Shannon protesters spoke for many of us

‘They are flown perhaps to a country where torture is a little more acceptable’

Sometimes things just sound wrong. Right now, Margaretta D’Arcy, a 79-year-old woman who is undergoing treatment for cancer, is serving a three-month sentence in Limerick Prison for protesting the US military’s use of Shannon Airport.

A few years ago, I met a former Apache helicopter pilot who had done countless stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. He didn’t know much about Ireland, but had been here more times than he cared to remember.

He had been to Shannon, obviously: the little US military base in the west. Back in 2002, when the Irish Government had concerns on whether accommodating US warplanes in Ireland would contravene international law, the State decided to accept the assurances of America, which couldn’t possibly hold a bias in this scenario, right?

So with the Government pushing tin, the ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights arrived with our permission. The term is sanitised warspeak for the cloak-and-dagger transportation of prisoners by the US military. They are flown here, there and everywhere, perhaps to a country where torture is a little more acceptable, or to a CIA black site somewhere in the world for a session of water boarding, or incarcerated, or chucked in Guantanamo indefinitely.

At the 2003 Labour Party conference, a motion was passed that the immediate withdrawal of US military from Shannon would be an essential part of any programme for government Labour would be part of in the future. Fast forward to 2011, and in the Fine Gael/Labour programme for government it was committed: "We will enforce the prohibition on the use of Irish airspace, airports and related facilities for purposes not in line with the dictates of international law."

Coining it in
Apart from ferrying soldiers

to war, between 2001 and 2005 Amnesty International estimated that the CIA landed at Shannon 50 times. They weren’t coming to kiss the Blarney Stone. In 2005 alone, 330,000 US military troops passed through the airport.

That year, the State’s collusion with the US military was worth €37 million to Shannon Airport. When there’s an “economic benefit”, one tends to ignore the humanity of it all. Also that year, the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) recommended the Irish Government seek permission from the US to inspect suspect aircraft.

The Government said that wasn't necessary because our American friends were telling us everything was a-okay. Two years later, the IHCR concluded in a report, "the Irish State is not complying with its human rights obligations to prevent torture or inhumane or degrading treatment [and that its] reliance on the assurances of the US government is not enough."

Serious concern
In 2007, a report by the European Parliament expressed serious concern about 147 stopovers made by CIA-operated aircraft at Irish airports "that on many occasions came from or were bound for countries linked with extraordinary rendition circuits and the transfer of detainees".

They identified stopovers in Ireland or aircraft used by the CIA on other occasions for the rendition of seven named prisoners, and the expulsion of two others. Amnesty International identified one particular aircraft which refuelled at Shannon the day before the "transfer" of Khaled al-Maqtari, who was detained in isolation for over two years at various CIA black sites and imprisoned in Abu Gharib, tortured, and eventually released without charge.

In 2011, the UN Committee Against Torture expressed concern about Ireland’s “alleged co-operation in a rendition programme” and at the “inadequate response by the State party with regard to investigating these allegations”. In 2012, a report by Open Society Foundations, identified Ireland as one of 54 governments that participated in some way in CIA operations.

Margaretta D'Arcy, Niall Farrell and others, were right to protest at Shannon Airport. D'Arcy was right to not sign a bond saying she would stay away from Shannon, because doing so would have been a lie.

In February 2003, 100,000 Irish people marched against what would a month later become the Iraq War. Globally, that march, which happened simultaneously in 600 cities around the world, was the biggest protest event in history. The protesters at Shannon are the noble few left from that 100,000.

They are right to protest. Just because what D’Arcy did was technically illegal doesn’t mean it was wrong.

D’Arcy has principles. In the battle between economics and principles, it’s sad to see money wins every time. Right now we’re being sold a narrative that we’ve “turned the corner” on the economy. When are we going to turn the corner on principles?