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PN 75: On that day: Bill Hetherington

Bill Hetherington on his activities on (and around) 6 June 2011 - PN's 75th birthday.

In the month leading up to 6 June a major pre-occupation was preparation for International Conscientious Objectors’ Day, 15 May.

For the past ten years I have prepared a list of representative COs of as many countries as I can find a name for, to be read out at the annual COs’ ceremony in Tavistock Square, London, whilst white flowers each bearing the name of a CO are laid on the Commemorative Stone. Each year further research expands the list, and this time there were 75 names, ranging from Maximilian, beheaded in 295 AD for refusing service in the Roman Army, to COs recently imprisoned in South Korea and Egypt., and Michael Lyons awaiting court-martial in Britain for refusing as a volunteer medic in the Navy to undertake weapons training preparatory to assisting Allied forces in Afghanistan. The same list was also read out at ceremonies in peace gardens in Birmingham and Manchester, and these actions gave impetus to a ceremony at the peace plaque in Oxford.

I have been much involved in the case of Michael Lyons, having attended his unsuccessful hearing by the Advisory Committee on COs in December 2010, and included his case in a written submission by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) to the Commons Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 2011.

On 20 May I attended a preliminary hearing of Michael’s court-martial, in which his counsel raised issues as to the validity of the disobedience charge against him, in relation both to his status as a medic under the Geneva Conventions and his appeal as a prospective CO being pending at the time of the order which he disobeyed. The judge having ruled against counsel’s submissions, I shall attend the full court-martial in early July.

Immediately before COs’ day I attended the annual Peace History Conference at the Imperial War Museum, which included two WW2 COs, man and woman, admirably explaining their apparently still controversial stance to a group of school pupils. The conference and the CO Day event produced new information on individual British COs for the ever-expanding PPU database of British COs, including access to an autograph book signed by some 100 men in Home Office work camps in WW1.

On 4 June I was at the PN 75th birthday party, and amongst others I reminisced with a group of us former activists in the Committee of 100 in the early 1960s, but all still active in various ways 50 years on. An unexpected reminder was a PN page displayed including my mugshot at the trial of the BWNIC 14 [British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign] in 1975, a case in which PN appeared largely. It was particularly memorable for the jury, after 51 days of evidence and argument, taking only 90 minutes to find us not guilty on all 31 charges in the indictment.

A couple of weeks later I was one of the hosts/guides of the PPU peace walk taking a group from Tavistock Square to Victoria Park Gardens, explaining the peace connections of numerous monuments and buildings as we passed, ranging in topics from COs, Hiroshima and Gandhi to former office of PPU and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the first General Assembly of UN, and the Parliamentary Pacifist Group.

If these activities seem to have a historical bias, I would add that at the time of PN’s 75th birthday this is not altogether surprising. I would further mention that I sometimes describe myself as an archivist who is also an activist, and one purpose of reflecting on our heritage as peace activists is to understand and appreciate the rich inheritance we have. As the motto on the CO Stone says, “Their foresight and courage give us hope”.

I also attempt to be enabler of continuing peace activity, by my membership of PPU Council and of Peace News Trustees (the body which oversees Peace News and Housmans Bookshop). Both of these have had meetings within the 75th anniversary period and both have had to contend with the problems of funding in these perilous economic times.

Bill Hetherington is peace history archivist and Trustee of Peace News