An Irishwoman's Diary
Looking back, it seemed the most cumbersome way of doing
things, writes Mary Russell.
First they got the missile into the launcher which then
had to be taken out of its silo, driven to the perimeter
Common US Airbase in Berkshire where the gate would slowly
open and the whole cavalcade - mobile launcher with its Cruise
missile on board accompanied by an assortment of armoured
personnel carriers including Hum Vees - would set out to
make its slow way through the English countryside, in the
dark, to destinations unknown so that the US crew could practise
what to do if they ever had to launch their nuclear missile.
This they did about once a month, their "secret" activities
monitored by that group of people now known as the Greenham
Nuala Young, an Oxford city councillor who also works as
a tour guide, was a regular visitor to Greenham.
We had a great network going. One woman knew another woman
who lived near the house of a US military driver and whenever
this man's wife washed his uniform and hung it out on the
line to dry, word got around that Cruise was due for an outing."
This was the signal for Cruise-Watch to swing into action.
Cars would be waiting at roundabouts to see which way the
huge procession was going and a message would be sent on
ahead so that as the launcher arrived on Salisbury Plain,
a favoured "secret" training ground, women would
pop up from behind strategic bushes holding up their welcome
Of course," Young says, "these were Americans unfamiliar
with the highways of rural Oxfordshire and Berkshire and
they often took a wrong turning. Sometimes, they even went
round the roundabout the wrong way."
The Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp began 25 years
ago when a group of women - and four men - set off from
on a peace protest to walk 120 miles to Greenham Common,
at that time given over to the US Airforce.
Helen John was one of the women and when they reached
their destination, she and a few others chained themselves
the railings. The military told them to move on, explaining
it was hospitality night at the base when the men would
get drunk and possibly rape the women.
They got annoyed when we laughed," said John. "They
didn't realise we weren't that easily put off." Next,
the camp commander was brought out to talk to the women and
made the mistake of telling them angrily that as far as he
was concerned, they could stay there as long as they liked.
Which they did, setting up camps at all the gates and remaining
for 20 years. "We stay," explained John, "until
the job is done."
On Saturday, women and men from all over Britain and
abroad will mark the 25 years of the women's peace
camp by opening
a peace garden at Greenham Common. For the Common has
been returned to the people (bought by a trust for £7
million would be a more appropriate word) and is now
a place where
wild Dartmoor ponies roam free and people walk their
dogs without fear of being arrested.
There is even a seat, carved out of a tree trunk, where
you can sit and gaze at the six huge silos, now empty
in their day housed up to 96 nuclear warheads.
The women were spat on, ridiculed, had urine sprayed
on them from squeezy bottles, were constantly being
rearrested - anything up to 20 times was not unusual
and frequently had all their belongings taken by the
Sarah Hipperson, another regular, now 75, recounts
how she slept outside with only a bin liner for cover
months. They were a mixed bunch: schoolgirls taking
their O-levels, magistrates, Quaker prison visitors,
people on the dole, teachers, retired doctors, nurses,
plain old peaceniks, young women who needed to get
away from home,
feminists who wanted the work of housewives to be put
on the same economic footing as that done by soldiers.
People gravitated towards different gates, according
to their political beliefs - Yellow Gate was the only
men totally, while the other gates welcomed them during
the day only.
And all the time the work went on. Women, self-educated
about legal matters, put on party policemen's hats
at demonstrations and made sure any woman arrested
her rights and that
someone was there to meet her when she was released
from custody. Rotas were organised so that some women
at night guarding tents and benders while others slept.
And there was always humour: one woman regularly brought
knitting into court with her and when called up by
the clerk would ask: "Do you mind hanging on till
I get to the end of this row?"
Disguise was useful when trespassing, so some women
dressed up as furry animals to invade the base or as
to have a picnic within the razor wire.
On one occasion some 50,000 women converged on Greenham
to embrace the base. The sale of wire cutters soared.
Eventually, the Cold War thawed. Gorbachev came on
the scene and talks opened up.
In 1987, the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty was
signed by the US and the USSR under which both undertook
reduce their nuclear weaponry, paving the way for the
missile to be taken out of commission in 1991.
But neither nuclear weapons nor the Greenham women
have gone away.
Last month, Angie Zelter, a full-time environmental
campaigner, boarded a US plane suspected of transporting
personnel via the civilian airport at Prestwick and
is now waiting
to see if she is going to be prosecuted.
Meanwhile, she has set up a project - www.faslane365.org/intro.php - which will enable groups of people to show their
concern at the continuing manufacture of nuclear weapons
Faslane, in Scotland, where the Trident nuclear warhead
is brought from Aldermaston to be loaded on to submarines
nearby Coulthorpe, there to await the push of the red
button by the US military.
The first group to mount the blockade at the end of
October will be Greenham women. War is an on-going
The Irish Times
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