Love them or hate them, Wallace and Daly got over the fence, while Ireland sits on it
Published 24/07/2014 | 02:30
SO, there we were, fingers jammed in our ears while we looked the other way – our default position if we're afraid of what might be revealed – when Mick Wallace and Clare Daly decided to act as the nation's conscience.
Over the perimeter fence at Shannon they hopped, and on with a couple of hi-vis vests. The TDs had no real hope of penetrating the US military planes parked there, to inspect them for arms, but this was not mission impossible. They had every expectation of headline coverage for their foray, which is now mission accomplished.
That attempted incursion onto the runway is being pilloried on various grounds – from showboating, to an effort by Deputy Wallace to counteract his offside trip to the World Cup.
But the two independents must be taken seriously when they embark on a campaign – as proven by their tenacity in pursuing the garda malpractice raised by whistleblowers. Those matters were clearly in the public interest, and Shannon ticks a similar box.
People need to park any negative attitudes towards Deputy Wallace arising from his history with Revenue, justified though they be, and consider the facts. Fact: Ireland claims to be a neutral state. Fact: Ireland allows the US to use Shannon for military stop-overs. Fact: there are no independent inspections of US aircraft to check if the no-weapons rule is obeyed.
Which means we're only play-acting at neutrality. We like the sound of it. Mind you, as a signatory to the EU Common Security and Defence Policy, adopted as part of the Nice Treaty, a question mark must hover over our neutral status.
Ireland's interpretation of neutrality was always elastic, as shown during "The Emergency" when British airmen shot down over Ireland were secretly sent home, while Germans were interned for the duration. Double standards, just for a change.
However people feel about the messengers, the message ought not to be ignored. Do arms or prisoners pass through Ireland? Detainees at Guantanamo Bay have been subjected to waterboarding torture. Has Ireland played a role as part of its see-no-evil stance?
Air Navigation Order 1952 allows the defence minister to grant permission to foreign military aircraft to enter Irish airspace or land here. In answer to a question in 2011 from Sinn Fein's Dessie Ellis about whether the legislation was strong enough to deal with rendition flights, then foreign minister Eamon Gilmore said the following. His department required an undertaking that aircrafts would not carry "arms, ammunition or explosives; will not engage in intelligence gathering; and is not participating in military exercises or operations. These conditions are not legal requirements but are policy stipulations".
A gentleman's agreement. How reassuring. By not inspecting military aircraft, Ireland leaves it up to the US to decide whether or not to abide by Irish policy. It's inconceivable the US would adopt such a slack approach on its own turf.
Last year, in answer to a Dail question, figures released by the then Transport Minister revealed almost 70,000 soldiers passed through Shannon in 2013 and over 100,000 in 2012. Soldiers travelling without guns? Highly improbable.
We know at least one armed military US aircraft was parked without permission at the airport last year. A Hercules C-130 was photographed with a fixed weapon protruding from its side. Apparently, this breach was raised "at the highest possible level" with the US Embassy, where an official described it as an isolated incident. Mr Gilmore, as foreign minister, said he was given assurances it would not happen again. So that's all right then.
We must ask ourselves if we truly believe that foreign soldiers with weapons, on military manoeuvres, are not using Shannon as a convenient landing base. And we are engaging in a devil's pact if we accept it is so, but justify it on the grounds that US multinationals bring valuable employment.
No doubt, we receive payment for the refuelling contract, and presumably it provides jobs in addition to revenue. But let's be open about what we're doing – taking sides based on where we judge our interests lie – rather than shelter behind the pretence of neutrality. Let's aim for something approaching honesty.
It is stretching credibility to ask us to believe what Deputies Wallace and Daly did was only a publicity stunt, when a blind eye is turned to Shannon.
I accept it is hard to take seriously an ethical stance from a man whose own ethics are compromised.
Deputy Wallace agreed a €2.1m settlement with the tax authorities, and is paying back what he owes at a snail's pace from his publicly-funded salary. He was also found guilty of five charges of deducting employees' pension contributions but failing to pass on the money to their fund. It was subsequently paid. As a people's champion, he is less than satisfactory. But the same could be said of what's happening at Shannon.
As regards the TDs trespassing, the law will take its course – presumably they are prepared for the consequences. They say they tried in the Dail to raise the issue of US military flights, to no avail.
While lawbreaking cannot be defended, we can't always presume the status quo is right. Ireland's default position of not rocking the boat – let alone the warplane – is a slippery one.
What's happening at Shannon needs to be looked at fair and square. No evasions. And if the findings show arms and/or prisoners transported, we must ask ourselves this: can we live with it? Or is it time to call a halt?