Cable: Irish government 'seriously disturbed' by Shannon Five acquittal
A new Wikileaks cable reveals further evidence of Irish officials at pains to help the US in its use of Shannon Airport for military purposes. By Harry Browne.
Dermot Ahern assured the US ambassador in Dublin in 2006 that the Irish government was prepared to change the law that had allowed the acquittal of five anti-war activists for damaging a US Navy plane.
The revelation that a senior Irish official discussed possible amendments to domestic criminal law with the US ambassador is contained in a Wikileaks cable (see below) that has not been published or reported upon elsewhere.
At the time of the acquittal of the so-called Shannon Five, or Pitstop Ploughshares, in July 2006, the US embassy made a public statement expressing its disquiet about the verdict. The then minister for foreign affairs, Dermot Ahern, responded with what was seen as a firm public statement of his own, underlining the independence of the judicial system and stating that its verdicts were not a matter for discussion by government officials or between governments.
The cable reveals, however, that a few months later Ahern privately told US officials that the “the Irish Government Cabinet” had been greatly disturbed by the unanimous jury verdict. (The delay between the verdict and this meeting may have been caused by a change-over in US ambassadors.) Ahern told the Americans that the Cabinet had asked the justice minister, Michael McDowell, to examine how the Criminal Damage Act might be amended to close the “legal loophole” that allowed the Shannon Five to be acquitted, so that such a verdict could not happen again. A previously released cable from the same period quotes a senior foreign-affairs bureaucrat telling the Americans the verdict was “bizarre”.
The five, members of the Dublin Catholic Worker, were acquitted after a trial in which their lawyers relied on the statute’s defense of “lawful excuse” for defendants who damage property in the honest belief that doing so will protect life or property, as long as that belief is reasonable in the circumstances. The law does not explicitly require that the threat to life or property be “immediate”.
McDowell lost his Dáil seat and thus his government post in the election of May 2007, six months after Ahern told US officials McDowell would be seeking to change the law, which has remained unamended.
These November 2006 discussions of the legalities of the Shannon case are the latest in a series of Wikileaks revelations – some published last autumn, others reported in Irish print and broadcast media last week – that show Irish officials at pains to help the US in its use of Shannon Airport for military purposes and, perhaps, CIA “extraordinary rendition” flights. Irish bureaucrats even asked US officials for their legal advice about why American planes at Shannon should not be inspected by police here, and said that such advice would be a guide for Irish policy.
Cables sent from the US embassy over a period of years show Irish officials specifically turning a blind eye to the possibility that rendition flights were landing in the west of this neutral country. Senior Irish politicians appear to have relied on vague assurances from US officials but repeatedly expressed concerns that they would be caught lying to the Dáil and the Irish people if a rendition flight were discovered at Shannon. In December 2004 Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the US ambassador that he had been saying publicly that there were no such flights, and pleaded: “Am I all right on this?”
American and Irish officials freely acknowledged that the US use of Shannon as a stopover for troops and military equipment was unpopular with the Irish public, especially when the issue of renditions arose, but discussed ways that they could cooperate on managing media and public relations. After the Green Party joined Ireland’s governing coalition in 2007, it insisted on the setting up of a Cabinet sub-committee on human-rights issues, including those raised by Shannon. A US embassy cable correctly identified the subcommittee as a “sop” to the Greens that would cause no trouble to the Americans.
Like many of the cables from around the world, the Dublin cables so far revealed through Wikileaks show US diplomats effectively united with their local counterparts against a common enemy: the people – whether the people take the form of anti-war activists, jurors or voters in an upcoming election. Cables consistently praise the Irish government for its efforts “in the face of public criticism” on behalf of the US in Shannon, described by ambassador James Kenny in 2004 as “a key transit point for U.S. troops and materiel bound for theatres in the war on terror”.
A cable written by Kenny in 2006 and published by Wikileaks late last year admits that ”the airport [is] a symbol of Irish complicity in perceived U.S. wrongdoing in the Gulf/Middle East” and that “popular sentiment was manifest in the July 25 jury decision to acquit the ‘Shannon Five’, a group of anti-war protesters who damaged a U.S. naval aircraft at the airport in 2003.”
Some of the Wikileaks revelations have received prominent coverage in Ireland, notably in the Irish Independent and Belfast Telegraph newspapers, which have partnered with Wikileaks for a series of well-displayed and heavily advertised stories this week. However, neither the newspapers nor RTÉ, which obtained several Shannon-related cables and reported on them last Thursday evening, have been publishing the cables, merely reporting on extracts, and not always even including the reports on their websites.
Wikileaks typically itself publishes cables on its own website once they have been reported upon and redacted by its media partners, but at the time of writing only 19 Dublin cables have appeared on the Wikileaks site, perhaps delayed because of the newspapers’ print-only policy with many of the stories. I calculate, conservatively, that at least 35 different Dublin cables were quoted in the week of coverage that finished Monday, but the number is uncertain because they have often been used without specific dates being cited. Neither the print nor broadcast journalists have seen fit to report on the cable discussed above, though I understand both RTÉ and the Irish Independent have it in their possession.
The Wikileaks revelations over the last year or so – from the Iraq and Afghan war logs to the diplomatic cables – have revealed a great deal about the operations of governments. They have also revealed some of the profound failings of the mainstream media, which, when they are not denouncing Julian Assange and ignoring Bradley Manning, can be found squabbling over the ‘exclusives’ that those men’s efforts have apparently brought us. There is a long way to go, in Ireland and elsewhere, before this information is truly free.
This article originally appeared on counterpunch.org