Lawful excuse

Harry Browne

Harry Browne

Looking at the mugshots and reading some of the initial stories back in February 2003, you would have been forgiven for concluding that they were the Manson family reincarnated. ‘Runway voodoo’, Ireland on Sunday screamed, joining other papers in regaling readers with lurid tales from Shannon Airport, where five people associated with the Catholic Worker movement had been arrested for damaging a US military plane. Pub-chat, even in anti-war circles – where the cognitive dissonance of putting the words ‘Catholic’ and ‘Worker’ side by side was perhaps most acute – quickly went where the media feared to tread: the five Shannon accused were really a kind of cult, with the dreadlocked Australian Ciaron O’Reilly cast as the hairily charismatic Svengali.

Even the day after what was widely described as their ‘sensational’ acquittal in July 2006, when their happy faces had been on public display, the Irish Independent favoured grim, blurry, vaguely sinister shots of the Shannon Five, and the media and public in general remained remarkably wary. Few mainstream journalists wanted to get any closer to the Five than a press conference, and not many came even that close. (The Five got a false sense of sympathetic public exposure from their week-long status as poster-faces for the Belfast-based Daily Ireland, now defunct, with a circulation in the Republic that was even then approaching zero.) In terms of international coverage the acquittal was perhaps the biggest Irish story of the summer, appearing on wire services and in publications on every continent, including a short report in Time magazine. In the Irish media, however, the jury’s decision was largely left to stand as a badly explained curiosity, and a few commentators filled the vacuum with misinformed derision of the Five and the judgement.

I might be counted as a marginal exception. I was still writing a weekly column in the Irish Times when the Five carried out their action, and I praised them there; subsequently I wrote about them mainly for an American left-wing website, Counterpunch, then for Village magazine. On 25 July 2006, in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, I had my 16-month-old daughter Stella rather than my notebook on my lap, and was sobbing with joy and relief in the courtroom (Stella clapped) as the court clerk read out the ten not-guilty verdicts – on two counts of criminal damage for each of the accused. I am proud and grateful to call each of the Five my friends. I have occasionally been known to ‘conspire’ with them on political and media matters and on plans for anti-war actions. Those facts obviously affect the words that follow. On the other hand, virtually every piece of information, along with many of the informal observations, reported in this article would have been available to any journalist who had bothered to attend court sittings and public meetings over the last four years, without any special, unguarded access to Deirdre Clancy, Nuin Dunlop, Karen Fallon, Damien Moran and Ciaron O’Reilly.

Even superficial attention to the Five would have cast doubts on, for example, the myth of O’Reilly’s ‘leadership’. We know, because it was said under oath, that the idea that climaxed with the Five in a hangar knocking lumps out of a US Navy C-40 transport plane in the wee hours of 3 February 2003 was first mooted by the quietly spoken, birdlike Dublin book-editor and feminist Deirdre Clancy; she herself admitted as much during the second of the three trials. (This admission evidently came as something of a surprise to the prosecutor, who, in a common tactic in group cases, seemed prepared to offer the jury O’Reilly as the guiltiest of the guilty parties.) Any cult comparisons also couldn’t have survived for anyone watching the Five’s group dynamics in public appearances: one could see that, particularly amongst the group’s three women, the attitude towards O’Reilly only occasionally approached tolerance, rarely stretched beyond that to open respect, and was never, ever remotely adoring. Getting them together for a group photograph was almost always more than could be managed, and – apart from court appearances, legal conferences and public gigs – the Five met as a group perhaps five times in the three and a half years between Shannon and acquittal. This was not, necessarily, a sign of division or tension among them; it might be more accurate to say it was a semi-conscious means of avoiding such troubles.


Having demoted him from leadership, it is nonetheless difficult not to start this story with Ciaron O’Reilly, whose presence in Ireland, the home country of his father, hangs on one of history’s sweet little contingencies. In 2002 O’Reilly, then living in London, came to Ballyfermot to dog-sit for Tom Hyland, the Dublin bus driver whose decade of activism for East Timor had culminated in an invitation for him to visit, and then to stay for a while in, that newly independent country.

It is also fair to say, however, that O’Reilly had Shannon in his sights. The civilian airport in County Clare had been used in the movement of troops and equipment for the US assault on Afghanistan, and was also a part of the build-up for the expected invasion of Iraq. By late 2002 tens of thousands of US troops had stopped at Shannon en route to the Persian Gulf – most of them aboard chartered civilian aircraft – and thanks to pressure from peace campaigners it became obvious in January 2003 that the US had been flouting aviation rules that required it to request permission to land munitions at the airport. After Irish officials spent several days playing word games about whether unloaded sidearms constituted weapons, the permissions began to be requested, and were duly granted.

Ciaron O’Reilly, just entering his forties, wasn’t the sort to let this kind of activity pass unopposed. He was a veteran activist of the Catholic Worker – a lay organization, often described as Christian anarchist, that operates ‘communities’ around the world, including ones co-founded by O’Reilly in his native Brisbane and in Liverpool – and of the informally linked ‘ploughshares’ tradition of non-violent direct action against weapons of war, which dates back to 1980. In January 1991, shortly before the US bombed Baghdad, O’Reilly left his work with homeless people to join a group that managed to enter a Air Force base in New York: two of them cracked the fuselage of a B-52, and O’Reilly and a colleague used sledgehammers to smash a runway. A year in federal prisons was the result. In Australia in 1998 he acted again, this time to ‘disarm’ uranium-mining equipment in the Northern Territories. More jail time followed.

In Dublin in 2002 O’Reilly quickly acted to found a Catholic Worker community, but for many months, at least, this consisted of little more than his assertion that he had done so. He was quick to wield a pre-emptive joke about why ‘Catholic Worker’ was singular. There was him, and a banner, and that was about it. When he and the banner appeared before more than a thousand people at a public meeting in Dublin’s Belvedere College in August 2002, he might have thought his time had come. Those people – and another thousand or so who were turned away or into an overflow room with audio – had largely come to hear Father Daniel Berrigan, the US priest who was one of the founders of the ‘ploughshares’ tradition. The 81-year-old Berrigan was an elderly icon of opposition to war; O’Reilly, a magnificent speaker when the spirit moves him, was the vital real thing.

But any hope that his community would take off from there was to be frustrated. Although much opposition to war in Ireland has traditionally come from Christian circles, that ageing constituency was not quite ready to follow a blunt-speaking dreadlocked anarchist who likes to say, ‘The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother.’ And like the rest of the Irish Left, defined for much of the late twentieth century largely by its opposition to the Church, the ‘official’ Irish Anti-War Movement – led by the Socialist Workers party – was hardly likely to be receptive to O’Reilly, a Catholic in name, fact and rhetoric. O’Reilly has a little philosophical rap that he rolls out to account for the Catholic Worker’s awkward place in the world: ‘We are often marginalized as too hip for the straights, too straight for the hips, too fluffy for the spikeys, too spikey for the fluffies, too Christian for the left and too left for the Christians.’ He might have added: that goes double for me, and treble in Ireland.

The idea of taking direct action in protest against US military use of Shannon airport for refuelling pre-dated the coming together of the activists who would become known as the Shannon Five. Eoin Dubsky, an articulate and well known activist, had been in touch with O’Reilly for some time when, in September 2002, he took solo action to spray-paint a US plane at Shannon; and Mary Kelly used an axe to damage a US Navy plane at the airport even as O’Reilly and the others were devising their own action.

The ‘ploughshares’ tradition involves giving a name to each action based either on some characteristic of either the target or those attacking it. Thus the activists who became known as the Shannon Five referred to themselves as the Pitstop Ploughshares – disconcertingly for pedantic observers, such as the editor of this magazine, who note that they played the metaphorical (and literal) part of the beating hammer. Elsewhere, especially in the Catholic Worker movement, a group planning a ‘ploughshares’ action would pray and prepare for months beforehand. In Ireland, the Pitstop Ploughshares assembled gradually, even haphazardly: Damien Moran and Deirdre Clancy met O’Reilly late in 2002; Nuin Dunlop and Karen Fallon knew him slightly before that, but only joined the group in Ireland in early and late January 2003 respectively. While newspapers were still full of diplomatic manoeuvres and plans for big demonstrations against the looming US assault on Iraq, these five people felt convinced that war was inevitable and imminent, and that they must act urgently in a manner that was more than symbolic and that would point the way for others to take further direct action. ‘There was very little option to “influence” the governments,’ O’Reilly said a few months later. ‘At that stage it should have been obvious to anyone that they were just marketing a pre-determined decision.’

Their Shannon plan took firm shape in late January, when they attended Afri’s ‘Paths to Peacemaking’ conference in Kildare. It was there that the mooted possibility that they might travel to Iraq as ‘human shields’ receded: they realized that without Arabic they might be more nuisance than assistance to Iraqis. They went from there for several days on retreat in Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in County Limerick. Contrary to some media suggestions, the Five were not part of the ‘peace camp’ at the airport; they spent just a few hours on its fringes so as not to associate that gathering with their plans. They hoped to act on the first weekend of February, and on Sunday the 2nd they sought a safe house with a known ‘rebel-priest’ in County Clare. He proved to be less than rebellious when it came to the US military, and when O’Reilly announced what they were planning he ran them out of his home.


Between setting up a shrine on the runway – flowers, candles, a Bible, a Koran, Rosary beads, Muslim prayer beads, photographs of victims of the US bombing of a home in Basra in 1999, and a pair of videotapes – and then inflating her giant plastic hammer, it’s a wonder Karen Fallon made it into the hangar at all. (Luckily Fallon is one of those rare people who are uncannily quick with balloons.) That hammer – of the kind wielded by soccer fans, with ‘Hammered By The Irish’ emblazoned in green, white and orange – turned up in media reports of the Five’s trials as a bit of light relief, but it was no joke. Fallon believed, she suggested later, that if as promised there were armed guards protecting any US military equipment at the airport, they might be less inclined to shoot if they saw a five-foot-nothing woman waving a large inflatable toy.

It’s hard nonetheless to associate Fallon with anything resembling fear; this is a woman who, as the Five drove around Clare in the days before the action, was happy to ride in the darkness of the boot because there was no room up front. She is, to all appearances, the quintessential hard-bitten Scot, well able to enjoy a few drinks and to fight for what she believes in. ‘Ah tell ya, man’ punctuates her conversation, and it brooks no argument. She can justify her actions with politics, philosophy and theology if called upon, but is just as likely to cut to the chase: ‘I did what felt right for me at the time, and it still feels right for me. I don’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks.’

And yet this marine biologist is a passionate pacifist, capable of tremendous, infectious warmth, loyal to friends and protective of her family. Although new to Irish activism in 2003, she had lived at the ‘Trident Ploughshares’ peace camp at Faslane in her native Scotland, repeatedly taking personal risks alongside other ‘pledgers’ (as Trident Ploughshares members call themselves) to oppose Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. So it didn’t seem especially unusual for her to be crawling through a hole in Shannon’s perimeter fence, then slipping across an airfield, in the middle of the night, looking for a likely spot to take action against war and war-planning. The Five’s own planning had not extended to knowing what plane they might find and where they might find it on the night in question: having missed a military plane on the runway the previous night – it flew off before they could act – they knew their action might be limited to scrawling some graffiti and building a shrine. At a hangar marked ‘SRS’ they stopped hopefully: Fallon and Nuin Dunlop opened their bags and began to lay out the items for the shrine, while Deirdre Clancy got to work spray-painting (‘Pitstop of Death’, ‘Phil Berrigan RIP’ – the ‘ploughshares’ activist and brother of Daniel had died eight weeks earlier). Meanwhile, the two men looked around the hangar to see what was inside and whether it could be reached.

It was about 3.30 a.m. The airport was quiet but not entirely deserted. Fallon and Dunlop say they saw a Russian plane on the tarmac in the middle distance, with men working around it. The men spotted the women and waved. The shrine-making continued with as much sanctity as could be achieved in the nervous circumstances. The photos of wounded Iraqi children had been given to the women only a week or so earlier in Kildare by Kathy Kelly, an American activist who had been to Iraqi repeatedly on sanctions-busting missions since 1991. The pictures were a reminder that Iraqis had been subject to continuous war – as were the videos, which included John Pilger’s documentary on the effects of sanctions and the ongoing US/British bombing campaign.

While Fallon and Dunlop carefully arranged these items – they were later scooped up by investigating gardaí without being photographed – O’Reilly and Damien Moran were able to lift a roller-door by a few inches. Inside the hangar they saw a large plane with US Navy markings. Most of the planes going through Shannon as part of the war build-up were civilian charters carrying troops, so an actual Navy craft on a long stopover was a striking target. (This was, as it happened, the very same C-40 transport that Mary Kelly had damaged on Shannon’s runway a few days earlier; court testimony later suggested that its repairs had been completed.) The men looked for a way into the hangar. It was not terribly difficult: there was a pane of glass adjacent to another door. They broke the glass, reached in and pushed the door’s ‘emergency’ bar to open it from inside. (‘We thought this constituted an emergency,’ O’Reilly would subsequently joke at every opportunity.)

What happened next was to become the subject of some controversy. The initial Garda account, still being trotted out by a spokesman nine hours after the events, said the Five ‘overpowered’ a garda on duty; some journalists and government ministers took this to indicate a form of assault, with RTE’s Cathy Halloran speculating they could face ‘much more serious charges’ than criminal damage. (‘We prefer to say he was “overwhelmed”, like the centurion at Christ’s tomb,’ O’Reilly would say later.) The speculation was irresponsible, but it appears that the initial report was based on understandable ambiguities in the first account of the incident from Garda Sergeant Michael O’Connell, who was alone on duty in the hangar at the time, his squad car parked not far from the plane’s nose. The unarmed O’Connell, unable to prevent five determined people from reaching the plane, called for reinforcements as the damage was carried out. He testified that he was not subjected to any violence, and that he was indeed ‘comforted’ by O’Reilly, who put a hand on his back and calmly explained the reasons for the action and why he should join in.

Fallon and Dunlop were the last into the hangar, and Fallon ‘attacked’ the plane with the inflatable hammer. The prosecution said in trial that she probably did little or no damage but said she shared a common purpose with those who did. O’Reilly caused the most damage, puncturing the nose-cone several times with the sharp end of a metre-long pickaxe, or gardening mattock, as he preferred to call it. The rest worked with various hammers, most of them covered with significant quotations, one of them having been passed down through various previous ‘ploughshares’ actions around the world.

Taking personal responsibility for actions is one of the cornerstones of the ‘ploughshares’ tradition. In the words of Dan Berrigan: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’ Armed with that wisdom, and given the difficulty of reaching higher parts of the plane – a C-40 is a converted Boeing 737 – and of finding other targets, the Five were kneeling in a circle and praying by the time Garda reinforcements arrived. They passed their implements out of the circle for gardaí to collect, then submitted peaceably to arrest. When they were being processed at Shannon Garda Station in the small hours of that morning, Fallon responded to a routine question about her religion by commencing a small discourse on her various pagan and wicca influences. ‘Catholic, Catholic,’ her comrades reminded her. ‘Right, Catholic,’ she replied.

The US plane, one of nine of its type in the Navy’s fleet, sustained an alleged $2.5 million in damages and was to be out of action for three months. It had been refuelling at Shannon en route to Sigonella in Sicily, a Mediterranean hub. Its cargo was essentially spare parts for itself, indicating perhaps that it was being deployed for a spell of heavy lifting related to the planned invasion of Iraq. The Five, meanwhile, were held on remand in Limerick jail. They were still there when on 15 February more than 100,000 people marched in Dublin against the impending war. Even though the ‘overpowered a garda’ slur had been discredited by that date, the anti-war movement largely saw them as an unattractive encumbrance, the wrong image for protest. As a result, not a single one of the many, many speakers on that occasion mentioned the jailed activists from the demonstration’s various platforms.

They were kept inside initially because of the insistence from gardaí that they were likely to ‘offend’ again. Garda Inspector Tom Kennedy told Ennis District Court quite sensibly: ‘On the basis of the information given to the court, these people see it as their right and duty to interfere with aircraft landing at Shannon.’ (Indeed, fearing that more people would perceive this as a right and duty, three of the charter companies that had been using Shannon to ferry US troops diverted to other airports for a few weeks.) Fallon and O’Reilly, because of their prior records abroad, were initially refused bail. The others stayed in partly in solidarity with them, partly because the ‘ploughshares’ tradition places a strong personal and political value on jail time, and partly because they refused to comply with bail conditions that at first included a personal surety of €3,000 each; twice-daily appearances at a designated Garda station; staying out of Clare; agreeing not to confer with each other before their trial or trials; and steering at least one mile clear of the US embassy in Dublin. The Five eventually dribbled out of prison as these conditions were somewhat relaxed; Fallon, despite having done little or none of the damage to the plane or to the glass hangar door panel that was the basis for the other count of criminal damage, stayed longest mainly because she had little to come out to in Ireland and wasn’t going to be allowed out of the jurisdiction. The key concession was the dropping of the bar on conferring with each other. The Garda station signing-on was reduced to once a day – still far more often than for most defendants on bail – but the Clare and embassy bans remained, despite Dunlop being a US citizen and Moran having family in County Clare.


Damien Moran was, at 22, by some distance the youngest of the Five. His parents, from Offaly, were the only close relatives of defendants who were in court for the Five’s eventual acquittal. Once he had shaved his prison beard to reveal his easily-smiling face Moran was often jokingly referred to as the Five’s secret weapon in the face of a jury of Irish mammies. Whatever doubts might be raised about the orthodox Catholicism of any of the others, Moran was a seminarian with the Holy Ghost fathers in Kimmage, God bless him. In an early court appearance his account of their action prominently included the Five’s recitations of the Holy Rosary. Here, at least, was a normal Irish Catholic. And he was sufficiently cute – in the Irish sense – that upon being charged he declared: ‘I honestly believe I had a lawful excuse to carry out an act of disarmament to protect myself and others’ – wording closely modelled on that of the statute that was ultimately to provide the Five’s defence in law.

There was more to Moran than that. At 22 he had already been through some life-changing experiences. As he puts it on the heading of his (rather abortive) blog, Peacenik Hurler, his is a tale of unexpected changes, large and small: ‘Converted teetotaller in Haiti – Turned vegetarian in prison – Became “criminal peacenik” in a seminary – Militant bi-cyclist after 2 scooter accidents’.

In a moment of temper near the end of the last trial, O’Reilly mutteringly called Moran a ‘pious little prick’. This was O’Reilly’s way of saying that Moran was the best of the Five at calmly maintaining and articulating a clear ethical and political line, while also reaching out for support. O’Reilly’s restless temperament and the women’s aversion to publicity turned Moran into the group’s de facto public-relations officer through what proved to be a three-and-a-half-year legal ordeal. (The bail conditions were relaxed as the Five faced trial and re-trial in 2005; after the second mistrial they were allowed to travel abroad, and four of them did so for protracted periods in early 2006.)

While both mistrials involved rather obvious cock-ups on the part of the state, the delays faced by the Five were initially of their own making, as their legal team sought to lay the groundwork for a successful defence before the first trial. The initial objective – sought before their predecessor Mary Kelly ‘won’ a hung jury in Ennis – was to change the venue of the trial from Clare, where the effect of protest on, and the danger of US withdrawal from, the county’s economy had been much ventilated in local media. They won their move to the Dublin Circuit Court in June 2003, then commenced a pre-trial process in which their lawyers pushed for wide-ranging ‘discovery’ of information about the US military’s use of Shannon.

Judge Joseph Matthews granted their requests, indicating that the defendants’ team would have some latitude to pursue their ‘lawful excuse’ defence. The crime of which the Five were accused is ‘criminal damage without lawful excuse’ – carrying up to five years’ imprisonment on each count – and the defences to it are set out in the Criminal Damage Act 1991, as amended by the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. This permits damage to property when the person did the damage in the honest belief that it was ‘in order to protect himself or another or property belonging to himself or another … and the act or acts alleged to constitute the offence were reasonable in the circumstances as he believed them to be’.

The purpose of the defence as spelled out in statute is to prevent convictions of people who do damage for good reasons, e.g. breaking a window to help someone escape from a fire. The ‘reasonableness’ test, as one of the judges explained it, means that a jury need not give undue respect to the honest beliefs of the ‘village idiot’, but can decide whether a reasonable person could have drawn the same conclusion as the accused about a threat to life and/or property and the means to thwart it. The statutory defence was often summarized in court as containing both ‘subjective’ (honest belief) and ‘objective’ (reasonableness) tests. Intriguingly, the 1997 amendment removed any requirement that the threat being averted would have to be ‘immediate’ for the defence to apply. Obviously the statute had not been written to assist ‘ploughshares’ defendants, but on the face of it there was a real chance of acquittal if this defence could be used as the basis for a legal strategy right through to closing arguments, with a judge who would acknowledge its potential validity to a jury. Mary Kelly’s trials, however, had seen the ‘lawful excuse’ defence rejected in the Ennis Circuit Court, and for the Five there was no guarantee that latitude in the discovery stage would carry through to trial, where a new judge, with perhaps a new interpretation of the statute and its application to the case, would probably take over.

Moreover, Judge Matthews’s discovery order was itself causing delays, with the state claiming it was incapable of securing all the information about Shannon that had been demanded. In the end the two sets of lawyers agreed to set the order aside and allow the trial to proceed simply on the basis of publicly available information. Nonetheless, the ruling that the militarization of Shannon was relevant to the case was encouraging to the defence.

Amongst the Five, Moran was the keenest observer of the legal shenanigans, and his trust in the defence team was infectious. While the process ground on he worked with O’Reilly in a homeless shelter and lived with him at various addresses. O’Reilly sometimes called him the Boy Wonder, but Moran wasn’t just a Rosary and a smile. In the neat files he has kept on the history of the case he records the earnest letters he sent to politicians before the action at Shannon and the complaints he made to gardaí about allegedly illegal and unconstitutional activity there. In February 2005, sensing that the anti-war movement was fading and needed a fillip in the run-up to the Five’s first trial, Moran called a press conference to urge US troops to seek political asylum during their refuelling stops in Ireland – and to be facilitated by the Irish authorities.

Meanwhile, Moran had worked through the biggest change of all in his own life: for personal reasons, including a stunningly beautiful Polish woman called Dorota, he decided in 2003 that the priesthood was not for him. He left the seminary, though on such good terms that the order let him and O’Reilly reside on the Kimmage premises for some time. At the time of writing he lives with Dorota near Warsaw.


No one chafed at the yoke of three and a half years in legal limbo more than Nuin Dunlop. She was openly worried that she might never be able to return home to the United States, even if she were acquitted in Dublin. The things that sustained Moran – meetings, vigils, website reports – were the things that annoyed her. Having worked in the US as a counsellor and lived in a Catholic Worker community, she was frowningly uncomfortable as a centre of attention. Nonetheless, aspects of Pitstop Ploughshares life seemed to nourish her, especially the dozens of solidarity visitors who came to the trials from abroad and often seemed to outnumber Irish supporters. She appeared to love the Buddhist monks from Milton Keynes who, chanting, led the daily processions from O’Connell Street to the Four Courts that were part of the combination of earnest ritual and PR offensive that surrounded each trial. It was Dunlop who, at a small rally outside the courthouse, once confidently and mischievously joked that supporters needn’t worry they were being sucked into some sort of Christian cult: the Catholic Worker, she said, is full of Atheist Slackers.

Whatever about atheists, there were no obvious slackers among the Americans who were generally the largest contingent of visitors for the trials of the Pitstop Ploughshares. There were, among others, Kathy Kelly, the activist who had spoken to the Five in Kildare in January 2003; Kelly Dougherty and Jimmy Massey from Iraq Veterans Against the War; Bishop Thomas Gumbleton from Detroit; and at one point thirteen members of the Grady family, a few of whom had to scoot home to upstate New York to face federal charges for their own action at a military recruitment centre.

Dunlop, who often declined to speak at public meetings, was in many ways the most impressive defendant once she took the stand. The first trial, in March 2005, ended abruptly before she got the chance, but at the second one in November 2005 and the final one in July 2006 she had her say. She carefully and deliberately mapped out the four reasons she had acted to ‘disarm’ a plane from her own country’s military at Shannon Airport. The first reason, she said, was ‘a sense of responsibility’ – including the understanding that unlike many other people in the world she was privileged enough to ‘have the ability to respond’ to the situation unfolding in Iraq. The second was to show solidarity with the people of Iraq. The third was a sense of urgency, a belief that ‘the war was imminent and there was not much time to stand protesting with a sign’. The fourth was prayer, a belief that all life is sacred, including the life of every person in Iraq. If you were a defence barrister, you might find it hard to squeeze such a genuine and multi-faceted apologia into the box marked ‘lawful excuse’. However, trials are about more than the law, and at least one jury evidently responded to the thoughtful depths of this striking-looking woman, however her story fitted into the technicalities of the case.

While a number of witnesses were permitted to discuss circumstances in Iraq and the status of the invasion in international law, probably the key expert witness called by the defence was retired RAF Group Captain Geoffrey Oxley. Because of an arthritic hip, Oxley could not sit in the witness box during the third trial; his military bearing seemed enhanced as he stood straight up and discussed the potential relevance of a logistics-support aircraft as a military target for a defensive force. His testimony made it clear that someone seeking to protect Iraq might well damage such a plane; he could not rule out the possibility that the damage might have had an eventual knock-on effect of saving lives. Although less than definitive, his statement may well have carried enormous weight in the context of a criminal trial, with its high burden of proof on the prosecution.

Like the other defendants, Nuin Dunlop sometimes seemed to irritate the rather dashing prosecuting barrister, Conor Devally SC. With Dunlop the problem was her insistence that the action was, from her point of view, not a political one. ‘I’m not a political person,’ she would say, and Devally would turn his eyes to heaven. Surely the shrine and the slogans were political statements, he said, designed as a protesting call to arms rather than a substantial effort at life-saving. No, they were not statements, Dunlop would reply, they were forms of commemoration. And Devally would sigh.

Off the stand, Dunlop joked that she and Devally had formed a perverse bond, that if a third mistrial was declared then she and he would commit hara-kiri in each other’s arms right on the floor of the courtroom. As it happened, Devally was absent from the courtroom when the not-guilty verdict finally came in, but he had fought against the prospect gamely, with a powerful summing-up speech to the jury that was fascinatingly and passionately anti-war. He had marched against the war himself, he said, but we could never tolerate people like the defendants taking the law into their own hands.

Although that was the third trial, it was the first time a jury had been given the chance to hear closing arguments and deliberate on the case. In the first trial, lasting less than a week, Judge Frank O’Donnell had been unable to hide his irritation with the defence, and with the only defendant who got time to testify, Ciaron O’Reilly. He accused O’Reilly and his barristers of trying to advance a political ‘agenda’ in the trial; he told Devally at one point that he’d been waiting for him to interrupt a particular defence line; and he appeared to rule on the admissibility of some unheard defence evidence (Oxley’s, in fact) before listening to arguments on the subject. It’s not every day that a Circuit Court judge is faced with quite the array of defence counsel this trial presented by virtue of the number of accused – three high-powered seniors and three juniors, paid through the legal aid scheme – and under argumentative pressure from them O’Donnell was forced to read back over the transcript and admit that he might be perceived as biased against the defendants. He discharged the jury, declaring a mistrial but ordering the media not to reveal the reasons. (On legal advice I understand the order to have lapsed after subsequent trials and have reported the above facts previously in Village magazine.)

The second trial crashed still more dramatically when, after two weeks and with proceedings nearly over, defence lawyers alleged that Judge Donagh McDonagh had attended an event with George W. Bush in 1995, was a guest at his inauguration in 2001, and was invited to the inauguration in 2005. The judge said his own private life was not a matter for the trial, but admitted the charges were ‘half right’ (he didn’t say which half) and discharged the jury.

The second trial had gone reasonably well for the Five, and the defence barristers unleashed their bombshell about the judge only after McDonagh had crucially ruled out the ‘lawful excuse’ defence – it was amusing to hear pacifists talking with their lawyers about taking ‘the nuclear option’. Like Judge O’Donnell, who had indicated his thinking on the matter in the first trial before discharging the jury, McDonagh said the Five’s actions could not possibly be deemed ‘reasonable in the circumstances’ because the damage they inflicted was essentially symbolic. According to O’Donnell, the giveaway was that the defendants ‘sat down on the job’ – praying instead of carrying on with ‘disarmament’ until being forced to stop. McDonagh too suggested that the defence might have been applicable only had they done more damage to more aircraft.

In the third and final trial, after lengthy legal argument in the jury’s absence, Judge Miriam Reynolds ruled that she could not withhold the ‘lawful excuse’ defence from the jury’s consideration. The reasonableness of the action, she said, was a question of fact, not a matter of interpreting the law – putting it in the purview of the jury rather than of the judge. Since the defendants’ honesty was not in question, she said that in this case only the reasonableness of the belief – the objective test – was at issue, and that issue was so tied up with the facts of the case as presented in evidence that she could not deprive the jury of its duty to adjudicate on it.

And so the jury did its duty, in three hours and six minutes of deliberation.


The indifference of Dublin’s liberal intelligentsia to all of these events was nowhere more obvious and more poignant than when you watched one of its daughters, Deirdre Clancy, enduring them. Her grandfather Seán, a leading light of Fine Gael who had been present when Michael Collins took Dublin Castle from the British, got more column inches in the Irish Times when he died in the autumn of 2006, aged 105, than Deirdre Clancy did in the previous three-and-a-half years. Clancy was in a unique position as the defendant who was facing trial in her own home town, and this fact seemed sometimes to heighten her sense of isolation rather than relieve it.

‘Intense’ is a word that can be applied variously to all of the Five, but it sticks best on Clancy, whose powerful intellect often pushed against suppressed emotions, so that a statement like this, in 2003, explaining the action she conceived at Shannon, came out almost as a croak: ‘When you know the truth, sometimes you have to either act on that knowledge or go crazy.’ The truth she knew was nothing arcane, just the facts about Iraq and Shannon that we all knew. And yet when I heard her speak these words, without obvious feeling or polemical intent, I wondered not about her sanity but about that of the rest of us, who had neither acted nor, evidently, gone crazy.

In the last days of the final trial, Clancy was visibly ill; it seemed her body was already adjusting to no longer running on pure nerves. She smiled often, with premature relief. Or perhaps ‘premature’ is unfair: all of the Pitstop Ploughshares wanted the long process to be over, and by that point it was clearly at least going to go to the jury; none of them felt that their moral vindication depended on the legal outcome. Their bags were packed, and the screws from Mountjoy women’s prison were waiting in the courtroom to whisk Clancy, Dunlop and Fallon away in the event of a conviction. (If the men’s screws were there, we didn’t spot them.)

After the acquittal, a new Deirdre Clancy was visible even as she was pinned against a courthouse wall by the assembled media and shown on RTÉ news making sharp and cogent statements against the US war and Irish complicity in it. As far as she and her comrades were concerned, their views, always confidently held, were newly validated by what was apparently the world’s first ever unanimous jury acquittal of ‘ploughshares’ defendants. For months afterward Clancy toured the country speaking brilliantly at public meetings. She would laugh quietly as she talked about the phone call she got from the Irish Sun, quizzing her as to what she thought of the ‘eerie coincidence’ that an old psalter was discovered in a midland bog on the very day she and her comrades were acquitted.

You had to laugh at the media in the aftermath of the acquittal, if you didn’t want to cry. (O’Reilly would get tired of repeating: ‘Why do we insist on talking about media outlets as though they were there to provide a public service?’) The tabloid Star alone presented the legal basis for the acquittal clearly and cogently. Elsewhere, news stories were written by reporters who hadn’t followed even the last trial – they had arrived at the Four Courts en masse as word of the acquittal spread – and pundits produced shelf-loads of half-baked conclusions. Typically, these involved ignorance of the specific statutory defence in this case (involving protection of life and/or property, and a requirement of reasonableness in the act) and, thus, unwarranted but dramatic rhetoric about the ‘precedent’ that had been set. In the Irish Independent, daily columnist Ian O’Doherty said the verdict was ‘baffling’ but at least, on a positive note, provided a legal licence for ‘taking a hammer to some hippie’s car’ since he would be doing it ‘in good conscience and for the public good’. Matt Cooper in the Sunday Times wrote to similar effect: ‘Based on last week’s decision, any defendant charged with a violent act who can argue successfully that the crime was committed to achieve a greater good can feel confident their case will get a decent hearing.’ Cooper also asserted incorrectly that Judge Matthews had rejected the ‘lawful excuse’ defence in the pre-trial hearings. In the Sunday Independent Eoghan Harris suggested that the logic of the verdict could have terrible bearing on, say, a murder charge: he could ‘kill a cop in the course of my anti-American activities and claim that my conscience compelled me to do it’ – as though a statutory defence against a criminal-damage charge could be applied to homicide. Henry McKean on NewsTalk 106 radio (‘at the end of the day, they did commit a crime’) and Emer O’Kelly in the Sunday Independent (‘what happened at Shannon airport was a massive crime’) both attributed crimes to people who had just been acquitted of those crimes.

With a little help from friends like these in the media, anti-war activity all over the world has collapsed calamitously since its height in February 2003, when most of us, having risked nothing, retired satisfied in our own righteousness. The Pitstop Ploughshares risked their freedom, but appear to have achieved little more – and yet perhaps no other civilians in the world can point to more concrete anti-war consequences: a plane out of action for months, a major route for troop deployments temporarily diverted. Did they achieve anything by being acquitted? As the record shows, though trials are often used as a focus for political and ritual solidarity, conviction is the norm in ‘ploughshares’ cases, and jail-time is the expectation. The Five were arguably lucky – in the wording of the statute, in its interpretation by Judge Reynolds – but one fact is inescapable: after three and a half years in the wilderness they found twelve ordinary people who listened to evidence about them, their action and the war and concluded that they were innocent of any crime. As Clancy’s revival demonstrates, in dark times this verdict constitutes real encouragement for anti-war activists – not so much because of the legal precedent as because of some apparent moral support from the ‘conscience of the community’.

With O’Reilly likely to return to his sick father in Brisbane, Moran in Poland, Fallon in Scotland and Dunlop wandering, Clancy is the only one of the Five whose ideas will continue to inform peace protest in Ireland. Meanwhile the acquittal has warmed cooler elements of the anti-war movement toward civil disobedience and non-violent direct action: the Socialist Workers Party, previously hostile toward the ‘elitism’ of such tactics, suddenly in August 2006 saw three of its members join six other activists in ‘decommissioning’ the computer at the offices of military contractor Raytheon in Derry. Despite November’s electoral blow to Bush, most of today’s small band of anti-war campaigners, in Ireland and elsewhere, expect a long struggle, with more and expanding war, and little public appetite for – or confidence in the effectiveness of – massive marches of the kind that took place in early 2003. Diverse tactics are being embraced: while some peace activists plot ways to exert electoral pressure on politicians, others find themselves flicking through King and Gandhi and Thoreau for guidance.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 25 Winter 2006-7