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Beyond the Law: the US Military at Shannon Airport

Over the last ten years 2.2 million U.S troops have passed through Shannon Airport, with 250,000 transiting though the facility in 2011 alone. Nearly every day large carrier planes packed with military personnel touch down in a supposedly neutral country, their passengers often disembarking in full uniform to purchase souvenirs of their visit.

More ominously there is also clear evidence, including the findings of a Council of Europe investigation, that the airport has been used as a key transit point for CIA extraordinary rendition flights, where captives are illegally transported to countries, often to be tortured.

In opposition the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore, was vocal in his disapproval of such illegal activity.

In February 2008 Gilmore stated: “It is difficult to dispute the assessment of Amnesty that Ireland is clearly contravening international law by allowing its territory to be used to facilitate extraordinary rendition. Indeed, I would go further and say that the failure to assert our right to check these planes, leaves Ireland potentially complicit in the kidnap, detention and torture of people against whom no charges have been proven and who, in many cases, are totally innocent.”

That year the Labour Party produced legislation, in the form of a private members bill from Michael D Higgins entitled Air Navigation and Transport (Prevention of Extraordinary Rendition) Bill 2008, to ensure that Irish airports are not used to facilitate extraordinary rendition. The Bill was defeated but the Labour Party’s concerns remained.

In December 2010, Michael D Higgins, commenting on a wikileaks release, said: “The disclosure that the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, was ‘quite convinced’ that Shannon Airport had been used on at least three occasions by aircraft involved in extraordinary rendition of prisoners strongly reinforces the case for a change in the law to ensure that Irish airports are not used in this way and that any such aircraft are subject to proper inspection by the Irish authorities.”

Fast-forward two years, and one election and all has changed. In October 2012, Patrick Nulty TD, in a parliamentary question asked the now Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore, what action he had taken to ensure that Irish law was not being flouted at Shannon.

Gilmore stated that he was continuing to rely on assurances from the US government that no rendition flights are passing through Shannon airport, a position he had previously condemned as insufficient and leaving the State open to criminal action.

In reply to Nulty he said: “Immediately following the first reports several years ago that the US was practicing extraordinary rendition to transit prisoners, the then Government demanded and received specific assurances from the US authorities that such prisoners had not been transferred through Irish territory, nor would they be, without our permission. These assurances were confirmed at the highest political level. They were of a clear and categorical nature, relating to facts and circumstances within the full control of the US authorities. I am satisfied, as previous Ministers have been, that it is appropriate for the Government to rely fully on these assurances.”

Roger Cole

Chair of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA), Roger Cole, who has done much to undercover the use of Shannon by the US military told LookLeft, “The Irish State has the right and the duty to search these planes to confirm that any assurances given that there are no such prisoners on board are correct. The Irish government has a responsibility to do so. Assurances from the US, or any other government, should be checked to provide assureance that our national sovereignty is not being breeched. If there are no such prisoners on such planes, then there should be no concerns.”

IN October 2012 PANA launched a new pamphlet outlining what it believes are clear breaches of international law and Irish sovereignty by the US military.

Shannon Airport, War and Renditions by John Lannon draws attention to article 1 of the Chicago Convention, which governs international aviation law – this states that every State has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory. Article 16 of the Convention states that the authorities of each state shall have the right, to search aircraft of other states on landing or departure without unreasonable delay.

In the new pamphlet, Lannon outlines Ireland’s long history of allowing military aircraft, mainly from the US, to refuel at Shannon. Up until 2001, confirmation was required that these were unarmed and that the flights in question did not form part of military exercises or operations. However, in the lead up to the launch of the U.S “war on terror”, these conditions were waived by the then Fianna Fáil/PD government. Since then, 2.5 million soldiers have passed through Shannon on their way to and from Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, according to Gilmore, this was all to change with Labour’s entry into government in 2011 and his party’s endorsement of a Programme For Government which included a pledge to “enforce the prohibition on the use of Irish airspace, airports and related facilities for purposes not in line with the dictates of international law.”

At his party’s Special Conference, which was called in March 2011 to endorse the new Programme for Government, Gilmore went further stating that the pledge on the use of Irish airspace meant the enforcement of the Hague Convention on Neutrality. According to The Hague convention, which defines the rights and duties of international law, neutral countries are forbidden to move troops or convoys of munitions of war or supplies across their territory.

ASKED in October by Patrick Nulty TD to comment on the 250,000 troops passing yearly through Shannon, Gilmore said: “My department has primary responsibility under Irish legislation for foreign military aircraft seeking to overfly or land in Ireland, the vast majority of the US troops to which you refer pass through Shannon Airport on commercial flights. The regulation of civil aviation is primarily a matter for my colleague the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. There are no plans to make any changes to the existing arrangements. In the event that permission is sought, my Department requires an undertaking from the relevant embassy that the aircraft in question will be unarmed; will not be carrying arms, ammunition or explosives; will not engage in intelligence gathering; and is not participating in military exercises or operations.”

Commenting on Gilmore’s response, former Irish Army captain, Ed Horgan of Shannonwatch, said: “The US Embassy has been in gross breach of these provisions from 2001 to the present time. Well over 2 million US troops have passed through Shannon since 2001 mainly in civilian chartered aircraft. It is our understanding
that these soldiers carry with them on the aircraft at least one automatic rifle and in many cases also one additional pistol, and the appropriate ammunition for these weapons. In some cases the weapons may be carried in the cargo part of the aircraft, but in many cases they are carried in the passenger cabin of the aircraft.”

He added: “The carriage of these weapons on these aircraft was confirmed by the Department of Foreign Affairs when Brian Cowen TD was Minister, and it was also confirmed to me in documents discovered by order of the High Court in Horgan v Ireland in March 2003.”

Horgan also criticised Gilmore for informing the Dáil that “where allegations have been made (of illegal activity by the US military), including by members of the Oireachtas, these have been fully investigated by senior officers of An Garda Síochána.”

“This statement is untrue. On numerous occasions, I and other peace activists were informed by Gardai at Shannon that they did not intend to investigate our complaints because they had been instructed by their superiors not to search or investigate US military or CIA associated aircraft because of advice the Gardai had received from the Attorney General.”

That was then: Gilmore in Opposition

“Not knowing is not good enough.”
1st March , 2006

“Why has the Government not complied with the request from the Human Rights Commission to inspect the aircraft through Shannon?.. An effective inspection regime will ensure that no prisoners are transited through the State en route to a situation of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
7th June, 2006

“The Government must now insist on the right to inspect aircraft suspected of being involved in rendition. If, as the United States insists, there are no suspects on these planes, why should they object to this being independently verified by the Irish authorities? Serious consideration should also be given to banning from Irish airports any aircraft established to have been involved in extraordinary rendition.”
14th March, 2008

US troops at rest in Shannon Airport

Shannon: The Facts

2.2 million
The number of U.S troops who have passed through Shannon in 10 years.

The number of troops who passed through Shannon in 2011

Number of planes granted permission by the Irish government to bring arms through Shannon in 2011

Number of armed troops passing through Shannon every day

Number of US air force and military aircraft passing through Shannon every month

Numbers of inspections of aircraft carried out to
investigate rendition

Source: Shannon airport, War and Renditions

Shannon Airport, War and Renditions by John Lannon is available from PANA and the Irish Anti war movement. See or

Article published in LookLeft Vol.2 No.12

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