“I’m actually missing Ireland,” Woodstock activist and Veteran for Peace Tarak Kauff commented this week, some 21 days since he returned from a forced detention in the nation where he was arrested last spring for protesting U.S. military flights using Shannon Airport in the allegedly neutral country for a stopover. “I liked the people’s support. It wasn’t a perfect stay, but it was inspiring.”
Kauff and fellow VFP member Ken Mayers were arrested on St. Patrick’s Day — March 17, 2019 — and charged with trespassing and with damaging the airport perimeter fence for having walked onto a runway at Shannon, intending to inspect a plane they believed was carrying armed U.S. troops to the Middle East. They unfurled a banner that read, “U.S. Veterans say Respect Irish Neutrality/U.S. War Machine out of Shannon Airport.”
Arrested, Kauff and Mayers were at first held overnight at Shannon jail, and then in Limerick Prison until an appeal to a higher court secured their release on March 29. But the Irish government continued to hold their passports.
“I got back December 3. My last court appearance was the week before that, in Dublin, when the judge gave us a court date of April 13, 2021 for Ken and my trial,” Kauff said this week, noting that the two had gotten their passports back before that.
He spoke about Ireland’s court system, where the defense is handled by middlemen-like solicitors, who put a case together, and more formal barristers, who argue a case in court wearing black robes with white collars… and occasionally the white wigs so many of us recognize from BBC legal dramas. He also told of how he and Mayers’ case had become a cause celebre in the Irish press, as well as on Democracy Now and other stateside news outlets, by the time it worked its way to its recent denouement.
Kauff noted the prominence of his and Mayers’ solicitor, Michael Finocure, who had been a mere boy when his own solicitor father Pat was gunned down over Sunday dinner by anti-IRA forces in the 1980s. But more importantly, he added, the case was helped because Ireland’s prosecution against the two had attracted a large audience in the country by the time the two men found themselves in court.
“The two sides spoke when we were given our passports back…the prosecution agreed that they would still object, but not argue the case,” he said. “I think at that point our case had become considerably embarrassing to the Irish. Everyone from their parliament, the Dáil, knew about our case…our one day protest had become an eight and a half month protest.”
Kauff and Mayers’ action was built on a series of events the Irish have seen in recent years as their electorate has sought to hold their government to its neutral stance in international relations, a position it first adopted when it attained complete freedom from the United Kingdom in the 1930s. That included neutrality throughout World War II but, more recently, also allowed for the Minister of Foreign Affairs to grant permission for the refueling of military aircraft to overfly or land in the state once such aircraft was confirmed to be unarmed, carrying no arms, ammunition or explosives, and not part of any military exercises or operations.
Kauff said the protests have been going on for 18 years now, since the advent of America’s wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, and have involved a number of key events that have included members of the Dáil, and more recently two of Ireland’s representatives to the European Parliament.
“I had been to Ireland in November of 2018 for a conference that was anti-NATO, anti-U.S. bases, and at that time spoke with Ed Horgan, coordinator of Irish Veterans for Peace, who brought up his protests at Shannon,” said Kauff. “I said, ‘We’re going to come back with a team of U.S. veterans and stand with you. We have a responsibility to say No.’”
Other vets did come to Shannon last St. Patrick’s Day, but only Kauff and Mayers walked out on to the tarmac to inspect the U.S. military plane that landed, and then unfurl their banner when not allowed on. Kauff doesn’t fault anyone who didn’t go the distance he and Mayers did.
He spoke of the CIA flights that stopped at Shannon Airport carrying prisoners, tied up in stress positions, during the early days following our invasion of Afghanistan. “They were landing in a supposedly neutral country. That totally abrogates Ireland’s neutrality,” he noted. “The people object to it and say it shows corruption in their government…The people I’ve spoken with all over Ireland say they have had enough of violence.”
Rather than something to be blamed on the Irish, does the landing of our nation’s military planes make the situation one that, like charges of corruption and Ukraine, implicate us more than them, we ask?
Kauff laughed, in a knowing way, and spoke about the ways in which he and Ken Mayers, as well as their many supporters, came to believe their situation in Ireland was not only known to U.S. authorities, but possibly condoned, maybe even coerced. He spoke about a spreading belief that our country’s military doesn’t mind sending messages that suppresses protests, and chafes at the idea and ideal of a neutral nation in the midst of Europe.
So what were the terms of the two veterans’ release? What does the wait until that Spring, 2021 trial date involve?
At first, Kauff answered, the idea was that the two men stay away from any and all Irish airports. But then it was realized they’d have to return to the U.S. somehow once their passports were returned.
“I’m not allowed to go anywhere near Shannon,” he said. “They had us pay $2500 bail each at the time of our arrest but never asked for more.”
That in itself was seen as exorbitant by the Irish, who pointed out an earlier arrest that had resulted in $1000 fines that were never paid, and 30 day jail sentences never served for more than a couple of hours.
How was Irish jail?
Kauff noted how “prison is prison,” but then spoke about how the guards at Limerick Prison would treat he and Ken Mayers with respect, telling them, “Fair play, lads,” a note of camaraderie and support.
In the months since they were set free, but unable to get their passports and leave, the two men moved from home to home, supported by friends and fellow activists, and participating in a number of protest walks across Ireland.
Kauff said that the times were many that he remembered previous overnights in American jails with his fellow Veteran for Peace, the late Jay Wenk.
“You know, I enjoyed Ireland. But it was wrong that our passports were taken,” he said. “I think it is wrong that over a million have died from U.S. wars since 9/11, and that our military does so much to support policies that harm our climate so…These are crimes against the very existence of life on earth. We had a vision, and still have it, that at some point the Irish people will say to the United States, ‘We love you but we do not want to be a part of your wars.’”
So is Tarak Kauff planning a return to Ireland any time before his court date?
Yes, he replied, he and his partner Ellen Davidson will be going to support new Irish friends facing jury trials for similar actions at Shannon this coming March.
But before then, he added, he wants to spend some time cozying up in Woodstock, seeing more of the friends who were there to support him when he arrived back at Newark Airport a few weeks back, and keep coming around to reinforce that support for those among us who still fight the good fights.
“It’s very important we keep doing what we have to do,” Tarak Kauff concluded our talk. “It’s ongoing.