More information about the Love and Courage podcast, other episodes, and sign-up for e-newsletter at www.loveandcourage.org
Irish-Australian peace activist Ciaron O'Reilly was once described by Martin Sheen as his personal hero. Ciaron grew up in Australia and has spent his life in the Christian anarchist pacifist Catholic Worker movement. Ciaron was mentored by the renowned anti-war priests Frs. Daniel and Philip Berrigan and for over 40 years now he has focused on supporting homeless communities and campaigning on Aboriginal, East Timorese, prisoner and refugee struggles. Part of this campaigning is explored in his book Remembering Forgetting: A Journey of Non-violent Resistance to the War in East Timor.
Ciaron has participated in numerous often controversial acts of civil disobedience – including the disabling of a B52 Bomber in New York on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War for which he served 13 months in U.S prisons. His actions also included disabling uranium mining equipment at the Australian Jabiluka mine site in 1998 and a U. S. Navy war plane at Shannon Airport during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In recent years he has been a friend, bodyguard and solidarity organiser for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and has been a leading light in organising support for US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
Now in his late 50s, Ciaron shows no sign of slowing down in his activism.
More information about the Love and Courage podcast, other episodes, and sign-up for e-newsletter at www.loveandcourage.org
The Love and Courage podcast
The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.
Host Ruairí McKiernan is leading Irish social innovator, campaigner, writer and public speaker. He is the founder of the pioneering SpunOut.ie youth organization, and helped set-up the Uplift and the A Lust For Life non-profits. In 2012 the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins appointed Ruairí to the Council of State, a national constitutional advisory body whose members include all current and former leaders of the country. Ruairí is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fulbright fellowship, and he contributes regularly to the media on youth, health, community and social justice issues.
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[00:00:38] CO: So, everything you do has both actual and symbolic. So, you know, the action of putting one plane out of action is one thing – but the symbolism of a fragile community coming together to disarm looks forward to a world of disarmament. Just like feeding someone a bowl of soup: it has a pragmatic but a symbolic… That you hope everyone will be fed, one day.
[00:01:03] RM: My guest in this episode is Irish-Australian peace activist Ciaron O’Reilly, who was once described by Martin Sheen as his personal hero. Ciaron grew up in Australia, and has spent most of his life in the Catholic Worker movement. Ciaron was mentored by renowned anti-war priests Father Daniel and Philip Berrigan – and, for over 40 years now, he has focused on supporting homeless communities, and campaigning on Aboriginal, East Timorese, prisoner, and refugee struggles. Ciaron has participated in numerous, and often controversial, acts of civil disobedience, including the disabling of a B-52 bomber in New York on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War – for which he served 13 months in US prisons. His actions also included disabling uranium mining equipment at the Australian Jabiluka mine site in 1998, and a US Navy warplane at Ireland’s Shannon Airport during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In recent years, he has been a friend, bodyguard and solidarity organizer for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and he has been a leading light in organizing support for US army whistle-blower Chelsea Manning. Now in his late 50s, Ciaron shows no sign of slowing down in his activism. As you’re about to hear, he’s a fascinating person, determined to do all he can to live out his values, whilst challenging injustice and inequality. Here’s Ciaron O’Reilly.
[00:02:22] RM: OK, Ciaron – thanks very much for joining me on the podcast, today. I know you’re heading back to Australia soon, from Ireland, and I often catch you when you’re coming and going. And I’m just curious as to what you’re up to – what brings you home?
[00:02:36] CO: Yes, well the last six years, my focus has been solidarity with Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange who, I felt, were largely abandoned by the anti-war movement after exposing the war that millions marched against: the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. So, that’s been…it’s been one of solidarity, primarily, rather than continued resistance. And I guess, I think, there’s not much resistance because there’s not much solidarity. So, I think solidarity work is very, very important. So, I’ve spent the year between Dublin, here: three people host me each week – someone puts me up for three nights a week, the other guy for two, the other guy for two. We have a Catholic Worker farm near Watford that’s for destitute refugee women, and women who’ve been trafficked into England, and also a house for women and children. And there they gave me a hermitage beside a lake, which was very nice.
[00:03:41] RM: Does that mean you’re kind of monk-esque, now? I can call you Brother?
[00:03:47] CO: Yes! Well, it’s always… I remember, someone wrote a book called Contemplation and Resistance – I think it was James Douglass, in the 60s. And Ched Myers once quipped that what we end up doing is contemplating resistance, and resisting contemplation. So, it’s always been, primarily, a spiritual journey for me – which is expressed…for me, it’s radical Christianity.
[00:04:12] RM: And how are you with the contemplation bit? Because activists, by their nature, go for action – and they don’t tend to do so well with the quiet contemplation bit. Can you manage that?
[00:04:24] CO: Yes, I mean, I think I’m struck by the beauty of humanity, some days. And instead of rushing by that, I kind of dwell on it. And I believe all human lives are sacred, because it’s created in the image of God. You love God by loving humans – and that’s the expression of God in the world. So, that and I do enjoy the sacraments, and the rituals I was raised with. I remember, when I was in prison in Texas, I was the only white boy in the jail. And I used to go to the mass, which was in Spanish – and, being a linguistically land-locked Australian, the rhythms of the mass were really nourishing for me. So, I prefer more home-based liturgies, in workplaces or where people live, rather than the, kind of, football stadiums of churches.
[00:05:21] RM: So, when you…you drop in there: “When I was in prison in Texas.” I think most people would be curious to know: how does a white Aussie end up in prison in Texas?
[00:05:30] CO: Yes, well, I guess… It’s a long story, really. I grew up in Brisbane, Australia.
[00:05:41] RM: Yes, tell me about your childhood, and we’ll get to prison later [laughter].
[00:05:45] CO: Our house, which we still have, shares a back fence with the second-largest army base in Australia. It’s called Gallipoli Barracks now, but…my grandmother had three brothers who went through that base to Gallipoli in France, in World War I. One of them got married there, before shipping out. So, when I was growing up there – I was born in 1960, so the backdrop was the Vietnam War. There were kids in our school whose fathers were in Vietnam. We can literally, and still do, hear the rifle range, automatic gunfire, and helicopters flying over the house, and stuff.
So, that was the backdrop. And my father was born in Kilbeggan, where his grandfather had a pub. His paternal grandfather had, I think, eloped with money from Gorey, in Wexford, and bought a pub in Liverpool in about 1890, called Man At The Wheel, in Paradise Street – which would have been one of the main streets of old Liverpool. And they swapped it – apparently a handshake swap – for a pub in Kilbeggan. So, he was raised in Clara, and his father and his grandfather fell out over the Civil War. My grandfather had been in the IRA, and as my grandmother was in the women’s section, I guess, and she was probably from a working-class background. She was an O’Connor. And my father was raised by her parents – he was the first of 13. And her parents were also influenced by Connolly, so he had a bit of a dose of socialism. And so, really, when I was, I think, 11, the first demonstration I was taken to was a week after Bloody Sunday. So, what was happening in the north of Ireland had a much bigger impact in our house than what was happening in Vietnam – even though people were shipping out.
[00:07:55] RM: Yes. Just backtrack, Ciaron – how did the family end up in Australia, then?
[00:07:59] CO: My father left Clara at 16 to look for work in London. And then they were basically begging white Europeans, I guess, to go to Australia after World War II. And, I think it was two pounds, and you had to stay two years. And so, I think he just went out for a look, and kind of got stuck there – didn’t get back to Ireland for 26 years. Once…having a family, and stuff.
[00:08:27] RM: So, he married locally?
[00:08:30] CO: He married Mary McCaffrey, whose grandmother was from Milltown Malbay, and could speak Irish – she lived with her as a child – and her grandfather, paternal grandfather, was from Enniskillen.
[00:08:41] RM: This is in Queensland, where you grew up? Or elsewhere?
[00:08:43] CO: In Brisbane, Queensland. Yes, they had moved down from Charters Towers, in the north of Queensland. And I think her maternal grandparents were English, and had gone out for the gold rush in the north of Queensland, yes. So my maternal family were pretty mainstream, conservative Catholics, and my father was much more Irish Republican, and a Labor Party person, and someone who could see what the Aboriginal people were going through was quite similar to what Irish people had gone through. And, so not a lot of Irish made that connection. I think, often – and maybe they share this with Israelis – but they think they’ve a monopoly on human suffering. He did make that connection with people who were being colonized.
[00:09:41] RM: Is that a core component of solidarity: to understand that the struggle is one common struggle?
[00:09:48] CO: It is, and I guess a big thing is to transcend your own subjectivity. Like, I could sit in an Irish pub, quite comfortably, for the rest of my life [laughter]. But to interact with people from other cultures, and other sexual orientations, and other classes, requires a kind of transcendence. And especially, I became engaged with Aboriginal people when I was at high school, and that was really an eye-opener, I guess. They were in the same space as me, but in a totally different reality in terms of state oppression.
[00:10:30] RM: Yes, I often find that there are parallels between the Aboriginal people of Australia and the travelling people in Ireland, in that you may end up with one or two travelers in a classroom – when I was young – and then they’d disappear: they’d be off travelling again, maybe, or things didn’t work out in school. And I know, to some extent, you could argue the suffering has been worse in Aboriginal Australia. But, I mean, look at statistics around suicide and imprisonment – it’s obviously complex issues, but is that something you would have ever thought about, in your travels to Ireland? Have you seen that?
[00:11:06] CO: Yes, I think it’s different, because there’s so many language groups amongst Aboriginal people, and it’s so huge a continent. Like, when I was eight years of age, Aborigines didn’t have the vote.
[00:11:24] RM: Because they were almost seen as sub-human.
[00:11:26] CO: Yes, they weren’t counted in the census. They didn’t have citizenship. I think, in my state, when I was 11, it was still illegal to cohabitate with a native, under the Vagrancy Act.
[00:11:42] RM: Because Queensland was one of the worst states for…
[00:11:45] CO: Yes, I mean, Queensland… When I was 17, they suspended all civil rights in Queensland, which they had done ten years earlier in response to the Vietnam anti-war movement. So, there was a real marriage between a very corrupt government that were making corrupt money out of…from transnational mining companies and tourist industry companies, and a very corrupt police force that were running the brothels, and casinos, and drugs. And willing to be used politically on the streets. And that, eventually, all came undone with the Royal Commission, and the 1980s Fitzgerald Inquiry. And so, the Aborigines would have received the worst of that, in terms of deaths in custody, and abuse, and the Stolen Generation, and all of that kind of stuff. So yes, it was pretty intense to engage that reality.
[00:12:54] RM: So, you mentioned earlier about Bloody Sunday, and around the same time, you had Vietnam. There were so many global issues at play – what first captured your attention, say, as a teenager?
[00:13:07] CO: It would have been the struggle in the north of Ireland, I think, and ethnically identifying with that, I guess. I had a very good school teacher, who, one thing he told me was: “Don’t let school get in the way of an education.” And he kind of challenged me out of that Irish Republican ghetto way of thinking.
[00:13:34] RM: Was this a history teacher, by any chance?
[00:13:35] CO: Yes, it was a history and English teacher, who I’m still in contact with.
[00:13:38] RM: Quite often… Same, my history teacher – Hugh Barney O’Brien – history and English, and had me think in a very similar way, just outside of the classroom.
[00:13:45] CO: Yes. And he would have been at the University of Queensland in 1968, which was a very active campus – not that he was active himself, but he was influenced by that. He was a Tagan, from the north of Queensland. So, that’s a relationship I’ve continued. When I’m in Brisbane, I’ll go and see him every week, and stuff like that.
[00:14:05] RM: It’s good to continue those links. So, also, East Timor was on your radar a lot.
[00:14:12] CO: Yes – well, it really… It was invaded when I was 15, and I remember being engaged with that for about a year. And it really – even when there was a huge peace movement in the 80s – Timor wasn’t on the agenda. We were hearing more about El Salvador, and the Philippines – and it wasn’t really until Max Stahl, who I’ve met, courageously filmed the Santa Cruz massacre, and got that out. And John Pilger used that in Death of a Nation. And I remember, actually, being in jail, in Texas, and someone used to photocopy articles from the New York Times and mail them to me. And there was a report on the Dili Massacre, and I remember thinking: “Oh, the East Timorese,” you know?
Because, for 16 years, when most of the killing – when they killed a third of the population – occurred, there really wasn’t much of a solidarity movement. So, when I was deported back to Australia in the early 90s, we started a house called Greg Shackleton House, and that was one of the five Australian journalists who were killed in Balibo just before the invasion. They were killed in the October of ’75, and the invasion occurred in the December, just after Kissinger had visited Jakarta. And that, in the early 90s… And it was all exploring ways we were complicit: there was a mining company, Petrolas Mining Company, headquartered in Brisbane, who were [inaudible 00:15:38 (legally or illegally?)] drilling in the Timor Sea, cooperating with the Indonesian military. They were training Indonesian troops at Canungra, in jungle warfare training, just outside of Brisbane. So, you know, we did actions like…we poured human blood over the Petrolas boardroom table, did an exorcism of their office, and we also blockaded Canungra.
[00:16:00] RM: You’ve written a book about that, haven’t you?
[00:16:03] CO: Yes – Remembering Forgetting. And one thing we did, quite successfully, was: the Labor Party government were going to deport a lot of Timorese to Portugal. And we started initiating a sanctuary movement that became quite big in Melbourne and Sydney, where most of the Timorese were. And that became quite a mass movement, and a successful one. And the government backed off.
[00:16:25] RM: So the Australian government – Australia being quite next to Timor – wanted to deport them to the far end of the world?
[00:16:30] CO: Yes. I ended up living with Timorese in England, later – from ‘96 to ‘99 – and all these guys had occupied embassies in Jakarta. And the Indonesian government came to the conclusion that they’re less of a pain in the ass in Portugal. So they let them go to Portugal, and then they came to England.
[00:16:49] RM: You just mentioned, there, a minute ago, about being deported back to Australia. Deported from where, for what?
[00:16:57] CO: Ah, OK. So in the late 70s, when I was at high school – in response to the anti-nuclear movement – the state government suspended the right to march, the right to hand out leaflets, the right to gather in three or more people. And while I was at high school, I had a large anti-uranium demonstration. People decided to march – and there were 418 of us arrested. It’s 40 years ago this October – October 22 ‘77. And I remember, the lead guitarist of The Saints, Ed Kuepper, and the guitarist Grant McLennan from The Go-Betweens, were arrested, as well. And they would have been the two big bands of my teenage years in Brisbane.
And so, after going through this – it was quite a mass movement, for about three years, and there were thousands of arrests, and we were bashed, and raided – a group of us decided… We were influenced by a lecturer at university, who had been one of the main figures of the 60s – Brian Laver – who was an anarchist. And a few of us, who were Catholics, decided to explore Christian anarchist pacifism. And we thought we’d invented the concept – but then we discovered the Catholic Worker movement in the States, and the Berrigans, who had raided draft boards in the 60s, and had started the Ploughshares Movement. So we started the Catholic Worker house, aimed at Aboriginal street kids who were homeless. And we made our living off making bread and soap, and we opened a shop selling Nicaraguan coffee and prisoners’ art, and stuff. And that went for about four years. So, when that collapsed with exhaustion, I went to the States to live with older people in that tradition, and that kind of…including Phil Berrigan. I lived with Phil for about a year, and Liz McAllister had joined the house, and the kids. And that concluded with Moana Cole, who’s from New Zealand, myself, Bill and Sue Frankel-Streit breaking into an Air Force base in upstate New York, near Syracuse. And we managed to put a B-52 bomber out of action and close the runway.
So, we were arrested at gunpoint, and interrogated by the FBI, and eventually put on trial in Syracuse and sentenced to a year in jail. So, at the end of that year, I remember they put me on Con-Air in New York, and flew me to Oklahoma Penitentiary. And then on to El Paso – and then they put me in a prison, a jail, in a very small town called Pecos, in the outback of Texas. And it was 24 of us in a cage, six cages welded together in one room. All doors to the cages would be open, maybe, 16 hours a day. So, you’re in a room with 120, 130 men. It was predominantly Mexicans. So, I did nine months there, and they moved me to Louisiana Penitentiary in the later part of my sentence. And then [laughter] at the end of my sentence, they charged me with overstaying a visa, and being guilty of a crime of moral turpitude, and put $50,000 bail on me.
And I’d never heard the word turpitude before – I didn’t know what it meant. And it’s usually to do with high school teachers seducing young girls. And with my act, it all had to do with a non-consensual relationship with a B-52 bomber that was older than me – because they were all built in the 1950s. They were using them in Syria, only two weeks ago. They’re still using them. And they’re a weapon of mass destruction – they just open the bomb bay doors and napalm, cluster bombs, fuel-air explosives. So, they’re the real workhorse of the American military in Vietnam, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and now they’re being used in Syria. But they’re also nuclear-capable.
[00:21:03] RM: And can you bring me back to…how vivid are your memories of that first arrival into prison? What…can you remember what was going through your head?
[00:21:09] CO: I’d done a few short stints in a maximum-security prison in Brisbane, in the 80s, in Boggo Road Gaol. And that’s where I had my last haircut, in 1988. And that was… So, I knew – we were expecting 3-5 years – so I knew what the environment would be like. And I’ve been, probably, in 18 different jails, and they were all different environments. So, if you’ve seen the film Chopper, that was like Australian jails in the 80s.
[00:21:49] RM: So, mentally, you were – for the most part – prepared, it sounds like?
[00:21:52] CO: Yes, I mean, in the 80s I was in a faith-based community, and we’d prepare and reflect together, on not only how to survive and thrive in jail, but how to be supportive of the prisoners’ struggle, which we got involved in. And we closed that jail, eventually. It was also a beautiful flip, that many of the young Aboriginal people who’d stayed with us, in our house, were now in prison. And they were offering us hospitality in their house – the big house. And, you know, telling us how to be safe, and smuggling us vegetarian food, and all sorts of stuff. So, it was a really nice mutuality about that.
[00:22:31] RM: I’m just going to rewind another bit, again – I’m just curious about those teenage years. Am I right in thinking you might have been into punk music? What was the other teenage Ciaron like? Or was it all politics, was it all justice?
[00:22:50] CO: It was… It was a Christian Brothers school, a very working-class school. It was half Italian, and kind of half Irish descent. I played a lot of football – soccer was a big focus, for me. And then, I would often argue with the religion teacher about the IRA, and stuff like that. I got expelled from school for protesting the Queen’s Jubilee visit.
[00:23:26] RM: Wow. Not for moral turpitude, though.
[00:23:28] [Laughter]. Yes. But, by the end of my schooling, I’d come to a position of pacifism – I thought pacifism was implicit in Christianity. And, eventually, also concluded that an anarchist orientation, and a pacifist orientation, are implicit in Christianity.
[00:23:44] RM: Can you talk to me a bit about anarchism, briefly? Because it seems to me that it’s so misunderstood.
[00:23:52] CO: Yes, I mean, both my anarchism and pacifism are rooted in my discipleship and my attempts to follow Jesus. So I don’t know if anarchism can stand alone, without some kind of base like that, or pacifism can stand alone. And the point I’m at now is, I think, I’m a radical, Christian disciple. And radical is not a scary word, it’s not a word left over from the 60s. It’s a Latin word – it means “to return to the roots.” And I think the roots of Christianity have an anarchist orientation toward power, and a pacifist orientation toward violence. And because they’re negative definitions – one meaning ‘without violence,’ and the other meaning ‘without exploiting people’ – they’re much better questions than answers. So, an anarchist should be someone who lives with the question: “How do I live without exploiting people?” And a pacifist: “How do I live without violence?” And they’re much better questions – rather than a rigid, just add water and stir, trite response to everything. So, they’re kind of more orientations, for me. But I would have read Kropotkin and all that kind of stuff, as well. And I think, too: in Europe, the radical traditions are much more socialist, and social-democratic. In the United States, they’re much more libertarian-anarchist. So, I’d be going, in my late teens, drawing a lot of nourishment from what was called the Catholic Left, in the 60s. But Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and that draft board raid movement, and Dorothy Day – who was just dying. She died in 1980, around the time John Lennon was shot there in New York… She had lived like that since the 30s.
[00:25:46] RM: Yes, tell me about Dorothy Day – because I think she’s up to be sainted, isn’t she?
[00:25:52] CO: Yes. I guess another thing, for me – because I missed the 60s, I was too young for that. And I remember Joe Strummer saying he was too young for that, too, and it’s like arriving on a battlefield after a battle. And I was really concerned about selling out. And, I guess in Christianity, that means to remain faithful. And I went and tracked down a lot of people I’d read about in Brisbane, who were active in the 60s, and tried to talk to them about what happened. Do they feel co-opted or not? So, that was always a concern, to me – it’s more about being faithful. So, Dorothy Day had been faithful for 50 years, and I was very interested in it being a long-term, life-long project.
[00:26:46] RM: So, for people who may never have heard of her – who was she? Where was she from?
[00:26:52] CO: OK – she’s from…her father, I think, was a journalist, and she, too, became a journalist. And she would have mixed in the circles with John Reed and Emma Goldman. She wrote for the masses. She was a suffragette. She was jailed for opposing World War I. And if you ever see a film that’s really suppressed – I was just talking to Harry Brown about this, the other night – a film called Reds, directed by Warren Beatty. And he won the Best Director Oscar – but you never see that movie. And it’s about John Reed, who wrote Ten Days That Shook The World. And throughout the movie, they cut in, and they have people from the 1920s speaking straight to camera, as the narrative goes on. And they wanted Dorothy Day for that film but she was dying, she was very ill, when the film was made in ’79 or ’80.
So she has her own conversion story – she had, I think one at least, maybe two, abortions and the bohemian, promiscuous scene she was operating in, with Eugene O’Neill and others. And then she was in a relationship with an anarchist – and I don’t know if the phrase is “fell pregnant,” [laughter] but became pregnant. And she thought that was quite miraculous, because she didn’t think she could have a child. And that initiated a kind of conversion for her, and she found a lot of solace. So, she converted to Catholicism.
But brought with it her desire for social justice, and her anarchist analysis of capitalism. And she met an old French, eccentric kind of guy, Peter Maurin, who had a… Because this is at a time where totalitarianism has a popular base. Like, Mussolini gets voted in, Hitler’s popular, Stalin’s popular amongst the left around the world. And this was very much an anarchic, personal response to totalitarian solutions, really. So, when the depression hits, she and Peter Maurin start the Catholic Worker movement, which was based on houses of hospitality, practice in the acts of mercy, rather than looking for big-state, New Deal solutions to unemployment and poverty. And encouraging people to rediscover feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and that kind of solidarity.
[00:29:18] RM: Back to basics?
[00:29:20] CO: Yes – so I guess the three themes I try and embrace is: community building and affirming – whether that’s a faith-based community, an intentional community, or whether that’s a broader idea of a network that I’m part of in Dublin, of people of different faiths and no faiths in the struggle for peace and justice, and solidarity with Chelsea Manning over the last few years. So, that’s community. And from that, the acts of mercy, solidarity with the homeless and the poor – very directly. And then non-violent resistance. So, we would say each of those themes give each other an authenticity. Like, if all you did was community, it’d become very self-indulgent and therapeutic. If all you did was the acts of mercy, it’d be like mopping up after capitalism. If all you did was resistance, it’d be like a disembodied voice. So, those three things give each other integrity, I think.
[00:30:25] RM: Yes, just thinking about that time of totalitarianism – how many… It’s hard not to draw some parallels to where the world is at, today. So, it strikes me that these themes are ever more present, ever more relevant. I’ve heard different debates on how similar today is to the 1930s – do you have a view on that? You know, macro-politics.
[00:30:54] CO: I think with technology – and, you know, I’ve had quite a bit to do with Julian Assange for the last six years, and he has a pretty fearful analysis of where technology is taking us, and their surveillance techniques. And, you know, Snowden revealed the pretty total, and yesterday’s expose of the CIA… I remember asking Ched Meyers, who’s a theologian that’s influenced our movement – he wrote a very good book on Mark’s Gospel called Binding the Strong Man – and when the war began, on Afghanistan, we had a meeting with him in London. He’s from California. And I asked him in the pub, I said: “Well, how’s the movement going?” And he said: “Well, the problem is, anyone under 30 is now a lot more brainwashed in terms of sophistication of social control.” And he said: “Anyone over 30 in the movement seems to be hopeless at mentoring the young.” [Laughter]. So, that was interesting. And obviously the collapse of the Soviet Union in ’91 – there’s no longer a balance. It became a kind of one-empire world, and now you’ve got the growth of China, economically. It looks like anything could happen. I mean, there could be a nuclear exchange on the Korean Peninsula next week [laughter].
[00:32:22] RM: What is Assange’s take in terms of the technology aspect? So, we kind of now know about surveillance, to some extent. I’m sure there’s more we will find out. But where does he think it’s all going?
[00:32:36] CO: I think…
[00:32:37] RM: You’ve met Assange in the embassy, yes?
[00:32:41] CO: Julian and I met three weeks ago, and I had a longer session with him last year. And a lot of people think that people will be voluntarily putting chips in their head, by 1930.
[00:32:58] RM: When, sorry? 1930?
[00:33:00] CO: He thinks 1930.
[00:33:02] RM: 2030?
[00:33:03] CO: 2030, sorry. I was raising this on a soapbox, speaking in Hyde Park, and there was a techie from LA there, who didn’t like Julian. But he said it was going to be a lot earlier than 2030.
[00:33:16] RM: Yes – there’s a tech journalist in the US, right now, who has voluntarily put a chip in his wrist, so he could demonstrate how he could pay for all his meals for a month, by just scanning his wrist.
[00:33:26] CO: But, you know, you’re on a tube in London, or a bus here, and everyone’s on a smartphone, disconnected from the people sitting next to them. So, it’s just like downsizing that – making it more portable, I guess.
[00:33:38] RM: I have read a bit of research that suggests that we’re at a slight tipping point, in that a good percentage of people will volunteer their privacy and their rights for the sake of what they might perceive to be convenience. So, a lot of people will go for that. A lot of people… We know we’re being monitored. We know our data is not private – but, yet, there’s a volunteering over, there.
[00:34:08] CO: I’m not that sophisticated with this stuff, but this whole thing about singularity… And people seem quite willing to surrender their privacy on Facebook, even.
[00:34:21] RM: And, in terms of surveillance, like traditional surveillance…
[00:34:26] CO: And also the surrender of solitude. I remember someone remarking that: that the idea of solitude is abandoned, and privacy. So, you know, the demand is that there should be transparency of the state, and privacy for the individual. But, at the moment, we’ve got total surveillance of the individual and cover-ups for the state.
[00:34:48] RM: And in terms of traditional surveillance – what level of interactions have you had with surveillance, that you’re aware of? Because you’ve had numerous brushes with the law, and with the state – including Ireland, which we’ll talk about in a short time. Have you been aware of when, or how, you’ve been surveilled?
[00:35:13] CO: Yes, I mean, I was…we had Special Branch tailing us two weeks ago, for two days.
[00:35:20] RM: In Dublin?
[00:35:21] CO: Yes.
[00:35:22] RM: Right, OK. When you say ‘us’..?
[00:35:26] CO: Oh, I was just chatting with [inaudible 00:35:28] on the street – and she’s a lot more alert than I am [laughter]. And we had a guy behind us, and I don’t know how much he heard, but another guy turned up at lunch the next day. We were making an arrangement to have lunch together, in Cornucopia. And he didn’t order any food, so maybe he wasn’t a vegetarian [laughter]. So, yes… And previously, they stopped the vehicle I was in.
[00:35:53] RM: So, can I stop you on that? Because a lot of people are – how to say – suspicious that that happens, for instance. So, you know, somebody might say: “You’re paranoid. That was just a guy who was just in there, and thought he was in a burger joint and couldn’t find any food…” Like, how do you know he was Special Branch?
[00:36:14] CO: Well, I trust her judgement – I mean, she’s lived a lot in Palestine, and Lebanon, and Iraq, and she’s a lot more seasoned in that kind of stuff. Previously, they pulled up the car on the way to the Brigid’s Festival I was in, and we hadn’t left Dublin. They wanted to know if we were going to Shannon. And this is also weird because…
[00:36:41] RM: This is the recent…[inaudible 00:36:44] Brigid?
[00:36:46] CO: No, this is five or six years ago. And actually, more recently, at Brigid’s Festival, it was the tenth anniversary of our action. Special Branch knew I was in Ireland – they turned up in Kildare at the Brigid’s Festival. [Laughter]. And I was actually staying at the Shannon Airport Hotel, with Deirdre Clancy – and we were there to mark the tenth anniversary.
So, I’m not saying I’m flattered by this. A lot of these guys haven’t got much work to do, so they’ll take someone like me and spin me into a threat. And the actual – when they pulled up that car, and I challenged them about taking people’s names, they said: “Oh, we’ve got Mr. O’Reilly here, a self-confessed eco-terrorist.” And I said: “That’s bullshit.” And I said: “I just flew Ryanair – I’m hardly ecologically sound.” [Laughter].
[00:37:36] RM: And do you think that, at some level, that that’s their category that you could be slotted into? They just want to slot you into some sort of terror..?
[00:37:46] CO: Yes. I think they’ve got a very broad definition of terrorism.
[00:37:47] RM: Yes, because terrorism isn’t the guy who’s flying the B-52, dropping bombs on entire villages or towns. Terrorism is one guy with a mask, or with dreadlocks [laughter].
[00:37:58] CO: And it doesn’t… It even means property damage, too, I think.
[00:38:02] RM: Yes, so let’s go back to…let’s talk about the property damage – because that was really at the core of your action at Shannon. And there was a lot of outrage that you’d damaged property, which is quite interesting. Particularly in the Irish context, because we have a love for property in our constitution. Well, maybe not a love – but it has a lot of weight. So, talk to me about the action in Shannon, and how that came about.
[00:38:32] CO: So, the action in Shannon, for me, was my third ploughshares action. And a ploughshares action is usually a faith-based action of attempting to beat swords into ploughshares, as predicted by the Prophet Isiah. And my first one was on the eve of the Gulf War, in ’91 in New York, on a B-52 on a runway.
[00:38:54] RM: And a ploughshare being an agricultural...
[00:38:58] CO: Yes, it’s the idea of taking something that is implicitly a killer of human life, and transforming it into something that nourishes human life. So, these actions were pioneered by Phil Berrigan and others, who had come out of the non-violent resistance to the Vietnam War. And I also did an action with Treena Lenthall and Deborah Luka – we disabled uranium mining equipment in ’98. So, I was in Ireland in ’02, and obviously America was mobilizing. Well, it was really pretty much the same war – it’s been a 26-year war on Iraq, and it didn’t stop in ’91. It turned into the sanctions, and then the full-scale invasion and occupation. And now, it’s a new phase.
So, I was in Ballyfermot at this stage, and I started these weekly liturgies. About four or five people would come to them, and reflect. And then, quite rapidly, in November of ’02, I met Deirdre Clancy for the first time, in early November. Carmen Trotter from New York came over, and was doing a bit of speaking – she turned up for that. And then, mid-November, I met Damien for the first time. January 1st I met Nuin Dunlop for the first time, and I knew Karen from London. And, within a short time of us meeting, we were all in jail in Limerick Prison after doing $2.5 million worth of disarmament to a US Navy war plane that was en route to Iraq. So, compared to the B-52 – when we were in an 11-month process, taking away every second weekend with people like Phil Berrigan and elders, and prepared for an action that could cost lives, could cost years in jail – this was pretty rapid. And successful, you know? It was probably the most disruptive action to the mobilization for that war. And that’s a sad thing – because we didn’t have a lot of competition [laughter]. But, I would think, if 1% of the people that marched against that war had non-violently resisted to the point of imprisonment, and the other 99% had done pro-active solidarity, we could have gone a long way to stopping that war.
And most of the non-violent resistance didn’t come out of the sitting-in peace movement, which marched in its millions. It came out of the military. And obviously, the most severely-sentenced person was Chelsea Manning. And that’s why…I’ve been the recipient of a lot of solidarity in my jail time, and I felt it was my time to focus on Chelsea and Julian. And prior to that, I organized around eight different ploughshares trials in England, and Australia, and the States, and Ireland. So I had that skill-set. There’s a lot of hostility to Julian in London, engendered by The Guardian newspaper. I think Glenn Greenwald recently remarked: “There’s only one person The Guardian hates more than Jeremy Corbyn, and that’s Julian Assange.”
[00:42:17] And what exactly is the beef that The Guardian has with Assange?
[00:42:21] CO: Well, initially, I thought: “This is a kind of cultural and class issue – that here’s this hippie kid who went to 32 schools, his mother’s a puppeteer, becoming this media rock star in 2010. And the resentment of Guardian journalists, who all went through Oxford and Cambridge.” And, you know, Australians are very direct, and it’s seen as culturally obnoxious. And then I talked to a Guardian feature writer, and he said: “No, it’s more significant than that. It’s that what journalists value is to be the gatekeeper of secrets. Who gets to know, how quickly they get to know, when they get to know.” And WikiLeaks comes along and throws up all the primary data and says: “You work it out.” So it undercut their status, and their financial base. And then there’s also speculation that the grand jury indictment includes some Guardian journalists, along with Assange – so maybe The Guardian is saying: “We’ll give you the head of Julian Assange – leave our boys alone.” So, that’s speculative, that third one.
[00:43:28] RM: So, go back to Shannon and the trial process, because that lasted for four years, didn’t it?
[00:43:34] CO: Yes, three and a half years. So, we had a very short time in preparation. Two of the people had never met the other two, eight days before the action. And it was all very rapid – and we thought the war was going to begin in the February. It didn’t start until about March 20. And we were at our best in the hangar, in jail, and in the courtroom, when we needed to be at our best. And we were kind of stuck together for three and a half years. And, as the anti-war movement – that was large – evaporated, that required a kind of stamina, to keep raising the issue. The war was ongoing – the anti-war movement was not. Our prosecution was ongoing. And we received a lot of gifts. We received a very talented legal team that came together, and some of the best barristers in Ireland, and a very good solicitor, Joe Noonan. [Laughter] I would later find out that this was his first trial [laughter]. And then others, like Jimmy Massey, who had been in the war – and had been involved in killings in Iraq – came to testify on our behalf, from the US military. And Kelly Doherty, and Dennis Halliday, who had a big position with the UN, during the sanctions.
[00:44:58] RM: I think you got a presidential pardon, in the middle of it?
[00:45:00] CO: We did, yes. Martin Sheen gave us a presidential pardon.
[00:45:02] RM: He’s the president in the West Wing, so… That was in, was it in Damien’s home town, in Offley?
[00:45:08] CO: No, it was in Shane Macgowan’s home town, Borrisokane, in Tipperary.
[00:45:13] RM: And that’s where Martin Sheen’s mother is from, is that right?
[00:45:16] CO: Yes, it was her hundredth anniversary. And he and his siblings, Martin’s siblings, were over for a mass.
[00:45:25] RM: Because Martin Sheen would be very sympathetic…
[00:45:27] CO: Yes, Martin Sheen has a long history with the Catholic Worker… When he was an unemployed actor in New York, he used to eat at our soup kitchens. And he met Dorothy Day in the 50s, and then he became quite big in Hollywood. And then, he had a heart attack making Apocalypse Now, and that kind of brought him back to the church. And he came back to the church through the Berrigans. And one of the first things he does is, he plays the role of the judge in a film about the Ploughshares Eight, the first action – 1980.
And I think he has great stewardship of celebrity. And, whether he likes it or not, when he steps out of his front door, the spotlight is on him. So, what he does is move next to marginal people – whether it’s anti-war resisters, or El Salvadorans. And the media have to, reluctantly, follow them. And I think that’s a great stewardship. And people look at me – you know, I’ve got dreadlocks down to my butt – in Ireland, and they don’t initially trust me. But when Martin Sheen puts his arm around me, they think: “Well, I trust that guy.” So, I think celebrities and lawyers play that…in American football, you’d call it running interference, where you’re defending the quarterback, you know.
[00:46:36] RM: Yes – he’s been arrested countless times, hasn’t he?
[00:46:40] CO: Yes, he’s a very good guy.
[00:46:46] RM: And I think he had special words for you, at one stage, didn’t he?
[00:46:48] CO: Yes, I was in Australia at the time, yes.
[00:46:52] RM: Did he call you his…
[00:46:53] CO: His personal hero, which was very sweet [laughter].
[00:46:57] RM: There’s no doubt, he’s a special character. I’ve seen him interviewed, or heard him interviewed, a few times, and he’s definitely a voice of conscience, that’s for sure. So, there were several trials, and there was bumps along the road, and you had to do the stamina and the staying power. And then there was one particular trial that collapsed, that was very interesting. Tell us about that, and why it collapsed.
[00:47:23] CO: Our first trial ended when the judge acted illegally, after I gave evidence. And he denied a witness without hearing legal arguments. And the barristers just jumped on that, and he had to abandon the trial. So, six months later, we were put on trial again – and that judge seemed to know about the first trial, so he let a lot of evidence in. And then he was going to rule out our legal argument – and the legal argument was that we had damaged property at Shannon to preserve the life and property of others, in Iraq. And we called for an adjournment, and we had an angelic apparition who told us that that judge was a personal friend of George Bush, and was invited to both inaugurations, and attended the first one. And we remembered that, when we were choosing the jury, one woman who had been chosen on the jury stood up and said: “Look, I’ve just remembered that my daughter is an airline hostess, and it might look like I’m prejudiced.” And our barristers jumped up and thanked her for her integrity – and the judge thanked her for her integrity [laughter]. But he didn’t mention his connection to George Bush. And when we confronted him, we had to decide: do we want to confront him with that? And we were like: “What’s the negatives?” And the negatives was: we’d piss him off, and he’d sentence heavier. And we just all looked at each other and said: “Let’s confront him.” And we did confront him, and he fled the courtroom, saying: “I’ll talk to you in chambers,” to the legal team. But they just waited for him to come back out. And he came back out in such a rush that he forgot to put a media gag on it, which the first judge had done. And so, I think, the next day, there were photos of him and George Bush. And he’d had a long relationship with George Bush – he’d been introduced to him when he was the governor of Texas.
[00:49:22] RM: Well, it’s often how all establishments work, through the nexus of technology, media, business, sport, or whatever – it that you get to go to certain events, and you meet certain people. Power works in different ways, as you felt. But then, an angel appeared – I’m not going to ask you to name the angel – but I’d be very curious to hear, another time. I remember the time, as well – you did say there was media coverage the next day, but I would have felt, watching it at the time and aware of the issues today, that media typically are shy of these issues. Perhaps some of the reasons that you talked about in relation to The Guardian – but there could be class issues, there could be filters, or political lenses.
[00:50:06] CO: Yes – in Australia… The biggest contribution Australia makes to American warfare and killing is Pine Gap. And you never hear that in the mainstream media. That name is never mentioned – and that’s the NSA base out near Alice Springs that targets Cruise missile and drone attacks. So yes, there is a censorship on anything to do with Pine Gap in Australia. And there is censorship on Shannon, here. And people are surprised that the US military are still using Shannon.
[00:50:35] RM: Yes, I mean, two and a half million troops have been through Shannon. We like to wag our finger at Trump, or whoever else, but…
[00:50:43] CO: You look at the WikiLeaks cables from the Dublin embassy, following our acquittal, but also following our action, and the Americans actually offered to leave Ireland. And the Irish government begged them to stay. They could have flown on to their bases in England, etcetera.
[00:50:58] RM: And that was under, I believe, Bertie Ahern?
[00:51:01] CO: Yes.
[00:51:04] RM: And Dermot Ahern was the Minister for Foreign Affairs – I might be wrong on that. But yes, this was Fianna Fáil, the republican party upholding the values of peace, justice, equality after Irish independence, if you like. [Laughter].
[00:51:17] CO: And I think they were aware that this was a huge identity crisis for Ireland – when I was growing up, and possibly facing the draft if the Vietnam War had continued – there was talk in our house about shipping me back to Ireland, or something like that. So, Ireland was always perceived as neutral. And that neutrality came out of the militant anti-conscription movement during World War I, that should be recognized and celebrated, and which flowed on to Australia. The Irish Catholic church in Australia defeated the government twice in World War I, on the question of conscription. So, Ireland could play a great role as a peace-maker third party, if they took themselves a bit more seriously. And Ireland has incredible cultural capital – there’s a huge Irish diaspora in the United States and Australia, in the military as well. And if Ireland had taken a principled position - I think Germany and France opposed the war, they wouldn’t have been alone…
And if you read these cables, you can see the government thinking: “Oh, it’s amazing we’re getting away with this.” They were really, really worried. And they continued to be worried. After our acquittal, they said: “What are you going to do next?” And I said: “I hope to get 100 people together, and go and occupy the runway.” And then they spent 2 million Euros in the next six months on that – they described it as a threat, and I said it was a promise, rather than a threat. So, they were really, really concerned. And they felt humiliated by our action. Because it only happened a few days after Mary Kelly’s action, and the plane had just been repaired. And we disabled it again. So, everything you do has both actual and symbolic. So, you know, the action of putting one plane out of action is one thing – but the symbolism of a fragile community coming together to disarm looks forward to a world of disarmament. Just like feeding someone a bowl of soup: it has a pragmatic but a symbolic… That you hope everyone will be fed, one day. So, whatever you do has this kind of actual and symbolic factor to it, I think.
[00:53:32] RM: You did make history in that action, in the sense, also, that you were acquitted by a jury. You forgot to mention that.
[00:53:39] CO: Yes, we were unanimously acquitted, which is very rare in Dublin. If there’s any acquittals, it’s usually 11-1 or 10-2. Harry Brown wrote a good book called Hammered by the Irish, and his critique of the Irish media’s lack of coverage of the case is quite interesting. It made Time Magazine, the acquittal – but there was no one coming up, saying: “Well, we haven’t been allowed to interview these people, because of sub judice, for three and a half years. Who were these people, and what motivated them?” That’s rarely happened, from the Irish media. So, as Ched Meyers says, the media covers the war – literally, covers it up [laughter].
And, for us, anti-war resistance is a primary thing for me, because it’s a relationship between peace and justice. Like Pope Paul VI said: “If you want peace, work for justice.” And the flipside of that is true, too: if you want to maintain an empire of exploitation, you’d better prepare for war. And so, there’s a relationship between peace and justice, and violence and exploitation. So, the B-52 might not be dropping napalm today, but it’s used in the same way as a gun is used in an armed robbery, without it being fired. It’s a means to exploit. And that’s why we focus on the military, and war, and preparations for war.
[00:55:03] RM: Where… We live at a crossroads in relation to power – the US, Russia, China, all of that, what’s happening in Syria. I think it’s the seventh anniversary, the sixth or the seventh, today? Or we’re in that kind of time zone. But I’m just wondering where you, personally, see chinks of light, or signs of hope?
[00:55:29] CO: I think in people’s faithfulness, and people’s resilience. There’s some beautiful signs of hope – and they’re not celebrated. Right at the beginning of the war on Afghanistan, two train drivers in Scotland refused to transport arms. And everyone should know their names, in the anti-war movement.
[00:55:51] RM: What are their names?
[00:55:53] CO: I don’t know their names [laughter].
[00:55:56] RM: We should add that. Let’s go and Google that.
[00:55:59] CO: Yes, so we’ve got to find those hopeful stories, and share them, and celebrate them. And Chelsea Manning – all Chelsea had to do was what we’re asked to do. And we’re not asking, like in Vietnam, for the conscription of our young. All they’re asking for us is to avert our gaze, to look the other way. And if Chelsea had done that in Baghdad, when she saw evidence of war crimes, she wouldn’t have been locked up for the last seven years. So, all we’re asked to do is avert our gaze. They don’t want active support for the war, or active opposition – they just want our silence, and our sedation. So, any breakout of that… And it comes from the most amazing places. Like Ben Griffin, who was the British SAS deployed in Iraq, refusing to redeploy, and then going on to start Veterans for Peace. So, there’s now 500 ex-soldiers, and Air Force, and Navy, organized in England, who are anti-war. And that’s a great sign of hope. And I was at the Veterans for Peace Christmas party in December, in London, and these guys had been through… There’s Jim Radford, who was 16 at D-Day, there. He’s 80-something. There was young guys who had been in the Battle of Basra. There was Michael Lyons, who had read the WikiLeaks cables and refused to report to Afghanistan, and went to jail in Colchester. There was such a variety of experience. And people from the French Navy in the Gulf War, and all sorts of Vietnam veterans. So yes, the Veterans for Peace phenomenon has really struck me as very, very hopeful.
[00:57:35] RM: Ciaron, we’ll leave it at that – it’s been an absolute pleasure, and I wish you a safe passage back to Australia. And, no doubt, you’ll be back like a boomerang.
[00:57:43] CO: Hopefully [laughter].
[00:57:45] RM: Cheers, mate.
[00:57:47] CO: Thank you.
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