In January 2003, Willie O’Dea who was then a junior minister said that the policy being implemented by his government in relation to planes carrying military personnel refuelling at Shannon Airport was the same policy that had been pursued by successive Irish governments for decades. “There is nothing secret about it, there is nothing covert”, he said on RTE radio’s Morning Ireland programme. In the previous year, the Department of Transport had received only one request for the landing at Shannon of a civilian aircraft carrying munitions. Seven years later, in 2009, a total of 1,276 civilian flights were granted permits to carry weapons and munitions of war through Ireland. The vast majority of these were from American civil airlines, chartered by the US military. Almost all landed at Shannon Airport. By any measure, this would appear to be a change of policy.
The permits information was supplied by the Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey in response to a parliamentary question from Labour Party TD, Michael D Higgins. The Minister did not say where the weapons were destined, stating that, “in general flight applications requesting permission to carry munitions identify the airports immediately preceding and following the aircraft’s arrival in Shannon”, and that the final destination of these flights would not necessarily be known by his Department. The next stop for most of the US military flights heading east is Iraq or Afghanistan, and since flight plans must be filed for all civil and military flights across international borders, this would be well known to the Irish Aviation Authority and the Department of Transport. Nonetheless the minister was not prepared to make the information available in his reply. There are other aspects of the Minister’s reply that call into question his colleague Willie O’Dea’s assertion that there is nothing covert going on at Shannon. Minister Dempsey was asked the nature of the cargo on the planes that were granted permits to carry munitions through Ireland, for example, but he chose not to answer this. He did confirm that approximately 90% of the flights carry the personal weapons of the troops on board – safely stowed – and that, “a very small number” carry ammunition. Approximately 10% of the flights, he said, almost all over-flights, carry “other military equipment”.
Clearly not all of the flights carrying the “other military equipment”, whatever that is, are over-flights. Since Murray Air, Evergreen International, and Kalitta Air – airlines that routinely ship munitions for the US Air Force – are regular visitors to Shannon, it is likely that they are taking more than personnel weapons through. Kalitta Air was found in 2006 to transport covertly laser-guided bombs through Prestwick for the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. According to a UK Airport News report in November 2006, “It was suggested that Michigan-based Kalitta Air, which regularly works for the Department of Defence Air Mobility Command, an arm of the US Air Force, broke international law because it did not have the appropriate clearance”. According to papers released under the Freedom of Information Act, Prestwick Airport’s freight-handling department was told verbally only about the dangerous cargo, when the operator should have had special written permission to carry munitions of war in UK airspace.
Any civilian aircraft seeking to land or overfly Ireland requires the permission of the Minister for Transport to carry military weapons or munitions. Permission must also be sought and granted by the Minister for Foreign Affairs for all military aircraft flying through sovereign Irish airspace, regardless of whether or not they are landing in the country. Data gathered by Shannonwatch, a group of peace and human rights activists in the mid-West of Ireland, show that at least 970 US-military-contracted flights and a further 360 US Air Force/Navy planes landed at Shannon in 2009. And with more than 20 flights a week taking weapons and munitions through the airport, the associated risk presented to the safety of people working at or visiting Shannon Airport – which was designed to operate as a civilian airport, not a military base – is unknown.
In 2002, John Gormley, who was then an outspoken opposition TD, said that Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen has done more to dismantle Irish neutrality than any other minister. At the time he also believed that it was unethical and unjust to attack the people of Iraq. “I believe the majority of Irish people share that view”, he said. But as they sit together now at the Cabinet table, Minister Gormley seems to have forgiven the Taoiseach for selling out on Ireland’s neutrality. And despite credible reports that there have been over 100,000 civilian deaths as a direct result of violence since the US invasion in 2003, John Gormley is clearly unconcerned about the use of Shannon to keep the occupation going.
In also interesting to recall Enda Kenny’s contribution to a Dáil debate on the Iraq war on 20th March 2003. He said, “Shannon Airport’s future will not be built on a war economy”. Over one and a half million US troops plus regular cargo shipments to Iraq and Afghanistan have gone through Shannon Airport since then, with non-military traffic continuing to diminish. If Enda Kenny becomes Taoiseach will he remain true to his commitment about Shannon, and seek to reverse the decisions leading to its militarisation? Political precedent is against him.