Mike Dwane of the Limerick Leader report on the Shannon Peace Forum

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Shannon Peace Forum
March 2009

POLITICAL expediency must not be put before principle when it comes to the use of Shannon Airport by the US military, according to Deputy Jan O¹Sullivan, who has reiterated Labour¹s opposition to the arrangement.

Deputy O¹Sullivan was speaking at the Park Inn, Shannon, on Saturday at a daylong forum organised by the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA) to mark the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

Deputy O¹Sullivan said there was a perception that politicians and the general public in Shannon were afraid to speak out, in deference to US business interests in the Mid-West but this was not the case.

"There is a feeling that if you are from the Mid-West that you shouldn¹t be involved, that it¹s counterproductive for politicians. But I think there are an awful lot of people in this region who are very concerned about it," she said.

Longstanding opposition to the war and the airport¹s role in it had not prevented Cllr Greg Duff from being elected in Shannon Town itself, Deputy O¹Sullivan pointed out.

Asked if Labour would insist on the ending of the arrangement at Shannon if it formed part of the next Government, she said: "We are not in Government at the moment and I suppose we are not being tested in the way the Greens are being tested presently. But I would be extremely disappointed if, and I would fight vehemently within the party, if there was any question of us having a different position if we happen to be in Government. We have consistently said that the troops should not be using the airport and that is our position."

Meanwhile, Amnesty International¹s Noleen Hartigan said a cabinet subcommittee on international human rights set up in November  in part to remove any legal obstacles preventing gardai from searching aircraft owned by or leased to foreign Governments  has failed to hold a meeting in five months. 

The subcommittee arose out of a promise to the Green Party during negotiations to form the Government. The Greens had long objected to the US military using the airport and also CIA-operated aircraft involved in the rendition programme. But former Green MEP Patricia McKenna told the Shannon seminar she had little confidence in the subcommittee.

"The only thing we got in the Programme for Government has been completely ignored. The cabinet subcommittee, what was it set up for? I think it was to pacify some of us who brought this issue up with the Greens in Government. It's completely unacceptable we are participating in and facilitating something that is illegal," said Ms McKenna.

"Just establishing something isn¹t enough. It hasn't met and as the people from Amnesty said, it's just not good enough to report in six months...it is very disheartening and goes to show why the public are so apathetic about politics and so suspicious about politicians because it seems that with the first smell of power, the first opportunity to get power, the Greens seem to be the same as anyone else. I think it's about time there was a political change in this country where parties have certain political principles they stick to regardless of the idea of power."

A spokesman for Minister John Gormley, while he could not confirm whether the subcommittee had met, told the Limerick Leader it was not true to say no work had been done on the matter since November.

"I know the Minister has been actively advancing this," he said.

Roger Cole, Peace and Neutrality Alliance, warned the Government concern over neutrality would scupper Lisbon II, and by a bigger margin. Neutrality was the single biggest concern according to a post-referendum poll by MRBI and this was an "issue that was not mentioned once by a certain Mr Ganley".

"The one key issue in Lisbon was neutrality no matter how much Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the national newspapers try to turn us into latter-day Redmondites marching into war," Mr Cole said.

Former army commandant Edward Horgan, Castletroy, noted there were three Omni Air troop carriers on the runway at Shannon while Saturday's seminar was in progress, meaning "at least 500 armed US troops are passing through a civilian airport as we speak".

While he conceded it was "radical", Mr Horgan said the airport should be shut down altogether as long as it continues to be used in the American war effort.

Munitions were frequently allowed pass through Shannon, Mr Horgan said, on chartered aircraft, some of which were "at least 30 years old and in poor repair".

"A military airport has proper protections and fortifications, a civilian airport like Shannon does not. In the event of a plane exploding on the runway, what will happen to the huge wall of glass looking out on the runway at Shannon Airport. That would be catastrophic with glass being blown into the terminal and lacerating and killing people. Shannon Airport should not be used for transporting explosives in particular," he said.

It was Mr Horgan, a former UN peacekeeper, who forced an admission from a representative of Murray Air on RTE¹s Liveline last year that the firm was licensed to transport depleted uranium for the US military. This was a day after a Murray plane forced into an emergency landing at Shannon, flew low over Askeaton, engines ablaze, and rattling windows and shaking houses in the town.

Mr Horgan said Ireland remained in "clear breach" of the Hague Convention on Neutrality and said the current wars were not the first example. He claimed that during the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999, two 757s passed through Shannon laden with 90 cruise missiles.

RENDITION as a counterterrorism measure is here to stay under President Barack Obama, according to US envoy Robert Faucher.

Use of Shannon Airport by CIA planes and personnel involved in the rendition programme, where terror suspects are lifted and interrogated in third countries, remains a human rights controversy in the Mid-West. 

Anti-war campaigners here say innocent people have been tortured under interrogation and the practice of rendition is itself extrajudicial and illegal.

But Mr Faucher, charge d¹affaires at the US embassy in Dublin, said on a recent two-day visit to the Mid-West that President Obama is happy to allow renditions continue as long as there is no possibility of a detainee being tortured and as long as they have the approval of governments in the countries where the rendition is carried out.

"The idea of rendition, he (Obama) doesn't consider that to be against international law. This is a decision he took I think in just the last week or so, saying that will we will not be involved in certain practices if and when we need to do renditions with the approval of the Governments involved. We will still do that. We do not agree that rendition is illegal under international law although I do know a lot of people disagree with us on that," Mr Faucher said.

The Irish Government has dismissed the concerns of campaigners that detainees may have been transited through Shannon, relying on US "diplomatic assurances" that it has never happened.

Asked if he was personally present when such an assurance was given to the Irish Government, Mr Faucher said the issue had been "handled before I arrived in Ireland" in 2007.

"Part of what I understood was this whole issue of people being transported to Guantanamo and other things of that nature. It is very clear that the President has taken on board a lot of these concerns and one of his very first acts as President was to sign an order to close Guantanamo.

"He said we have to close it, and that, if we ever did, we will no longer engage in torture and that sort of thing, making it clear the US will stand by a clear set of values whereas perhaps people would argue that we weren't standing by our values. You can't argue with that any more," he said.

Asked what assistance Ireland and the use of facilities at Shannon had been to the greater American war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Faucher said the US was "extremely appreciative" of the help of the Irish Government.

"After the last Government led by Bertie Ahern was elected into office, they came out and gave a very clear statement that they would continue to support the transit of US troops through Shannon Airport onward and vice versa and back to the States. 

"Brian Cowen has also confirmed that that is the policy and they have promised to facilitate that as much as possible. We are and remain very appreciative of that. The protest groups? Fine, they can protest and that is their right to as long as they don't get out of hand and damage property like what happened a while ago. But they do have every right to protest and state their point of view on this," he said.

"I think the administration and the US Government in general greatly appreciates the help the Irish have given us. Because it (Shannon) seems to be a key point. It's a good refuel stop. We see a lot of flights pass through here with US officials, like the Vice-President, Secretary of State and other top officials, coming here to refuel and I hope they won't protest against that too. 

"Those tend to be US (Government) planes versus troop planes, which tend to be run by a contractor. They are not an official US plane, it's a contractor flying them through. So there's a real difference there," he said.

A native of Phoenix, Arizona, Mr Faucher served as the acting US ambassador to Ireland between the departure of Thomas Foley in January and the recent appointment of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney.

A CABINET sub-committee on international human rights set up to allow gardai search planes owned by or leased to foreign Governments has still not held its first meeting five months later, according to Amnesty International¹s Noleen Hartigan.

Ms Hartigan was speaking at a peace seminar held in Shannon on Saturday to mark the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

Amnesty is but one of many human rights groups who have condemned the Irish Government for "facilitating" the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects by allowing CIA aircraft land and refuel Shannon Airport.

The Government has said anti-war campaigners have not proven any suspect was transited through Shannon and that it accepts diplomatic assurances from the United States this has never happened. But Amnesty and local campaigners in Shannon have accumulated a wealth of evidence and flight records showing Shannon is frequently used by CIA-operated aircraft involved in rendition.

The Green Party, in opposition, campaigned to end the use of the airport by the US military and secured a commitment in the programme for Government to enforce the Geneva Convention and the UN Convention against Torture and remove any legal obstacles preventing gardai from searching foreign planes. The Greens were ridiculed by Labour and others for taking the initiative only after Barack Obama, who had already signalled his intentions to close Guantanamo Bay, was elected president.

A cabinet subcommittee  comprising Green Ministers John Gormley and Eamon Ryan as well as Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and Noel Dempsey, Minister for Transport  was set up in November to prepare legislative measures.

But Ms Hartigan said the subcommittee had failed to hold a single meeting within that five months.

"The subcommittee set up in November offers some glimmer of hope and gives us the opportunity to review and strengthen legislation on civil and Garda authorities searching rendition flights. Amnesty has been looking for the terms of reference since November as we want to make a submission but we are disappointed with progress. In fact, we have been told the committee hasn¹t even met yet," stated Ms Hartigan.

Amnesty, she said, would publish a report on rendition, which she said was "nothing less than state-sponsored kidnap and torture", by the end of April.

It was not enough to rely on US assurances that no prisoners had been transited through Shannon.

"They can say there were no individuals on the planes but, I¹m sorry, it doesn¹t matter if nobody is on it. If it passes through and they have reason to suspect it is involved in these activities yet do nothing, they are complicit under international law," she said.

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