It took nearly three-and-a-half years for the case of the Pitstop Ploughshares to reach a jury. It took the jury less than three-and-a-half hours to find the five activists not guilty of criminal damage to a US Navy plane at Shannon Airport in western Ireland in February 2003.
Having been instructed not to respond audibly to the verdict, the crowd in the courtroom sobbed quietly with joy and relief as the verdicts were read out for all five defendants earlier today (25 July).
The two-week trial in the Dublin Circuit Court was the third time around for Deirdre Clancy, Nuin Dunlop, Karen Fallon, Damien Moran and Ciaron O’Reilly, as Counterpunch readers may recall. The first trial in March 2005 and the second trial last November both ended in mistrials because the judges admitted they could be perceived as biased against the accused. This trial was the first time a jury was allowed by Judge Miriam Reynolds to hear it argued fully that the ‘disarmament’ of the navy C40 transport was done with ‘lawful excuse’.
In the the two trials of Mary Kelly for earlier damage to the same plane the judge ruled out the ‘lawful excuse’ defence.
The defence under Ireland’s criminal-damage statute allows damage to property if it’s done in the ‘honest belief’ that so doing will protect lives and/or property, and if that belief is reasonable in the circumstances as the accused perceived them to be. Judge Reynolds said only the reasonableness of the belief, not its honesty, was at issue in the case, and said the question was so tied up with the facts of the case that it wouldn’t be appropriate for her to prohibit the jury from considering it.
The trial heard from activist and Counterpuncher Kathy Kelly, who met the five shortly before their action and told them about the horrors inflicted on Iraq by sanctions and bombing prior to February 2003. It also heard from ex-Royal Air Force logistics expert Geoffrey Oxley that he couldn’t rule out the possibility ofdamage to a transport plane having a knock-on effect that could result in lives saved in Iraq.
An international-law expert also testified as to the illegality of the US war.
In effect, the jury agreed that to damage an American military plane in these circumstances couldn’t be considered a crime.
Whatever about the technical reasons for the verdict, its quickness and unanimity sends a message to the Irish government about its policy of facilitating the US military at Irish airports, especially Shannon. More than 300,000 troops have passed through there in the last year alone.
The jury was applauded out of the courtroom, prompting the judge to return from her chambers to chastise spectators.
The five read a statement outside the courtroom that highlighted the political importance of the verdict: “The jury is the conscience of the community, chosen randomly from Irish society. The conscience of the community has spoken. The government has no popular mandate in providing the civilian Shannon Airport to service the US war machine in its illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.
“In 1996 in Liverpool a jury acquittal of the four ‘ploughshares’ women contributed to the end of arms exports to the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia and the independence of East Timor.
“The decision of this jury should be a message to London, Washington DC and the Dail [Irish parliament] that Ireland wants no part in waging war on the people of Iraq. Refuelling of US warplanes at Shannon Airport should cease immediately.”
As a crowd of reporters and photographers descended upon the five innocent activists outside Dublin’s Four Courts, Ciaron O’Reilly asked the assembled media: “Where have you been for the last three-and-a-half years?” It’s a question not just about the lack of coverage of their action and trials–this one was barely mentioned in the Irish media–but about the media’s ignorance of the ongoing atrocities of war and occupation in Iraq.
Harry Browne is a media lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine.