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Shannon International Airport, set amid lush agrarian fields in the sparsely populated west of Ireland, is better known for its duty free shops than as a major transit hub for American troops on their way to war zones since shortly after Al Qaeda brought down the Twin Towers.
The private Dublin Airport Authority, which owns and runs the airport, will not discuss America’s use of the airport and refers all press queries to the Irish government. The Irish government refuses to comment or answer any questions in writing. The U.S. government will not respond to written questions about American involvement in Shannon submitted to it.
So what do we have at Shannon? Well, we have an airport which is today the fifth busiest airport on the island of Ireland, where once it was number one in the country. In the past, it relied on a law that made all transatlantic flights to anywhere in Ireland stop there and the passengers disembark to go shopping in the Duty Free shops, a wheeze Shannon itself invented more than half a century ago. This law, brought in by the local Member of Parliament for Clare, Eamon de Valera, is like him and his world, long gone, as is the Soviet Union that helped keep Shannon afloat in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
Not many people live in the natural hinterland of Shannon Airport. Certainly not enough to support a major international airport. Shannon’s glory days were due to the fact that the aircraft of the time could not fly directly from the United States to continental Europe and had to refuel. Today’s aircraft don’t need to refuel, and there goes the main selling-point that Shannon once had.
The U.S. military needs the Shannon Airport stopover to refuel because it does not use today’s aircraft. It tends to use old and near obsolete aircraft like 1970s vintage McDonnell Douglas DC-10s. Protesters at the airport claim to have recorded numerous engine failures in these planes and warn of a catastrophe if one comes down loaded with ammunition and explosives.
Limerick is the closest big city and is the only one nearby. Even for people living in the vicinity of Shannon, Dublin Airport, which is not much more than two hours away by a fast rail service, or Cork and Knock Airports, could be more convenient. This makes the United States’ use of Shannon and all the money it brings in virtually the airport’s life-blood.
What is all the official silence about?
First, like Diego Garcia, the other island surrounded by an ocean the U.S. does not own, Shannon in the past decade has been and continues to be an important and significant cog in the American war machine. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of U.S. troops have passed through Shannon – a 2008 estimate was 1.2 million since 9/11 – and a not insignificant amount of military hardware, according to protesters who monitor the airport 24/7.
Second, if the BBC, anti-war protesters and the Nobel Prize-winning Amnesty International are to be believed, extraordinary rendition flights run by the CIA ferrying prisoners who have been tortured are also part of the Shannon Airport traffic.
One of the Wikileaks documents only really makes sense when it is accepted that the Irish government knows and is worried by publicity about them. Officially, the Irish government denies that such flights occur because under effectively an honor code, the U.S. government has assured the Irish government that extraordinary rendition via Shannon does not happen and never has happened, so there has been no need for the police or army to inspect the suspect aircraft.
The media in Ireland is supine and dominated by one man, Tony O’Reilly, best known for being once the former CEO and Chairman of the H.J. Heinz Company in Pittsburgh. He owns all but a handful of the local newspapers. Shannon is a story the Irish media has steered clear of for a decade, only mentioning it when it had to, such as when protesters attacked with hatchets some U.S. planes on the tarmac. (They got off in court; the Irish jury would not convict them.)
Third, under Irish law, this kind of use of Shannon Airport is in breach of Ireland’s cherished neutrality, and the protesters cite a High Court judgment in their favor on this point.
Fourth, the agreement between the Irish and U.S. governments would seem to exempt the U.S. flights from customs and immigration inspections and forbid the Irish police orarmy to inspect any of the planes while on the ground in Ireland on Irish sovereign soil. If this is true, the agreement is itself unlawful because it cedes Irish sovereignty to the U.S. government and no Irish government can do this without a referendum changing the Constitution.
This reporter does not know how many U.S. troops have passed through Shannon because those who do know won’t tell me. Just as the same people won’t tell me what is the formal inter-government agreement between the U.S. and Ireland and then imposed on the private company which owns the airport.
And, lest the reader should forget, this reporter is not writing in Tripoli, Tehran, Riyadh or Beijing. On March 25, some 3.1 million other Irish people voted. That same morning, the High Court quashed the conviction of another Shannon protester for attacking U.S. planes. For Ireland, dear reader, is a democracy. It is governed by the Rule of Law, Irish and international and, although there is no equivalent of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and even though the Irish press might just as well not exist, there is freedom of speech. Political parties and all sorts of pressure groups are entitled in law to operate, just like the opponents of the U.S. use of Shannon Airport do.
If these opponents of the U.S. are right, the law has been wholly disregarded by both the Irish and U.S. governments and the honor code agreement is a crock of one-knows-what.
The Irish Prime Minister’s office did not respond to a request for an interview to discuss these issues. Questions sent to the Irish Prime Minister’s office were copied to the U.S. Embassy with a request for their response to them from their viewpoint.
Telephone conversations with clerical officers and further emails brought no information. Then, one day – long after my deadline – a press officer of the Irish government sent an email confirming that substantive talks had taken place on March 13, 2002, and that Shannon Airport was discussed. This discussion between President George Bush and An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had been about the upcoming invasion of Iraq. The email said that both sides were agreed that the U.S. use of Shannon would continue.
The protesters speculate about what the Irish side was promised for this cozy arrangement. It would be the following month at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, that Bush informed his staunch partner on Iraq, English Prime Minister Tony Blair, of his invasion plans.
With the U.S. Embassy, it was superficially better. Ms. Karyn Posner- Mullen, Director of Public Affairs, was nice and friendly and sent the following:
“Attached is the statement by An Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, made to the Dail. We concur with his remarks.”
An Taoiseach is Irish for “The Chieftain” and is the official term for Ireland’s Prime Minister. The statement made to the Dail, which is the Irish lower House of Parliament, was, however, made more than eight years ago, on January 29, 2003, before he became Prime Minister, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, and before the invasion of Iraq. It is not an official statement by Ireland’s Prime Minister, but one from a government minister.
What the statement says, in effect, is that foreign war planes and troops passing through Shannon has been happening for years and years and is covered by an assortment of international agreements to which Ireland subscribes. The planes are allowed to land or overfly Ireland provided they are unarmed, carry no ammunition or explosives, are not involved in intelligence-gathering and are not engaged in military exercises.
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