Putting the wrong ones on trial by Mark Steel

Dandelion Salad

by Mark Steel
May 26, 2008

Raytheon makes missile systems used to destroy civilian homes, but antiwar activists are the ones who get put on trial.

THERE’S A trial currently taking place in Belfast, that seems to explain plainly how nothing makes any sense. It revolves around a factory owned by the arms company Raytheon, which was set up in Derry soon after the IRA ceasefire. John Hume, who’d just won the Nobel Peace Prize was among those who announced the opening of the plant, welcoming it as a result of the “peace dividend.”

So at last, now that the men of violence had agreed to give up their weapons, the area could attract a peaceful company with a turnover of $17 billion from making weapons.

Clearly, all the while the IRA were decommissioning their arms, most of us misunderstood this process. Because the government reports must have gone “They possess 100 rifles, 10 RPG 7 rockets and a shed full of semtex. If they want to be taken seriously, this isn’t nearly enough; they need Tornado bombers and a car park full of tanks–we can’t deal with these amateurs.”

For example, when Raytheon won a contract to develop a new missile system for the Israelis in 2006, a spokesman boasted they would “provide all-weather hit-to-kill performance at a tactical-missile price.” Next, they might have ad that go “Hurry, hurry, hurry to the Raytheon springtime sale for lasers, tasers and civilian-erasers that will make flesh sizzle through snow, sleet or drizzle, without making a casualty of your wallet.”

Despite this, the government in Northern Ireland welcomed the new plant, claiming they’d been assured it wouldn’t be making weapons. To which a reasonable response would be “Right, they’re a weapons manufacturer–they supplied weapons to, amongst others, the Indonesian military junta. This might, if you were cynical, suggest they make weapons. Or what do you think they’re going to be making–fairtrade fucking custard?”

Eventually, it was admitted that they were making guidance systems for missiles, and so for a while, there was a pretense these were being employed for peaceful reasons. Perhaps the systems were being attached to wasps so that a central controlling network could guide them away from picnics.

But then, it became clear they were being used by the Israelis in Lebanon, and there was outrage in Derry when, in 2006, one such system guided a missile into a block of flats in Qana, killing 28 people, mostly children. A few days later, the local antiwar group, including the journalist and civil rights activist Eamonn McCann, decided to occupy the Raytheon building as a protest.

A group of nine got into the plant, and as a gesture, they threw a computer out of the window. Eventually, around 40 police arrived and as Eamonn describes, “They smashed through the doors wearing riot gear, many holding perspex shields, some pointing plastic-bullet guns. They inched forward while the officer in command shouted, ‘Surrender!’ We continued playing cards.”

And as I know Eamonn, I can imagine him later that night in the police cell muttering, “Tonight did not go as planned at all–I was sure no one would beat my pair of queens.”

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THEN CAME the official outrage–they’d willfully broken the law, destroyed property, etc., etc. So maybe whether an act of destruction is considered illegal or not comes down to the value of the objects destroyed. And computers are worth a fair packet, whereas a house in Qana can probably be picked up for next to nothing, especially with the current housing slump!

Perhaps the activists went about their protest in the wrong way. The more official approach might have been to leave Raytheon alone, but announce the local co-op was making weapons. Then they could have produced a dossier to prove it, containing snippets from the Internet about how the manager had been buying uranium from North Korea and smuggling it into the fridges in packets of fish fingers. Then they could have flattened the place, and when it turned out there never were any weapons, they could have said it doesn’t really make any difference.

Last year, the group travelled to Qana to meet the families of the victims of that missile, and they described the trip, not surprisingly, as the most moving experience of their lives.

But while it’s all very well feeling compassion for dead civilians, someone has to consider the feelings of that poor computer, so this week their trial began, in a no-jury court in Belfast. Because opposing the bombing of civilians with missiles made as a result of a peace process can land you in jail, whereas organizing international support for bombing those civilians gets you a job as peace envoy to the place that was bombed. It’s obvious when you think about it.

I only hope that as the computer hit the ground, in its last moment, it flickered, “You have performed an illegal operation.”


Mark Steel is a comedian, a columnist for the Independent newspaper, and a socialist and activist in Britain. He’s the author of two collections about contemporary Britain, It’s Not a Runner Bean: Dispatches from a Slightly Successful Comedian and Reasons to Be Cheerful–as well as Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution.

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2 thoughts on “Putting the wrong ones on trial by Mark Steel

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