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Column: 'I do not know what Chelsea Manning will do next. She owes the world nothing'

On the day of Chelsea Manning’s release from prison, campaigner Ruairí McKiernan reflects on the Irish campaign for her freedom.

Ruairi McKiernan Social innovator and campaigner

DURING 2013 I was going through a bit of a hard time when suddenly I started thinking about Chelsea Manning. Chelsea was then a 25-year-old US army analyst who was three years into a thirty-five year prison sentence for revealing files that included evidence of US war crimes.

I wrote Chelsea’s name on a post-it note beside my desk as a reminder of those that are suffering, those that have lost their liberty, those whistle-blowers who like Chelsea, risk their personal freedom for the greater good.

I thought about this young transgender woman and the bullying she had experienced as a child in Wales, the struggles she had faced with her sexuality, the moral challenge of having seen evidence of the slaughter of innocents, and her struggles in prison.

Hosting her family

Life sometimes works in mysterious ways and just days after I wrote on the post-it note Joe Murray at Afri called, asking if I could host Chelsea Manning’s Welsh mother, aunts and uncle for an afternoon during their visit to Ireland.

I’ll never forget that Sunday afternoon at my home as they spoke fondly of Chelsea and her Irish ancestry, her Dublin-born grandfather, and her grandmother who used to constantly say to her, “If you can’t tell the truth, then don’t bother talking.”

The Manning family visit was to cement deep and lasting bonds that have continued over the years. The work of Ciaron O’Reilly, who had previously been on trial over a protest at Shannon Airport, alongside playwright Dónal O’Kelly and campaigner Genny Bove and many others ensured that Ireland was to become a key part of the international campaign for her release.

In the midst of the campaign it transpired that I shared a birthday with Chelsea. This caused me to reflect on what it must be like for Chelsea, ten years younger than me, to mark her birthday in a military prison, far from friends, family and freedom. This in turn led us to hosting an annual Chelsea Manning birthday vigil at the GPO in Dublin each December 17.

Annual Chelsea Manning birthday vigil

There was tremendous strength in this coming together. Representatives from Afri, Amnesty International, Transparency International, Uplift, the Migrant Rights Centre, and LGBT groups joined politicians that included TDs Thomas Pringle, Clare Daly, Catherine Murphy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Joan Collins, Mick Wallace, and Joe Higgins, MEP Luke Ming Flanagan, and Senators David Norris and Alice Mary Higgins.

The outpouring of support also led to the creation of the Afri supported Manning Truthfest, a celebration of Chelsea in her family’s hometown of Haverfordwest in rural Wales led by Dónal O’Kelly and Irish musicians RoJ Whelan, Joe Black, Robbie Sinnott, Imogen Gunner and Paul O’Toole.

It is this type of campaigning and solidarity that has helped keep Chelsea and her family going. It has helped keep her cause in the media and on the political radar, and they inspired solidarity efforts in other countries. There are now calls (see petition) for Chelsea Manning to be given the freedom of Dublin.

Why had the Obama administration so aggressively targeted whistle-blowers?

News last January that President Obama had commuted Chelsea’s sentence to time served of seven years was met with relief. That she would be free come May was something to celebrate and a testimony to the activism that led to Obama being forced to listen.

There was also a bittersweet element to this. Why had the Obama administration so aggressively targeted whistle-blowers in the first place? Surely Chelsea, alongside so many other truth tellers, should have instead been recognised for her moral courage.

“When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.” Chelsea once said in a statement that had echoes of Martin Luther King.

Thanks to the files that Chelsea Manning leaked we now know more about how the world really works. We know about US opposition to a $5 per day minimum wage in impoverished Haiti, where many corporations have manufacturing sweatshops. We know more about the torture of Guantánamo Bay camp. We know more about US support for oppressive Arab regimes.

In discussing her actions, Manning told Amnesty International:

Humanity has never had this complete and detailed a record of what modern warfare actually looks like. Once you realise that the co-ordinates represent a real place where people live; that the dates happened in our recent history; that the numbers are actually human lives – with all the love, hope, dreams, hatred, fear and nightmares that come with them – then it’s difficult to ever forget how important these documents are.

I do not know what 29-year-old Chelsea Manning will do next. She owes the world nothing and deserves a life of happiness and peace. What I do know is that she has given the world a powerful example of moral courage at a time when so many leaders are failing us. She has offered us a light in the dark, a flame to carry forward for the challenging times ahead.

This coming Saturday May 20 members of the Manning family will participate in the 30th annual Afri famine walk in Doolough, Co Mayo. On Sunday from 5.30pm-8.30pm they will be guests of honour at the Celebrating Resistance event at the Teacher’s Club in Dublin. Ruairí McKiernan is an award-winning social innovator, campaigner, member of the Council of State and host of the Love and Courage podcast. His website is www.loveandcourage.org.

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About the author:

Ruairi McKiernan  / Social innovator and campaigner

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