Though they have received little media attention here in the United States, two American peace activists have been legally barred from leaving Ireland since March.
Tarak Kauff, 77, of Woodstock, New York, and Ken Mayers, 82 of Santa Fe, New Mexico, were arrested on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, for entering the tarmac at Shannon Airport in Clare, Ireland. Members of Veterans For Peace, the pair were protesting the role that the civilian airport has played in the U.S. military’s global War on Terror, in particular, the transportation of troops and arms to bases in the Middle East, including Iraq. They were there to ‘drive the snakes out of Ireland.’
Kauff and Mayers are charged with trespass and criminal damage for allegedly cutting through the fence surrounding the airfield and entering the premises. They face a maximum year in jail and a fine of $1,000 each. However, they have become enmeshed in prolonged legal proceedings that will likely last longer than their potential sentences.
The two activists had traveled to the Emerald Isle with six other VFP members to protest what they say are repeated violations of Irish neutrality. Kauff and Mayers say they entered the airfield to inspect a U.S. military-contracted plane parked there.
“Part of the whole fiction that the U.S. and Ireland maintain in order to keep violating Irish neutrality is that there are no weapons on these planes,” said Kauff’s partner Ellen Davidson, who traveled with the veterans. “Two of the guys [in our delegation] had flown through Shannon to Iraq with their weapons, so we know this is a lie.”
Ireland has been a neutral country since 1939. Although the precise definition of neutrality has been challenged many times in court, a majority of Irish support it remaining neutral.
“Since 2001, the United States has ferried some 3 million troops with their weapons through Shannon Airport,” says Kauff. “They were going to wage war. They were going to kill people. They were going to destroy a country. Up to a million children have been killed because of these U.S. wars. So this was a chance to oppose that.”
Both activists explain their actions as an act of international solidarity against U.S. militarism. A large number of Irish want their country to be neutral and the government is not following their wishes, says Mayers.
“The importance of Ireland in one sense is that if Ireland were to stand up to the United States, to confront the bully, it could set an example for other countries that would like to set a neutral status, or at least not be handmaidens to American Imperialism,” he said.
While he and Kauff had expected to be arrested, they were not prepared for the legal proceedings that have continued to plague them since March. The two activists were held without bail for two weeks in Limerick Prison. The High Court in Dublin released them on March 28 on $2,750 (€2,500) bail each. As part of their bail conditions, they have surrendered their passports and may not go near Irish airports.
“This process is a clear attempt to punish the two VFP activists before any trial takes place,” said Ed Horgan, coordinator of VFP Ireland. “We are calling on all peace and human rights activists in Ireland and internationally to campaign not only on behalf of Ken Mayers and Tarak Kauff, but, more important, on behalf of all the innocent people being killed and injured by the U.S.’s illegal wars.”
The main challenge facing Kauff and Mayers is the length of time until trial. Horgan, who himself was arrested for a similar action at Shannon in April 2017 has only recently learned that his trial will be in May 2020. Three years waiting for a trial would be an extreme burden on the activists.
“We have families and loved ones and we have responsibilities in the States and people are taking up the slack for us,” says Kauff. “It’s not fair to them. It’s not right that we were denied our right to go home.”
In the meantime, Irish human rights lawyer Michael Finucane, whose renown comes partially from investigating the murder of his father at the hands of British loyalists in 1989, is defending the activists. Finucane and the defendants are mounting a “necessity defense,” claiming that trespassing on the airfield was necessary in order to expose violations of Irish neutrality and prevent more serious war crimes from occurring.
“Other people who have done very similar things, gone onto the airfield, have actually successfully used [this defense] and have been acquitted,” Davidson says, citing the Pitstop Ploughshares, members of the radical Catholic Worker Movement who did upwards of $2.5 million worth of damage to a U.S. Navy aircraft and were acquitted.
Despite the uncertainties, Kauff and Mayers are not backing down. They have used the national spotlight to bring more attention to the cause of peace and neutrality with weekly trips to Dublin, where they protest on the steps of the Dáil (Irish Parliament) and are often able to speak with members of parliament directly.
“A big issue here right now is if Ireland is going to participate in this European army and the Dáil is tending to go along with it,” says Mayers, referring to the joint forces who work together under the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. “There is large public opposition to it, so what we are doing also helps support the effort to keep Ireland out of the European army.”
“We are doing everything we can to give a voice to those who are opposed to U.S. militarism and abuse of Irish neutrality, to those who are opposed to warfare, to those opposed to Ireland joining the EU’s military,” Kauff says.
As they await the day they can return to the United States, the pair are taking it one day at a time.
“It’s just a reality we need to face,” says Kauff. “Fortunately we have a huge support network here. People have just been tremendous.”
Irish activists have so far provided free lodging and a GoFundMe page has been has raised nearly $13,000 so far to help cover their expenses. Organizations such as the global social and environmental justice group Action from Ireland (AFRI) are also helping to raise funds.
Never ones to idle, the pair plan to begin a series of “Boots on the Ground for Freedom” walks through Ireland, holding speaking engagements at stops along the way. They begin at Limerick Prison, where they were initially held, and they will end September in Malin Head, approximately 230 miles away at the country’s most northern tip, on the banks of an Atlantic Ocean they cannot cross.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article in print and online misidentified the location of Shannon Airport. It is in County Clare, not Limerick.