Faith and Activism with Dave Donnellan

On 23 October 2020, anti -war activists Colm Roddy and Dave Donnellan were acquitted of committing criminal damage to Shannon airport in 2016 when they attempted to inspect the US military jets using the civilian airport.

We spoke with Dave about his activism and his faith which helped inspire it.

Could you talk a bit about Christianity and your own faith, and how it influences social justice,  activism and socialism (if you subscribe to that)?

Myself and Colm Roddy entered the airfield of Shannon Airport at 5am on May 25 2016 to protest the presence of the US Military at the airport. I had a spray can with me and as we made our way towards two US warplanes I sprayed crosses on the runway as we went along. I did it because the symbol of the cross means a lot to me. It represents an innocent man put to death through communal human violence. But it also represents the solidarity of God with all victims of human violence both before and since. On the runway of Shannon Airport it symbolised for me the solidarity of God with all victims of US Military violence all over the world. So what I believe in is a living, loving, life-giving God who is an active, creative presence in our world. And although I’d describe myself as left-wing I don’t believe in Socialism or Anarchism the same way that I believe in God. Ideologies like Socialism and Anarchism emerged from within human society as useful sets of ideas to help us live together. Human society itself, though, emerged from within a much broader context of life on the planet and in the universe. And as a species we’re very late to the party at that. But it’s the life itself I believe in and where it comes from, not so much a human inspired ideology. I feel very grateful to be alive and to be able to participate in a conscious and aware way in this amazing and beautiful experience of life. So what took me onto the airfield at Shannon Airport was a desire to protect that life from human violence.

Have there been any Christian social justice movements or groups that you have been influenced by or part of in Ireland or other countries?

the 1980s I was very influenced by the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America. During that time I visited Nicaragua which was a fascinating and heady mix of Nationalism, Marxism and Christianity with, at the time, two Catholic priests holding ministerial posts in the Sandinista government. I went with a London based group and during the trip we met the Mothers of the Disappeared and for the first time I was brought up close up and personal to the suffering caused by war. It was a very intense emotional meeting somewhere in central Nicaragua in the war zone. The mothers who had lost loved ones through the US backed Contra war against Nicaragua told us their stories. I remember one mother who described saying goodbye to her son in the morning and never seeing him again. He died that day in the fighting. It was something that has remained with me ever since. It was from out of that furnace of oppression in Latin America that Liberation Theology managed to forge some very helpful insights that have also remained with me ever since. For example their experience told them that in the midst of oppression the truth only begins to emerge out of the human experience of the most downtrodden, marginalised and powerless. This truth at the margins has a priority for Liberation Theology. The Mothers of the Disappeared in Nicaragua was a good example of that. The truth I learned about Nicaragua from them was of a different order to the truth I learned from the U.S. war propaganda seeking to justify its violence. I remember Ronald Reagan at the time describing Nicaragua as a ‘totalitarian dungeon’ ruled by a dictator but that was a lie. It was when I met and listened to the stories of Mothers of the Disappeared that I began to understand the truth about Nicaragua.

What actions or activities have you been involved in, and what role did faith play in them?

In February 2003 there was an action at Shannon Airport where five people broke in and caused $2.5m worth of damage to a US Navy plane which was parked in one of the hangars. It was a Catholic Worker inspired action and it happened shortly before the onset of the second Iraq War. I knew the group and at the time I had actually contemplated joining them but I had a job and a mortgage to pay so I decided instead to just stay in the background and help them out as a driver. In the days before the action we all stayed at Glenstall Abbey in Limerick and did a daily recce of the airport checking planes. I was in many ways unprepared for such a major action and I was increasingly fearful as the days went by. I remember on the Sunday evening, the day before the action, we were all in the car at the gates of Glenstall and I was telling them I had gone as far as I could go and that I had to head back to Dublin. I had grown very fearful of the whole enterprise. It forced their hand a little so they decided to move to the Peace Camp at the gates of the airport that evening. So after leaving them off I headed back to Dublin. The action happened early the next morning and Deirdre Clancy, who was one of the five, rang me up about 4am that morning from inside the hangar after the action had taken place and I could hear the group in the background saying the rosary. Bertie Ahearn, the Taoiseach of the day, criticised the action He said the government were “a bit over-tolerant of peaceful protesters, when they are not peaceful protesters, carrying hammers, lump hammers and pick-axe handles.”1  It was a gross misrepresentation but it did the job of marginalising support for us. And in the days following although there was massive opposition to the Iraq War there was an ambivalence towards our Non-Violent Direct Action. At the big anti-war march in the days after, carrying a Catholic Worker banner, I remember feeling like a pariah in the crowd. And they made no mention of the action from the stage. Nonetheless one of the advantages of acting out of a justice and faith tradition is the resources that are available to you to help you understand your experience. For example there’s a strong tradition in the bible based on Isaiah 53 of the ‘Suffering Servant’. The Servant who comes up against empire. It describes the Servant as one who is ‘despised and rejected’ by men. Jesus himself is the prime example ending up abandoned by everybody around him. It’s a reminder that anyone who challenges empire shouldn’t expect to win any popularity contests. Today someone like Julian Assange is a good example of a “Suffering Servant”. He’s vilified and rejected in many quarters, totally unjustifiably, and yet the organisation he started, Wikileaks has a 100% record in publishing the truth. It was the truth about U.S. war crimes in Iraq that is probably behind the vendetta against him. It’s interesting exercise reading Isaiah 53 and thinking about Julian.

Charity/NGOs with links to the Church like GOAL, Trocaire etc are embedding themselves withinthe the US led imperial world order (see their ‘humanitarian work’ in AlQaeda occupied Syria)
What do you make of this tendency in the Catholic Church?

I think this tendency is far wider than the Catholic Church. For example there was a famous briefing at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 by Lumumba Di Aping who at the time was the Sudanese climate negotiator for the G77 at the conference. The issue at stake at the time was whether there would be an agreement on 10C or 20C as a safe limit for the planet. The G77, the Small Island States and Bolivia went to the conference determined to getting a 10C deal. And they had the science behind them. They knew that 20C was a death sentence for Africa and Small Island States. “I would rather die with my dignity” Lumumba said, “than sign a deal that will channel my people into a furnace.”
In the event they lost the fight and 20C was accepted as a ‘safe limit’ for the planet by COP15. Di Aping was furious and in the briefing afterwards he singled out Civil Society groups including environmental NGOs like Greenpeace for undermining their efforts to get a 10C deal. Cory Morningstar has done incredible work in this area and I experienced reading her work as a real eye-opener. The fact that environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and were campaigning against the environment on a life and death issue for the entire planet! When Morningstar found was a trail of corporate and state money very successfully directed over many years at the environmental NGOs to co-opt them and their vision away from a planet centered focus and along corporate lines instead. I found it quite shocking that the heart and soul of these NGOs has been so fully hollowed out and all that was left was a carcass.
When you look at Church connected development groups in Ireland like Trocaire or Concern, I don’t think Goal has ever been Church connected, you see a similar trend. A quick look at their websites reveals that Concern is funded by both the UK and US governments and Trocaire is funded by the UK government. This is similar to what has happened to the environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and The heart and soul of these organisations has been hollowed out and all that now remains is a carcass. Their ability to speak out on behalf of the most downtrodden, marginalised and powerless has been compromised.
Both the US and UK governments have been instrumental in funding, arming and training what has been an invasion of jihadi mercenaries into Syria since 2011 with the objective of regime change.
The jihadis have been immensely damaging to the country spreading terror, death and destruction wherever they’ve gained a foothold. Over half a million people have died and the social fabric of the country has been torn apart. So why would two governments who are on the one hand funding jihadis on the other be pouring money into Irish development agencies? The answer is, I believe, in the same cross that I painted on the runway in Shannon Airport. Faith in the Jesus Christ who was crucified is an unwavering belief in the presence of God in the lives of the most downtrodden, marginalised and powerless. The truth we serve as believers is the truth that emerges from their lives. It is not the truth of empire. Like Jesus’ temptation in the desert the devil seeks to tear people away by baubles of funding or influence or reputation. NGOs which succumb become lifeless carcasses.

For any young (or young at heart) Christians who are interested in socialism and social justice,  what paths can they take to make an impact on the world? Thinking primarily of Ireland.

It’s a very personal choice and each person has to make the choice for himself or herself but I think  a good first step is to join a struggle. It could be in solidarity with any one of a number of marginalised and powerless groups. You may even be part of one. That must become a part of your  life. It could be people trying to find a place to live where the rents are too high, people with mental health difficulties where resources aren’t available to support them, it could be people living in  direct provision trying to bring up a family. It could be any number of groups. Get to know the  people and what the experience is like. For people of faith the first step is a step of the heart. Compassion. Allowing yourself to feel the  pain of others. If you’re one of the group yourself that won’t be difficult. The second step is a step of the mind. Finding out what might work to alleviate the pain and allow us all to live to our fullest  potential. I don’t believe in being doctrinaire or dogmatic about ideology. It is there to serve us and  not the other way around. We should use it as long as it serves humanity.

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