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The Greens' new senator on her activist past and the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior

Former surf champion Grace O’Sullivan has had a pretty unique career to date.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

AFTER HALF A decade out of the Oireachtas, the Green Party are back.

Following a Dáil wipeout in 2011, the party put in a strong performance in February’s general election – securing seats for leader Eamon Ryan and deputy leader Catherine Martin.

Grace O’Sullivan became their third representative in Leinster House in the subsequent Seanad election – taking a seat in the upper house on the Agricultural Panel. It will be her first full-time job in politics, but the Tramore native is no stranger to activism…

34 Grace O'Sullivan climbs the anchor chain of a Russian warship. Source: Greenpeace

The former surfing champion spent years on board Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior in the 1980s – and was a crew-member on the vessel on the night it was bombed by French agents.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie this week, O’Sullivan set out her reasons for joining up with the environmental campaign group – and gave us her account of what happened on the night of that tragedy, in July 1985.

“I was a crew-member – a deckhand on board,” O’Sullivan explained.

She had already spent several years on another activist ship in Europe, before linking up with the Rainbow Warrior crew in Florida in 1984.

We were sailing from Florida right through to Hawaii and we went to many many small island nations in the Pacific Ocean. We were talking about nuclear proliferation – the fact that nuclear weapons were growing, that countries were investing more in nuclear arsenals and we were very concerned about that because of the risk of mass extinction from using these weapons of mass destruction.

Encounters with warships

The above picture of the future senator shinning up the anchor chain of a Russian nuclear warship was taken later in the decade, she explained, but it’s indicative of the kind of work they were engaged in throughout the period.

“We wanted to highlight the fact that vessels carrying nuclear weapons were sailing very, very close to dense populations of people. In this case it was the Russians – but also the Americans were sailing very close to populations around the Mediterranean.

In that instance the Russian warship had anchored. We decided someone would climb the anchor chain with the nuclear symbol. [The plan was] we’ll get that photo and show around the world that these vessels are here – and that we oppose this.

grace13 In calmer waters - a more recent photo with Greens leader Eamon Ryan. Source: Grace O'Sullivan/Twitter

The night of the bombing  

O’Sullivan had been allowed ashore on leave on the night two French agents detonated limpet mines and sank the Rainbow Warrior as it sat in Auckland Harbour in 1985.

The vessel had been en route to the Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific, where France was planning a series of nuclear tests.

“I was one of the crew that had been allowed go off for that night,” she explained.

What happened that evening around midnight – there was two limpet mines… The French secret service had placed two limpet mines on the hull of the vessel – one midships, and one down at the propellor shaft.

A number of crew were on board when the first mine went off – and an immediate order was made to abandon ship.

Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour after bombing by French secret service agents. The aftermath of the bombing. Source: Miller/Greenpeace

“Fernando [Pereira] who was our photographer – he went back down to get his cameras which were in his cabin. The cabin was down below in the middle of the boat.

“As he went down the second bomb went off and the boat tilted further to the side – and the water started to come in from the top, from the deck area.

So Fernando was down in his cabin and he probably tried to get back up, and as he did the water started to flood down.

The photographer, who was from the Netherlands, drowned in the bombing.

The very sad thing is that Fernando was the only one of us crew-members who had children. He had two children.

The French Government later admitted its secret service had ordered the attack, and the defence minister, Charles Hernu, resigned.

France also paid some $8 million in damages to Greenpeace, and an undisclosed sum to the family of Fernando Pereira.

We’ll have more from our interview with Grace O’Sullivan tomorrow night. 

Read: Chilling two-minute video captures ‘stunning decay’ of Chernobyl exclusion zone

Read: A nuclear submarine is on fire in Russia, but ‘there’s nothing to worry about’

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