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Dublin shows us how it’s done [Part 2]: Solidarity in action for Chelsea Manning and family
The second part of this account, detailing our solidarity trip to Dublin with Private Manning's family members from Wales.
Radicalisation of students, Mums and Manning
A Dublin welcome
On Wednesday 27 November, Susan Manning along with three of her siblings – Chelsea’s aunts Sharon and Mary and uncle Kevin – took the ferry to Ireland from Fishguard, while Ciaron and US Catholic Worker Carmen Trotta set off from Giuseppe Conlon House in London and I left from Wrexham, travelling via Holyhead to converge on Dublin for three intense days during which numerous people made the family feel welcome and supported; it was as if they had ‘come home’ which – in a way – was exactly what they had done.
Their father Billy Fox, Chelsea’s granddad, was born and raised in Rathmines, Dublin and the family hope that they may now meet up with the extended family they have lost touch with over the years. On the Manning side, Chelsea’s great-grandparents, both Mannings, hailed from county Cork with connections to the village of Schull. When asked in an interview whether Chelsea had ever been to Ireland, Susan and Sharon explained how Chelsea (like quarter of a million other US soldiers a year) was transported off to war via Shannon airport. This practice is a huge bone of contention between Irish anti-war activists and a government in thrall to the US that pays only lip service to neutrality.
Speaking with the media
The family did numerous media interviews for press, radio and TV explaining how proud they are of Chelsea for following her conscience and speaking the truth to expose wrongdoing and cover up – although so many other people must have had access to the same information, only Chelsea had had the courage to speak out. Susan recalled the motto of Chelsea’s paternal grandmother who had lived with the family for years in the States:
a maxim Chelsea seems to have taken to heart. Sharon spoke about how she had come to understand Chelsea’s actions only after viewing the Collateral Murder video footage on TV reports, and also recounted the difficulties the family had faced dealing with the US prison authorities over visits in the past three years; these ranged from a visit shortened from 2 hours to 40 minutes by excessive red tape to a flat refusal to allow Sharon in to see Chelsea at Quantico. They told stories from Chelsea’s childhood – winning school, county and state science awards; having a bank of computers at home and an office chair on castors to roll between them; only reluctantly leaving this den to come downstairs to eat Christmas dinner; struggling to cope with the move from the US to Wales and to find acceptance as a small, geeky kid with an American accent, big ideas and a stubborn streak.
Meeting with TDs and NGOs
Our Dublin hosts Afri had requested a meeting with TDs and Senators at the Dáil. This was led by TD Catherine Murphy who greeted us at the gate along with Senator Katherine Zappone. On our way in we met Senator David Norris who apologised for not being able to attend the meeting and suggested (another) nomination of Chelsea for the Nobel Peace Prize. Joe Higgins, Clare Daly, Ming Flanagan and Sean Crowe were among the supportive TDs who listened to the family’s concerns in the meeting and suggested possible actions.
Other introductions organised by Afri included a meeting with Colm O’Gorman and others from Amnesty International (Ireland), during which Susan was presented with a justice and equality certificate from a local school where the children, all under 12, had studied the case a year or two back and had made the award from the whole school to ‘Bradley Manning, in recognition of your work defending the human rights of others’.
The following day we met with staff from two more organisations: Frontline Defenders and Free Legal Advice Centres/Public Interest Law Alliance. Both promised to chase up contacts in the US and to do what they could to raise awareness in Ireland. We were joined at the end of this meeting by Gerry Conlon, arriving in advance of that night’s event at Trinity College and with lots of advice to the family about people who may be able to help them.
The hospitality extended to the family in Dublin was open and generous; for example we enjoyed excellent meals in the homes of Joe & Mary-Lou, Ruairí & Susan, Mairtín & Andrea, at which last we were serenaded by RoJ, Mairtín and Carmen ‘Elvis’ Trotta and treated to some great tunes on the tin whistle from the children.
Solidarity all round
There were solidarity events on three consecutive evenings.
Seamus opened his studio and gallery in Temple Bar for a punk gig on Thursday evening that raised €80 for the Manning Family Fund. Afri hosted a meeting at Trinity College on Friday and there was a farewell social on Saturday at the Brian Boru pub in Phibsborough.
On the Thursday, someone handed me a card for Chelsea to pass on to Susan , made by his 11 year old daughter and with a powerful message of solidarity inside.
Friday event at Trinity College
On Friday afternoon I briefly joined Carmen and Ciaron who were promoting that evening’s meeting outside Trinity College, with Ciaron later street speaking at Temple Bar Speakers’ Corner about Manning’s case, Irish connections, the wider context and the Trinity meeting.
Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four was the main speaker at the Trinity event, which happened to fall on the eve of the 39th anniversary of the beginning of his nightmare – when he was dragged from his bed in Belfast and rendered to London, tortured, framed and imprisoned for the next 15 years for a crime he had no part in. His father Giuseppe followed him to London to try to help, was himself arrested in another appalling miscarriage of justice as one of the Maguire Seven, and never saw freedom again, dying in a British jail in 1980.
The meeting kicked off with songs from Joe Black, including one he composed about Giuseppe Conlon, inspired by the naming of the London Catholic Worker Harringay house of hospitality for Gerry’s father. Video footage of Joe performing this song at the house can be seen here. Other music was provided by RoJ Whelan who performed his song I am Bradley Manning with Ciaron as the human mic stand
The 100+ people assembled watched a pre-recorded address from Gareth Peirce, the human rights lawyer who acted for the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven and who currently acts for Julian Assange, in which she praised Chelsea Manning’s brave and extraordinary actions, denounced the accepted norm that ‘right thinking people should agree with state criminality and do nothing about it’ and commented that Chelsea’s actions were based on the assumption that once right minded people knew about what was going on, they would be motivated to take action.
Carmen Trotta of the New York Catholic Worker spoke next, outlining the significance of the courageous actions of Private Manning in the context of a grim 12 years of ‘war on terror’.
Gerry Conlon then addressed those assembled, speaking passionately about his own experiences, noting how imprisonment isn’t just traumatic for the person in jail but affects the whole family, isn’t just for the period of detention but has lasting and devastating consequences for all concerned. He praised Chelsea Manning, noting the vital need for Mannings, Assanges and Snowdens, the truth-tellers and whistleblowers of this world, and said he wished they’d been around in 1970s Belfast to expose the framing and murder of innocent people at that time; some of these atrocities are only coming to light now, 30 or 40 years on. He called for support for Manning and whistleblowers everywhere.
After Gerry’s speech and RoJ’s performance, Ciaron O’Reilly talked about the importance of solidarity outside for those inside and described his affinity with Manning as a former prisoner of the United States himself, having served 13 months in the 1990s for disabling a B52 bomber as part of a Plowshares action. Ciaron had been held in appalling conditions in a jail close to the Mexican border, arriving by way of Fort Leavenworth where Manning is and will continue to be held. He explained how the solidarity of the 1700 people who had sent letters had saved his sanity and provided physical protection for him on the inside, not least because abusive guards held back once it was clear there were many people out there with an interest in his well-being.
Finally, Chelsea’s aunt Sharon thanked Ciaron, Joe Murray and me for organising the trip and everyone for the welcome the family members had received in Dublin. She went on to comment
There’s a saying… that we all have freedom of speech, but my nephew spoke out and it cost him his freedom.
Sharon described the difficulties she and other family members had experienced during prison visits and concluded
I just wish we could get some more help and support.
Members of the audience were then invited to comment. Contributors included Ruairí McKiernan, a presidential appointee to Ireland’s Council of State, who said it was an honour to meet the Manning family. He said the story of Chelsea’s grandmother telling her repeatedly ‘if you can’t tell the truth, don’t bother talking’ was a powerful thing to reflect on given what Private Manning is being punished for. He talked about the strong Manning family connection to Ireland, that Private Manning had only visited Ireland by using the controversial U.S military stop over at Shannon Airport, and said the Manning family should be congratulated for staying so strong throughout their ordeal. He concluded by saying that Private Manning’s Thanksgiving Day message from prison shows how the important voice of Private Manning isn’t going away despite her imprisonment.
Many people stayed around after the event to meet family members in person and offer their solidarity, support and good wishes.
Farewell gathering for the family
On Saturday night, a social gathering at the Brian Boru pub concluded the visit with live music including traditional tunes and many protest songs. Musicians included Robbie Sinnott on accordion, Joe Black, Mairtín, ‘Elvis’ and others. The family, with a 5am start the next day for the Rosslare Sunday morning ferry, bowed out before the end to fond farewells and many invitations to return.
Thanks to Dave Donnellan, a short video of the whole visit will be produced soon.
Keeping the solidarity going
Acts of solidarity are not hard to commit; the difficulties lie in initiating them in the first place and sustaining them afterwards into an ongoing effort. Both of these challenges are made easier when others get involved with their ideas, energy and enthusiasm, so it was heartening to be part of discussions right through this visit about how the good folk of Ireland might continue to offer their support in various ways. The Wales-based family, meanwhile, were talking about bringing the solidarity home and organising events in Pembrokeshire.
By Saturday night, activist and award-winning playwright Donal O’Kelly, who had met Susan, Sharon, Mary and Kevin at lunch on Friday as well as Friday evening and Saturday night, was hatching a plan to bring a troupe of actors and musicians over to south-west Wales early next year to create the Haverfordwest TruthFest, a Truth Bridge between Ireland and Wales. As Donal explained
The Truth Fest will include mainly theatre and music, interspersed with talks and discussion. The main idea is to show support from Ireland for Bradley/Chelsea Manning and the Manning family, as two grandparents came from Ireland. We want to celebrate truth in solidarity with the Manning family, and in particular the family member who is being punished for following a grandmother’s motto:- if you can’t tell the truth, don’t speak. He told the truth.
Thank you Ireland.
Watch this space!