The After School Arms Club: Highlighting loopholes by brokering arms legally into Ireland

In 2006 well known campaigning comedian Mark Thomas approached Irish non-governmental organisation Afri having become aware of Afri’s work on the arms trade. He asked if Afri would put him in touch with a secondary school in Ireland. Afri introduced Mark to Barbara Raferty, aware of the consistent justice and peace work done at Scoil Chroist Ri over a number of years.

Key aims of the project:

  • Highlighting the ease with which a group of students could broker arms legally into Ireland (say, from their couch).
  • To influence the government to bring brokering of arms in Ireland to an end.
  • To lift the lid on legal international arms brokering – and the lack of controls
  • To conduct an activity that is entirely legal that challenges standards and legislation in Ireland
  • To raise awareness of human rights abuse and Ireland’s lax laws: Ireland is the only EU country to have absolutely no controls on arms brokering
  • To move beyond ‘facts and figures’ and for students to take ownership and direct an action project themselves in ‘the real world’

The project sought to urge the government to strengthen brokerage laws through:

  1. Coverage: ensure the brokerage for all military goods are covered, from leg irons to tanks and in particular torture equipment and small arms
  2. Transparency: introduce a register for brokers and arms dealers in Ireland and that they be forced to be licenced – thus brought under control of Irish law and compelling them to have knowledge of the law
  3. Regulation: a licence should be required to broker arms
  4. The government had not yet implemented EU common policy on the issue although it had promised legislation later than the year 2005.

There was a glaring lack of any legislation to control the activities of arms brokers operating out of Ireland, despite clear evidence linking them to shipments in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. It is legal for people to set up arms deals from Ireland so long as the killing and torture tools did not end up in the EU. No one know how many brokers there are in Ireland. It is the ultimate invisible export.

Participants

  • Sr. Barbara Raftery, Scoil Chriost Ri Portlaoise and students Clare Coleman, Margaret Hyland, Laura Kearns, Alison Lewis, Mary Maloney and Maeve O’Sullivan
  • Mark Thomas, comedian and political activist | www.markthomasinfo.co.uk
  • Joe Murray, Afri (Action from Ireland)
  • Amnesty International and Frontline
  • Channel 4 production crew

Timeframe

Preparations began in February 2006, and ended in April following the Channel 4 Dispatches programme and subsequent follow on media work

Materials

  • Mobile phone, access to the internet
  • Research notes

Research on campaigns and updates on the global arms trade and Amnesty International reports on the subject at http://amnesty.ie

Process

The students in Ireland linked up with students in the UK who were working on a similar exercise – attempting to broker arms legally. Sharing experience, resources and tips bolstered the groups and widened the demonstration beyond simply one class or group of students. Skype and email were instrumental communication tools.

The students prepared in advance of setting up a ‘dummy company’ to conduct the arms brokering demonstration project by:

  • Reviewing previous class projects and learning that they had conducted on the global arms trade and saw this project as an extension of earlier learning. The whole class had been involved in these projects and were all offered the opportunity to take part in the After School Arms Club
  • Researched arms dealers via the internet
  • Interviewed people who had been tortured
  • Visited NGO networks for advice, ideas and up-to-date information on the global arms trade and the actions that are currently underway and how this could help focus the After School Arms Club project – arranged visits to Afri and Amnesty International

Due to sensitive nature of the project it was important to not use school resources. This included having separate phone (mobile phone) to conduct transactions for the project only.

Once the dummy company was agreed:

  • Students came up with a business name, address and set up a fake website and made business cards
  • Project secrecy was important – once the project began it was important to not ‘blow cover’ and tell friends and broadcast it before the project goals had been reached. This included working with Channel 4 despite offers from other TV networks in Ireland
  • Organised ‘deals’ on the phone and made contact with arms dealers directly

Preparing for the press conference – writing a press release, drafting a presentation, anticipating key media questions, practicing media contact

Case Study: setting up and running a dummy arms-brokering company

  • They set up a dummy arms-brokering company called Seachtar Associates, and Williams Defence
  • Researched arms dealers through the internet
  • Interviewed people who were tortured
  • Made contact with arms dealers
  • Organised deals using the internet and phone contacts. The students obtained weapons used in torture.
  1. Sourced 5,000-volt electric stun baton from Korea. The stun baton is a well-known “favourite torture device” around the world. They are used in prisons from China to Turkmenistan and from Algeria to Armenia. The electric stun baton is used to inflict pain and force confessions from inmates. The students didn’t ask for the electric shock batons to be sent into Ireland to Korea as they are illegal here. The batons were sent to a peace activist in California were they were not illegal, and from there the baton was destroyed. The students contacted reliable well-known people through peace and social justice networks in USA who accepted the terms of arms brokering demonstration project. A crucial aspect was to make sure that they understood that they weren’t breaking the law or doing anything illegal or unethical.
  2. The students sourced and purchased leg irons from South Africa and had them imported into Ireland. Leg irons were apparently legal in Ireland although banned in other European countries
  3. Sourced a stone thrower from Israel and had it imported into Ireland. Following some email and telephone exchanges, the students were asked if they would represent the firms selling the torture implements. Once the students found an Israeli company prepared to do business with them they passed on the sale to another front company they invented, called William Defence Ireland. From here, Mark Thomas took over and secured a MCS mini cannon stone thrower created by RD Peled (“a manufacturer of riot and crowd control equipment for military and law enforcement applications”) in his kitchen in Israel. The stone thrower hurls approximately 600 egg shaped stones a minute and can cover a distance of 100 metres and has been deployed by the Israeli security forces. It can be mounted on a vehicle or tripod; a sample stone thrower costs $7,500 (approx €5,600). Mark Thomas purchased the stone thrower device and it was shipped to Dublin with a note from RD Peled stating:
  4. “We would like to let you know that in order to pass customs and security checks without delay we will write that the product is for agricultural use.”

  5. The demonstration: “you don’t have to use stones…use sweets!”. The product was shipped to Ireland and Rafi Peled and his wife Dinah came to Ireland to demonstrate how the stone thrower worked, despite entering Ireland illegally and without a licence. The demonstration was organised in a secure controlled field outside of Portlaoise while the students watched through a top-floor window of a house overlooking the field. These arrangements were carried out by Barbara, Mark Thomas, the film crew and Afri. The girls had live access to the secret cameras positioned around the field in bushes etc and could see and hear the conversation about the lethal stone thrower during the demonstration. Rafi never asked us what we wanted the stone throwers for yet made the point that bullets could identify people – stones could not. Mark invited his company directors to join them on the field, following the demonstration, whereby the six students presented themselves to the arms dealers along with the hidden camera crew. In shock, Rafi suggested that “you don’t have to use stones…use sweets!”
  6. The press conference: the students went straight from the field demonstration to a pre-planned press conference. All of the national newspapers and radio stations were invited.

Project Learning

Some challenges:

  • It’s a challenging goal to set! Determination and group support were essential for maintaining project momentum
  • Danger of being misunderstood by the school community and parents
  • Danger of the material and phone calls we made been used to endanger the teacher or students of the school
  • Timing was important in terms of avoiding school timetabling conflicts – the project took place outside of exam season by wrapping up in early April
  • Could be seen as teaching young people how to buy arms
  • We couldn’t accept the arms (delivery) to the school so we negotiated a third party to receive them in Dublin where we subsequently picked them up
  • Required out-of-class participation and involvement by the students – in the mornings and after school too
  • They drew attention to the Irish government’s lack of action in controlling the arms industry and challenged them to play its part in its role in combatting the use of small arms as 500,000 people die each year from small arms. That equals to one person every minute
  • Preparing for the press conference: all kinds of questions were asked, including: How far the school was involved? How was the money transferred to the dealers? This meant preparation in advance was essential and the students anticipated questions might ask, including writing out speeches in advance. Mark Thomas also agreed to step in if any questions that the students are unable to answer and respond

Lessons and tips:

  • As individuals they might struggle to achieve an ambitious project like this one. As a group, however they have more power and mutually support each other as a team
  • From the beginning it’s essential to include and talk with the parents and school management.
  • Issues and worries tend to resolve themselves easily enough by airing concerns regularly and keeping everyone informed of project process
  • It’s very easy to get information on the internet – even the contact details of arms dealers. If you set yourself practical goals and work towards them anything us possible!
  • The action focus of the project, from the outset, built on previous learning projects that the students had done on the global arms trade. Rather than doing a new project every year, sometimes it is worthwhile investing in a stage II by building on previous experience and knowledge and focusing on the ‘action dimension’
  • Reflection is important on a regular basis with the project team: Mark Thomas reminded the students mid-way through that the project would only succeed if we remained practical in our daily goals by asking ‘what are seeking to achieve today? What are we going to do about it? How are we going to do it?’ each occasion we went into our office or picked up the phone.
  • Energising the team on a regular basis is important to keep spirits and motivation levels high (this can include jokes, taking stock exercises and broader support)
  • Pool resources! Think about how you are funding activities – particularly seemingly grey areas such as the purchasing of arms for demonstration purposes. Afri had an independent source of funds that were not linked to a funded programme or to government funding that they made available to us as part of the After School Arms Club project
  • There were many valuable lessons to teach the girls on citizenship and human rights from a global perspective in a hands-on way
  • Considering the sensitive nature of the project anytime the students were making calls or being active on the project it required adult supervision
  • Setting up a ‘dummy company’ is easier than it might seem. Websites can be produced quickly and for minimal cost as there are many free website services online. Printing off business cards once a dummy company has been established was also relatively cheap
  • Many companies take you at face value. The students’ fake company was never rigorously questioned. Often employees were polite on the phone, for example they were informed that ‘the manager would be back tomorrow’. The same person who answered the phone called back from the company under a different name and the students spotted this. In the end the company was only interested in getting paid for the various goods, including tanks. In the end we wanted something that we could broker into Ireland

Measuring Impact

  • Everything was documented and videoed – this was essential as evidence of progress and as a contribution to the final Dispatches programme (see video link at top of page)
  • Following the press conference and national coverage in print and radio media in mid-March in 2006 (see links below in Links to Project Activities below) the Dispatches show aired on Channel 4 two weeks later. Government representatives were not interested in the project or the issues in advance of the press conference.
  • The Irish government had not enacted the EU Common Position (which included arms brokering controls), produced on 23 June 2003, and were not making progress on that front up until the airing of the Dispatches programme
  • Following the Dispatches programme the Irish government introduced an amendment to the Control of Exports Order, 2005 in July 2006. It took two more years before the government had legislation in place through the 2008 Control of Exports Act that included licensing controls over brokering activities (whether undertaken inside or outside Ireland, or by an Irish citizen or company).
  • An update on 1st May 2011 to the 2008 act now imposes a licensing requirement in respect of brokering activities relating to goods and technology on the EU Common Military List (The Control of Exports (Brokering Activities) Order 2011)
  • The students were invited to take part in an international human rights defenders conference in Dublin organised by Frontline – they met people who had been subjected to torture and shared experiences
  • Students invited to present experience and learning from the project to Amnesty International and the Frontline annual conference in Dublin of summer 2006. Youth to adult education, as well as peer learning, was a crucial in terms of challenging the idea that school is the only place to learn. The students became qualified advocates of their project in educating the NGO community and adults who work towards peace in Ireland
  • The students, Barbara and Mark made presentations at the Afri’s Annual Conference, 2008
  • The students from England travelled to Ireland and brokered arms (the leg irons and stone throwers) in the Republic of Ireland, bringing them back through Northern Ireland and into the UK mainland. Showing that people from other countries could broker arms through Ireland as a third party country was also demonstrated
  • The owners of RE Peled, the couple who transported and sold the stone-thrower to the students, were investigated by Israeli police authorities following a complaint made by lawyer Nick Kaufman and the airing of the programme, as reported in Israeli newspaper Haaretz in September 2007
  • In April 2014 Ireland was one of the first EU countries to ratify the global Arms Trade Treaty, following strong support for it during its negotiations in recent years. More info on the Amnesty Ireland website news report.

Project links and media pick-up

Media attention during and following the project was vast. A selected list of documents and links are below for reference purposes.

Project documents

Media pickup

Campaigns pickup

Interviewed as part of the national survey research of development education at post primary level in a 2011 report, Learning to Read the World: teaching and learning about global citizenship and international development in post-primary schools.