The Story of a Former Military Officer Turned Peace Activist

March 17th, 2023 - by Pillars of Society / The Phoenix

Edward Horgan: The Story of a
Former Military Officer Turned Peace Activist

Pillars of Society / The Phoenix

DUBLIN (March 10, 2023) —Recently acquitted of criminal damage to a US navy warplane in Shannon Airport six years ago, the 77-year-old ex-military officer, commandant Edward Horgan, must be one of the most resilient (and formidable) anti-establishment campaigners Ireland has seen for many years. He has been in and out of Irish courts and Garda holding cells down the years in his campaigns for peace and he has returned his military and UN decorations and his presidential commissioning certificate in protest at the government’s participation in the Iraq war (given the US military’s transit to the Middle East via Shannon).

He is a founding member of the Shannon Peace Camp and a leading member of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance. And in his writings and ideas — as enunciated to peace activists and defenders of Irish neutrality — Horgan has become the most effective, human face of the peace movement in Ireland over several decades.

Horgan could have become a senior member of the officer class, possibly even a chief-of-staff, had he played the game with the top brass and relevant ministers. He describes the highlight of his military career as his appointment in 1983 as officer commanding the 1st tank squadron.

In 1985, Horgan became senior instructor in armoured warfare at the Command and Staff School, where he says he had to teach future senior commanders of the armed forces military strategy based on manuals from the British and US armed forces, which “I knew were almost totally inappropriate towards defending the territory and people of the Irish republic”.

As Horgan puts it: “I had concluded that Ireland did not have the resources to defend its territory by conventional military means and that it could only be defended, as our independence had been achieved, by guerrilla warfare.

“The counter argument was that if we had a squadron of fighter aircraft and a brigade of tanks and other associated military equipment, we could defend Ireland against any likely aggressor. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were to discover to their cost, that hundreds or even thousands of slightly out-of-date tanks and aircraft were useless against the conventional weapons of NATO. Their armies were obliterated in the first days of US/ NATO-led attacks on their countries and their unfortunate conscript soldiers were slaughtered in their thousands.

“Algeria and Vietnam had demonstrated the success of the guerrilla-warfare alternative,” he said.

“Our Military College experts got around this conundrum by the clever trick of designing all military exercises as if the invading forces always had just a little less military power at their disposal than we had. No sensible military power would invade a country like Ireland without employing an attacking force about three times the strength of our defending forces. However, since we had a force of less than 10,000 soldiers and given that we had no combat aircraft or modern battle tanks, we tailored our imaginary enemies accordingly.

“When I suggested at exercises debriefs that guerrilla warfare was the only sane option, but that this needed to be planned carefully well in advance, I was told that this was neither army nor government policy, and was told to teach the officially approved doctrines.

“After six months in this appointment, I decided I had had enough of military life, so I opted for early retirement. I had enjoyed most of my 22 years military service and did not want to spend a further 20 years cynically teaching or applying military training that I knew was fundamentally wrong.”

International Experience
There is something fundamental about this disagreement with the military and political establishment as Horgan stuck to the ideas and principles of the Irish anti-colonial experience against the new, ‘modern’ officers and politicians anxious to be in step with their transatlantic superiors.

For the next decade or so, Horgan worked in senior security and safety employment in places such as Aughinish Alumina in west Limerick and Trinity College Dublin, before spending several years working on democratisation and election supervision in over 20 countries.

He also spent several years boning up on international politics and peace analysis, securing more than one postgrad degree on such topics to accompany his international experience, which by now had transformed him into a deeply committed peace campaigner.

Many such activists pinpoint various EU treaties between the mid-1980s and late noughties [the decade from 2000 to 2009] as the process whereby Irish ministers turned against the honourable policy of non-alignment and neutrality that had formerly distinguished Irish foreign policy. These treaties began with the 1987 Single European Act and were followed by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the 1998 Amsterdam Treaty, the 2002 Nice Treaty and the 2008 Lisbon Treaty. The latter two were initially rejected by Irish voters who subsequently endorsed them following reassurances from the EU that Irish neutrality would not be compromised by the treaties.

In an Irish Times (IT) article just after the Lisbon Treaty was endorsed in a second vote in 2008, Horgan demolished the superior D4 view of neutrality as espoused by IT hack Peter Murtagh days earlier, who dismissed “insular… neuralgic and myopic arguments over neutrality”.

In his simple but authentic and most persuasive style, Horgan wrote: “On March 20th, 2003, the government invoked the status of neutrality by declaring Ireland a neutral state, but contravened the Hague Convention by allowing US troops to use Shannon Airport for its war on Iraq. An implied condition of neutrality is that states do not enter into military alliances, such as NATO, or an EU army if such develops.”

He also wrote: “Peace must be created by peaceful means, not warfare. In exceptional circumstances peace must be enforced by legitimate UN authority, not by self-appointed vigilantes such as the US, the UK or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation [NATO]”.

Horgan claimed that he and his allies support an active, positive neutrality that reflects the past policies of Éamon de Valera and Frank Aiken, “active supporters of the League of Nations and the UN”.

Here again, Horgan reflects the divide between the values of anti-colonialism that were reflected in Fianna Fáil governments and some other parties in the first 50 years of the state and the new establishment that thinks it is somehow internationalist to be part of the western war machine.

A most interesting if nonintellectual argument that determined just which ideas about neutrality would – or would not – become available to readers of the liberal Irish Times came quickly. Horgan found that, since that article 15 years ago (August 2008), the paper of reference has not published any further articles presented to it by the peace campaigner. Like others – northern republicans and Eurosceptics in particular – such censored individuals eventually give up composing and submitting articles that jar with the Tara Street line.

The year before this exchange, Horgan had taken the government to the High Court, claiming that the government’s facilitation of armed US troops journey to Iraq, via its stop-off at Shannon, was unconstitutional on two grounds and was also “a breach by the state, as a neutral state, of the customary rules of international law and is thereby unconstitutional” (under Irish law).

Bush Visit
Judge Nicky Kearns dismissed all three grounds of Horgan’s case but, on the issue of neutrality and international law, he conceded that “the court is prepared to hold therefore that there is an identifiable rule of customary law in relation to the status of neutrality, whereunder a neutral state may not permit the movement of large numbers of troops or munitions of one belligerent state through its territory en route to a theatre of war with another”.

However, Kearns concluded: “Where a conflict arises, the rule of international law must in every case yield to domestic law.”

Horgan’s next incursion was rather more dramatic and he, along with two other antwar activists, caused a commotion when they entered an “exclusion zone” in the Shannon Estuary in June 2004, when then-US President George W. Bush was visiting Ireland. Two boats were launched from the LÉ Aoife while a helicopter circled overhead as the three cockleshell heroes were pursued and confronted by the forces of the state that night. [See footnote]

At Ennis District Court, judge Joseph Mangan dismissed charges against the three of refusing to obey an order to leave the exclusion zone. The judge also dismissed the charge of entering the exclusion zone without permission after he rejected the state’s application to amend the charges against the three.

In recent years, Horgan’s main political and peace activity is that of letter writer to newspapers and contributor to others in tracts that both intellectually arm his supporters and persuade others to adopt the cause. His writings on Palestine, Yemen, Syria and the other larger theatres of war and carnage such as Ukraine are textbook examples of lucid, knowledgeable and persuasive political polemics. As his day job, he also manages the Centre for Care of Survivors of Torture in Dublin.

Naming the Children
However, Horgan’s main project these days is the Naming the Children campaign, an effort to name as many children as possible the first Gulf war in 1991 to the present day.

Horgan writes: “When we include the dreadful statistic that up to half a million Iraqi children died as a result of US-driven UN sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, one begins to realise that the total number of children who have died as result of these wars may be as many as one million.” (The Iraq figure is a United Nations statistic).

Horgan made much of this campaign when arraigned before the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court in January, along with Dan Dowling, on charges of trespass at Shannon Airport and causing criminal damage to a US navy aircraft (writing “Danger, danger, don’t fly” on the plane). Horgan presented a folder to the arresting garda with the names of up to 1,000 children who had died in the Middle East.

He spent much time explaining to the jury and a most attentive judge Martina Baxter that his only intent was to “try and minimise the number of people who are being killed in the Middle East, especially children. So that’s why and I believe that I did have lawful excuse.”

Horgan added that his “subsidiary” reason for going into the airport was to highlight the wrongdoing of the government at Shannon and “the failure of the gardaí, under instructions from the government, I’m presuming, to search the planes”.

The efforts that the state prosecutor, barrister Jane McCudden, made to paint Horgan as some extreme political agitator may not have been the best tactic as he batted aside such accusations with ease.

The jury did not take long to acquit the two of criminal damage but presumably felt compelled to convict on the trespass charge, whereupon Judge Baxter ordered that they each pay €5,000 to a women’s refuge in Clare. Passing sentence, she also described both men as displaying “upstanding character, composure and dignity” at all stages during the trial. “You are upstanding people; you have behaved with courtesy and dignity throughout,” Judge Baxter said.

Horgan’s old-world charm and civility, as recognised by the judge and others, are merely part of his armoury, which at bottom is a clear, well-read analysis of global politics and militarism and an ability to express it succinctly in an Irish context.

EU-NATO Co-operation
Never was such analysis so needed as our ‘statesmen’ – Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and even Green Party leader Eamon Ryan – begin to behave like European leaders in the run-up to the Great War in 1914, a mad rush that even drew in what are now called the parties and leaders of European social democracy; all except Ireland’s James Connolly.

A specific development this year – that was either unnoticed or deliberately downplayed by the mainstream media and body politic – was the joint declaration on EU-NATO co-operation, delivered in mid-January. It spoke of EU/NATO “shared values” and the grave threat to Euro-Atlantic security posed by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, before warning of the “growing strategic competition” posed by “China’s growing assertiveness”.

It also emphasised repeatedly the need for EU-NATO unity. But the real message in the 14-point statement came in number eight, which said: “NATO remains the foundation of collective defence for its allies and essential for Euro Atlantic security. We recognise the value of a stronger and more capable European defence that contributes positively to global and transatlantic security and is complementary to and interoperable with NATO”.

This is a clear statement by the EU that, while its plans for militarisation of the union are still on train, it is NATO that calls the shots in the Western alliance from now on and plans for an EU army that would be independent of and even a rival to NATO have now been recognised as pipe dreams.

Horgan is well aware of such developments – caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and NATO’s meddling in the first place. One expects to hear from Horgan on this issue in due course. In the meantime, the pacifist warrior was at it again this weekend with a letter to the Sunday Independent. In it, he attacked Micheál Martin for breaching Irish neutrality as a minister in past governments and in the current Cabinet that has agreed to send Defence Forces personnel to train Ukrainian soldiers.

Posted with the permission of Phoenix Magazine, Dublin, Ireland.


  1. Ed Horgan adds a clarification: “The LE Aoife is an Irish Naval Service patrol ship used mainly for fishery protection. I discovered afterwards the Irish army Chief of Staff was in the Irish air force helicopter that was circling overhead while a former army officer was being arrested by a combination of the Irish Navy, the Irish air force, the Irish army and police force. I felt very important!!”