‘Sometimes you just have to do the right thing’

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“We have no interest in oppressing other people. We are not moved by hatred against any other nation. The … maintenance of a tremendous military arsenal can only be regarded as a focus of danger. We have displayed a truly unexampled patience, but I am no longer willing to remain inactive while this madman ill-treats millions of human beings.” Adolf Hitler, proclamation to the German people, 12 March 1938 – about Czechoslovakia.

The American journalist Harry Browne has lived and worked in Ireland for 23 years. A committed anti-war campaigner, his recently published book Hammered by the Irish’ is an account of an anti-war action by five activists who have come to be known as ‘The Pitstop Ploughshares – and who together disabled an Iraq-bound US warplane at Shannon airport in  February 2003. The book is the story of that action from its planning, the subsequent arrest of those involved and their long journey through the Irish legal system, to the victory of their ultimate acquittal – possibly one of the best examples of justice ever secured within the Irish legal system.   As one of the jurors put it after the verdict was announced ‘sometimes you just have to do the right thing’.

The use of Shannon airport as a stop off point for the American military has been a deeply unpopular consequence of the ‘war on terror’ in Ireland – not alone because of overwhelming opposition here to the war itself but because the use of Shannon for assisting in a war between other countries is also believed by most to be blatantly unconstitutional – in direct breach of the country’s neutral status.  Even the prosecuting counsel, who had given the defendants hell through two previous trials, revealed in his closing speech at the final trial that he had himself been on the big anti-war march in Dublin in 2003.

Harry Browne’s book is an accomplished and succinct account of an at-times complex story of the legal and other maneuvering which its five principals endured as a consequence of their witness to the cause of peace – and it is a fascinating story. Browne draws a compelling and affectionate portrait of the activists individually, their collective action and the resulting stresses caused to each and among the group as a whole. He is the best possible person to chronicle their story, not just because of his formidable writing talent but also because of his close personal affinity with his subjects’ perspective – an uncanny coincidence that those with religious leanings might view as a form of divine intervention:

“In the 22 years after my father, an Irish-American New York Catholic priest, died in 1980, on the same day as Dorothy Day, [founder of the Catholic Worker movement ] I had long since become an atheist and stopped talking and thinking about Catholic Worker, a movement Father Harry Browne admired and drew upon for political sustenance.  Father Phil Berrigan [the Jesuit peace activist who wrote the foreword for the book] was arrested by duplicitous Feds in my dad’s Upper West Side closet in 1970.  And now Berrigan’s name has been scrawled on an Irish airport, his moral descendents have found me in Dublin and no one has ever seemed more self-evidently ‘right’ to me.  A jury could have convicted them and a judge sent them down for 10 years and there would have been not a ripple on the calm certainty of my judgment which comes from my deepest places.”

The Catholic Workers Nuin Dunlop (American/Irish), Karen Fallon (Scots/Irish), Deirdre Clancy (Irish), Damien Moran (Irish) and Ciaron O’Reilly (Australian/Irish) – each in their own way clearly brought a special quality of commitment and poignancy to the action they undertook.  Their testimony in court to their methods and motives were wonderfully expressed and are equally well contextualized by Browne – perhaps nowhere more so than in this quotation from the evidence of Nuin Dunlop.  Asked in the witness box why she had done this action, Browne recounts her response:

“‘There were several reasons, four reasons actually.  I would say the words responsibility, solidarity, urgency and prayer – and please, if I could explain?’

The whole courtroom willed her to explain.

‘Responsibility to me means literally the ability to respond:  I am a person who had an ability to respond:  I’m not an Iraqi person standing under the threat of bombardment, I’m not an economic conscript in the US military, I am a person who had an ability to respond to what I saw was going to be the killing of innocent people and so I had the ability to respond, I did respond.  Secondly, solidarity to me is ‘being with’, it is a presence with people who are suffering in some way, and I saw the Iraqi people as very much suffering under psychological threat of potential full-on war; and I wanted to say to those people in Iraq, you are seen, you are heard and you’re not alone in this; so that is solidarity, it is ‘being with’, even from a slight distance.  Urgency:  I had a sense that war was imminent, that bombs were going to be crashing down on people in the very near future, and that people’s lives in Iraq were at risk and action needed to be taken to protect the people and the land of Iraq.  And prayer:  I had a sense through prayer that I needed to participate in this particular action at Shannon.’

Sure, it was a well thought-out piece of speech-making, but it was a beautiful one too, and from this striking woman – a dark-haired mix of Irish and native American, it blew like a breeze of truth through the courtroom.”

There are many things to like about Hammered.  Browne’s narrative style and sense of humour are foremost among them – ‘one good American deserves another’ – and as his observation of an intervention by a member of the public in the court room during the last trial attests:

“There was still more and more tedious, legal argument in the jury’s absence about particular lines of questioning.  The tedium was relieved, however, by one of those now rare Dublin moments that remind you of the peculiar character that still lingers around the place.  In the midst of an argument about whether and when it was appropriate to interrupt a witness, Judge McDonagh said that witnesses should not ‘go off at a tangent.’  This prompted a loud interruption from a well-spoken gentleman in the court, quaintly referred to in the official transcript as ‘Man From The Public Gallery’.

‘MFTPG:  Politicians normally do that, go off on a tangent.

Judge:     Can we remove that gentleman from the court.

MFTPG:   You’re a fucking joke, sir.

Judge:      Place that man under arrest.  I will deal with him at lunchtime for contempt.  Put him under arrest, in the cells, I’ll deal with him at lunchtime.  I’m not going to be referred to in those tones by anybody.

MFTPG:    Swan eggs, please, for lunch.

(man removed from the courtroom)’

The gentleman proved to be an eccentric and barely-known cousin of one of the defence barristers – not one of the defendants’, whose family and supporters had been impeccably behaved throughout their trials.  He apologized and was freed just after lunchtime: it is not recorded if he was disappointed at being served something other than swans’ eggs in the courthouse cells.”

One of the book’s greatest accomplishments is the small masterpiece that is the snapshot Browne gives of contemporary Irish life and of its modern history.   His intention, presumably, was to give the backdrop to the events, the people involved and their story but he has achieved much more than that in so doing.  For anyone who is interested in what it is like to live in contemporary Ireland, ‘Hammered by the Irish‘ would be an excellent place to start:

“The ‘well-liked’ priest was often the man who combined superficial out-of-Church friendliness with a capacity to mutter his way through a quick and painless Sunday mass.  The bit in the Catholic liturgy when the congregation is invited to exchange a sign of peace with fellow parishioners, used in much of the global Church as an opportunity for embraces, is treated in Ireland as an unwanted occasion to catch your neighbour’s eye, murmur a greeting and share a barely-brushing handshake (you never know what you might catch).  To an outsider, Irish Catholicism looks like it has entered some international competition to see which nation can best empty Christian rituals of any conceivable meaning and it has won hands down.”

This is a windingly funny observation – immediately recognisable to anyone who has ever been to Sunday mass in Ireland.  The book is laced through with acute observations of this sort – by turns warm, satirical, critical and sympathetic as appropriate:

“With just four million people, the Republic of Ireland is too small and its Tiger is too complex and contingent (just what would have happened without Viagra in Cork and/or Pentium chips in Kildare?) for it to be held up as a successful model of one form or another of economic development, though that doesn’t stop the pundits and politicians of different stripes from citing it either as the model case of low-tax neo-liberalism or of government directed social partnership.”

These observations have in the few months since they were published proved painfully prescient.  Browne’s profile of Brian Cowen who is now Taoiseach (Prime Minister), and who was Foreign Secretary at the time of the September 11 attack is razor sharp – and all the more pertinent since the very qualities Browne shrewdly identified have are, in the midst of the Irish brand of the economic crisis, daily becoming more apparent – as is the folly and shallowness of those who feted him for the top job:

“Cowen’s main failing – apart from notably awful looks, still not regarded as a crippling disability in Irish politics – was his incapacity to indicate convincingly that he believed politics should have anything at all to do with the great unwashed.  (His elitism is commonplace; its transparency less so, and only his own down-home, rough rural manner protected him from political damage.)  Cowen’s every soporific public uttering – muttering, really – carried an implicit message:  “leave it to the professionals.”  Colleagues and journalists encouraged Cowen’s arrogance by constantly assuring him, in public and private, that he was the most intelligent and able of all government ministers, that the nation’s interests were indeed safe in his hands, that he owed no one any explanations.”

Browne has done a terrific job of distilling the complexity of the legal arguments and processes of the Pitstop Ploughshares trials with concision and comprehensibility – not an easy thing to do given the winding and protracted course of the proceedings.  The admirable skill he brings to bear on that difficult task has paid off as the legal argument is essential to a full understanding of how hard won and much deserved the Pitstop Ploughshares’ victory was.   And to this too he brings his sense of humour:

“The jury was sent out in the late afternoon, to reach a verdict.  At 6pm, a request came in from the jury for a copy of Section 6 of the Criminal Damage Act 1991 and Section 21 of the Non-Fatal  Offences Against the Person Act 1997, which amended it.  Judge Reynolds said that it was not usual to give written statutes to the jury.  Instead she read out relevant sections from the legislation and said that, if the jury wished, she would explain again how the law should be applied.  It was, said one observer, a bit like the Catholic Church, which reserved the right to interpret God’s words.  The jury were acting like Protestants, wanting to read the words for themselves.”

The developing courtroom deliberations are also an important aspect of the book in drawing out the point that the Ploughshares were trying to make.  Their hope was that their convictions would be properly discussed, recorded and adjudicated and that the moral imperative which drove them would thereby be vindicated in the eyes of the world – for the sake of the people of Iraq.  Contrariwise, the principal object of the prosecution – and a judge or three along the way – was to ensure that the war itself was not put on trial.  In one extraordinary legal twist of plot, an attempt was made to exclude evidence for the defence of ‘lawful excuse’ entirely – evidence which included the testimony of Denis Halliday, the former United Nations Head of the Humanitarian Programme in Iraq. In classically eye-watering legal-speak, the prosecuting barrister, Devally, argued it like this:

“The purpose of the application that I bring now is to apply that your lordship deprive the jury of consideration of the defence; in other words, that it does not go to the jury…the consideration of the honest belief is held to be a subjective test, but other features to the defence are objective, and not alone objective, but objective and capable and in fact necessary to be looked at by the judge.  And it being a matter of law as to whether the facts of that particular case are as such to allow for the defence at all.”

When it looked as though this unexpected argument was going to succeed, the defendants and their legal team were aghast.  There followed shortly afterwards, however, an even more extraordinary interim plot development, secured from the defence team’s own ‘arsenal’ of legal argument and strategy – but you will have to read the book to find out what that was.

As readers we get to share in the mounting tension and at times severe anxiety that beset the Ploughshares and those, including Browne himself, who supported them closely during the three years that they lived with the threat of prison sentences hanging over their heads.  They had already endured temporary imprisonment, unjustified and inaccurate media vilification and many other unwarranted consequences and interruptions to their lives.  This short book, in just 175 pages, gives all of ‘the what’ and ‘the why’ of their action.

The Pitstop Ploughshares’ action gave peaceful and courageous expression to what the majority of Irish people felt and feel about the war on Iraq – about all that is summed up in that vile term ‘war on terror’ – (even now being sneakily and violently pursued in Afghanistan and Pakistan under the supervision of the no-change-here President Barack Obama and his Envoy, Richard Holbrooke).   Hammered by the Irish does full justice to all of those considerations and should go some way to redressing the indifference of the mainstream media towards this action and towards the ordinary people who did an extraordinary thing and brought the establishment to meaningful recognition of the justice and truth of their case – and by unavoidable implication despite the best efforts of the prosecution to prevent it – an acknowledgement of the fundamental case against the war itself.

Harry Browne describes his response to the Ploughshares acquittal at the time:

“To be honest, the jury’s decision is a delight, and it has won the Shannon Five these 15 minutes of fame, but they didn’t need it for vindication, not in my eyes.  As an earnest American who has tried for 20 years to adjust to Irish people’s typical cynicism and undemonstrative natures (at least while sober), I find an emotional and moral truth in these five people – two Irish-born and three of diaspora descent – that resonates almost unbearably, almost accusingly, and fills me with embarrassing love for them, each of them and all of them.”

Media Bite have also published a two part interview with Harry Browne on their site. Part 1 and Part 2

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