Mass anti-war trespass at Shannon Airport


Saturday (12th October, 2002) saw the largest anti-war demonstration to date at Shannon airport. As the demonstration ended a 50m section of the perimeter fence was torn down and up to 150 people entered the airfield perimeter.

Anti-war protesters on runway at Shannon airport
Pic: Protesters march under airplane tail

This demonstration was the first Shannon demonstration to be organised by the 'Irish Anti War Movement'. The IWAM has been under pressure for some time to have at least one demonstration at Shannon. This is where US war planes land on a daily basis to refuel or even to use this civilian airport as a training base. Since the start of the Afghan war other smaller anti-war groups had organised a number of protests some of which also included individuals scaling the perimeter fence and being arrested.

The day got underway with coaches arriving at the airport gate. Although many of us thought there was to be a mass meeting at the gate to discuss tactics for the day when activists began to get the meeting together the stewards with the megaphones announced that we were going to start marching to the terminal. So the meeting never happened which was unfortunate as on previous demonstrations such meetings have been used to allow people to choose what sort of tactics they want to take part in. This resulted in a little bad feeling afterwards both from those who wanted to 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).

Anti war protest at Shannon airport
Pic: Marching to the terminal

As usual the number who took part in the demonstration is disputed. It's probably safe to say it was somewhere above 300 people with some IWAM organisers claiming 500 and a Socialist Party member on Indymedia claiming 600-700. There were five IWAM coaches from Dublin (3), Cork and Galway as well as a large number of people making their own way there.

All of the march
Pic: You count them, all of the march on the way to the terminal building

As we marched up the approach road a Gardai van with a video camera on its roof was observed filming the demonstration from a roadside car park. So some of the demonstrators stood in front of it and raised their placards in front of the camera to make sure the anti war message of the demonstration was recorded rather than the identities of those taking part. Outside the terminal a second Gardai with a hand held digital camera was also taking photos of the protesters.

Police spying on anti-war protesters
Pic: Gardai spy van and counter surveillance

On reaching the airport buildings there was a token effort to march into the terminal, easily blocked by the 60 or so Gardai in front of and around the doors. There was a stand off there for a while as the (SWP*) stewards tried to get people to move on so we could 'listen to the speeches'. Apparently this was very important to 'explain why we were there'. After a while they got everyone to sit down instead and so we got to listen to many speeches quite similar to the ones we had heard on other anti-war demonstrations. There was one exception when an Iraqi women spoke about her feelings about the war but otherwise even the speaker line up was almost remarkably similar to the last anti-war demonstration in Dublin, all of two weeks ago.

Cops at anti war protest
Pic: Cops and placards at the door of the terminal building

The high point of this period was when it was discovered the assembled forces of law and order were refusing to allow a six-year-old into the terminal to use the toilet! As there were a couple of Irish TD's present and an MEP it was decided that they would try and enter the terminal.

This resulted in a pretty amusing stand off at the entrance doors. Sixty odd Gardai blocked their way. Requests to talk to the senior officer present were met with silence until an activist at the side of the crowd pointed out that he appeared to be hiding in a corner! This brought him forth for a while but he seemed unable to offer any explanation for his actions in denying the TD's access to the terminal and soon stopped talking all together. All together the Gardai were very defensive their words and postures often trying to make it clear that they were 'just following orders'!

Pic: Two more views at the door of the terminal building

After this it was suggested that we enact a 'die in' on the road in front of the terminal, a couple of hundred people took part in this. Then everyone was told to spread out in a big circle around the front of the terminal. While all this was going on some of those who had travelled to Shannon because they thought some direct action was the purpose of the protest were having a small meeting of their own. They decided that as we marched out of the airport they would go over to the perimeter fence and start to shake it.

An anti war die in at Shannon airport
Pic: Die in by the terminal building

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, just after we cleared the buildings about a dozen people left the head of the march and crossed to the perimeter fence. When they started to shake it though 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 started to chase those already on the airfield more and more people stated to stream over the fence until about half the protesters had crossed the fence and the other half were watching from just behind it.

Anti war protesters in Ireland
Pic: Protesters celebrate getting into the airfield

Inside the thirty or so protesters at the front made it to a point near the tarmac where a UPS plane was parked. There was a quick discussion as to whether to move on to the runway itself but it was decided for safety reasons not to do so. 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 (but of course we had already decided to stay where we were). Meanwhile other Gardai, some with dogs, concentrated on intimidating those between us and the fence into leaving the airfield. A third group of Gardai physically pushed a group of fifteen or so who had linked arms back to the fence and a couple of horse back cops also turned up. (As the Gardai only have two such horses I presume they had travelled from Dublin).

Police dogs used on anti war protesters at Shannon airport
Pic: Gardai dogs and protesters

With most of the protesters back behind the fence the Gardai then concentrated on the thirty or forty sitting on the grass. The grabbed a number of people from this group and threw them into vans, possibly concentrating on those they thought were organisers. If they hoped this would intimidate the others it failed to work, who 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. They hoped to put additional pressure on the Gardai to release the prisoners. Inside the airfield two huge fire engines were brought up and the Gardai moved back a little. They clearly intended to create the impression they were going to use them as water cannon 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 began to discuss whether or not to leave, our point being made, and head to the police station to support those arrested. Around ten people had been arrested. After a brief discussion it was decided to do so.

Sitting on the grass at Shannon in Ireland

Introductions

Pic: Protesters sitting on the grass and getting to know each other

After some negotiation it was agreed that the coaches would stop briefly at the police station. There over a dozen Gardai blocked the entrance and refused to allow even a single activist to enter it to find out what was going on. They also refused to say under what law they were doing this although it was implied this was because the lone activist might overpower them all and release the prisoners!

But within minutes of us arriving they did start 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. Obviously someone above the level of the local Gardai would have to make the decision as to whether a messy trial that would highlight the use of Shannon as a refuelling stop for foreign war planes was the best strategy for the state to follow. With the Nice referendum being next weekend we can safely assume it will be at least a week before anything more is heard!

On the buses back to Dublin a debate was organised over events on the day. This was probably useful on a therapeutic level to clear the bad feeling that resulted in the failure to debate tactics in advance. But it also revealed some pretty deep division over what direct action was and how the tacking of such actions could be decided. If the movement as a whole is 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.

Buildings at Shannon airport

For my part I think the mass trespass at the end of the day turned what would otherwise would have been a routine demo with an added long coach trip into a success. For the first time there was a trespass at Shannon that involved dozens of people rather then simply a couple of brave souls making martyrs out of themselves. It also revealed just how vulnerable the airport if to such tactics, there are miles of perimeter fence, it would take hundreds if not thousands of police to protect it from a large demonstration.

The question of tactics is really a question of how you that think you can 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 while this is also needed the government will continue to ignore such mobilisations because of the depth of its alliance 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.

Saturday's demonstration revealed that even a small number of people taking direct action can shut the airport. What is needed is to build towards getting thousands to Shannon to not only carry out a mass trespass on the airfield but also to physically dismantle any war plane we catch on the ground there. A similar movement across Europe could deny the use of airbases across the continent and have a very real impact of the ability of the US and Britain to carry out their war against the people of Iraq.

Joe Black

* - I say Socialist Workers Party stewards here because at that point and at the start the only people I saw with megaphones telling others what to do were members of the SWP. Other members of the IWAM reacted to a previous report where I described the IWAM as 'SWP dominated' with annoyance. However if you are going to allow the SWP to apparently run events on the day (an SWP member also chaired everything) you have got to expect people to draw conclusions from this!


[A Personal report from a Workers Solidarity Movement members of an event they took part in or attended, these reports are posted to the Ainriail list when first written] Note: Pictures are ultra compressed a week or so after they are uploaded to this site to save space on the server.

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