment in Ireland.  She then went on talk about the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US, saying these did not come out of nowhere, and that is was necessary to understand why people would commit such acts of violence. 

Her view was that  9/11 was the result of the long history of US policy towards the Med East.  However, it was not just the Mid East where the US was intervening, it was all over the world.  Deirdre reminded the audience that the first 9/11 had been the coup in Chile in 1973 when the US conspired with the Chilean military to overthrow the democratically elected Government and massacre socialist militants. 

She then went on to talk about the trials of the PP5, saying that while they felt vindicated by the acquittal they took no satisfaction from it as the atrocities they wanted to prevent were continuing.  The not guilty verdict was a minor victory that was the result of three years hard work by their legal team and supporters.  Even if they hadn’t have been acquitted they would have felt justified in what they did.  By using the defence of lawful excuse they were able to introduce evidence of atrocities in Iraq and present the jury with the truth. Deidre believed that when people were presented with the truth they would act in conscience.  The trial demonstrated that there was a pool of anti-war sentiment that can be tapped into.  Deirdre ended by urging people to get involved in AWI and to help build a branch in Belfast. 

The final speaker was Colm Breathnach of the AWI.  He said that the war was a battle between different political and cultural forces and that ordinary people were a part of this struggle.  In this struggle there were a range of tactics and strategies.  Colm said it was wrong to think there was a contradiction between mass action and direct action; both were equally valid and appropriate at different times.  He then related this own experience of living in the West Bank for three months as a volunteer for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).  He recalled how Palestinians villagers would repair their water collection tanks after the Israeli army would come in a shoot them full of holes.  For Colm the act of mending the holes in water tanks represented an act of non-violent defiance against the occupation.  He finished his talk by giving four reasons why people should join the AWI.  Firstly, it was represented a diverse range of people.  It was not a political vehicle for any organisation, it was not controlled or manipulated, neither was it a front for recruitment.  Secondly, the AWI used a diversity of tactics, including both mass and direct action.  Colm rejected claims that direct action was elitist, stating that actions such as those by the PP5 raised public consciousness about the war.  Thirdly, the AWI was democratic.  It had no leadership in the traditional sense; decision-making was inclusive; and alternative perspectives were respected.  Fourthly, the AWI was not a political party.  No political demands were placed upon the broad anti-war movement.  Colm concluded by saying that while the AWI opposed imperialism it did not support groups (such as Islamists) or states such as Iran just because they were in conflict with imperialism. 

The meeting was then thrown open to the audience.  Most of the contributions made were supportive of the PP5 and direct action.  The only sceptical note came from John McAnulty of Socialist Democracy.  He recounted his own experience of direct action during the civil rights struggle in the north.  The difference between this action and what AWI were supporting, was that the organisers knew that it would not work; indeed, the point of engaging in it was to demonstrate its limitations.  John said that direct action had to be judged on the basis of whether it would lead to mass action.  It was not the case that that all activates were equally valid – leading mass action had to be the objective of the anti-war movement.  John also pointed out that imperialism in Ireland is not just about the US military at Shannon.  Economically and politically Ireland is dominated by imperialism.  Ultimately the only way to break with it is to overthrow the Irish Government, a task that could only be accomplished by mass action. 

Overall, the AWI meeting was a disappointment.  Despite claiming to support a range of tactics, the AWI clearly champions direct action over anything else and is the result of a split in the anti-war campaign over tactics, with AWI supporting direct action and the SWP dominated section supporting a reformist lobbying approach.   The biggest weakness however is its politics.  Because the AWI wants to be a broad movement, encompassing everyone from Buddhists to Anarchists, its politics are pitched at the lowest possible level of people being against the war and wanting to something about it.  The anti-imperialist declaration seemed to be to some extent moralist, feeling the need to produce a very complex position which balanced opposition to imperialist powers with disapproval of the societies who were their victims. The politics of the AWI don’t go much beyond moral outrage.  This was clear from the public meeting which attracted a large component of religious people and sometimes took on an evangelical tone.  Claims of direct democracy and lack of traditional leaderships should be treated with suspicion. The movement is, like most other activist movements, based on a number of left political organisations.  A refusal to state this clearly is in fact a negation of democracy. A broad movement would of necessity try to recruit trade union, political and community groups and would be keen to advertise that support and to build transparent structures through which the groups affiliating could control the direction of the movement.

If we are to build an effective anti-war movement we need to deepen consciousness among the Irish working class about the imperialist nature of the war and why they to oppose it, not on the basis of moralism, but on the basis of their class interests. 


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