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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 of Greenham 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 Common women.

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 banners.

" 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 Cardiff 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 to the railings. The military told them to move on, explaining that 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 but which 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 arrested and rearrested - anything up to 20 times was not unusual - and frequently had all their belongings taken by the bailiffs.

Sarah Hipperson, another regular, now 75, recounts how she slept outside with only a bin liner for cover for two whole months. They were a mixed bunch: schoolgirls taking their O-levels, magistrates, Quaker prison visitors, countless 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 one to exclude 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 knew her rights and that someone was there to meet her when she was released from custody. Rotas were organised so that some women stayed awake at night guarding tents and benders while others slept. And there was always humour: one woman regularly brought her 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 teddy bears 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 to reduce their nuclear weaponry, paving the way for the last Cruise 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 military 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 - - which will enable groups of people to show their concern at the continuing manufacture of nuclear weapons by blockading Faslane, in Scotland, where the Trident nuclear warhead is brought from Aldermaston to be loaded on to submarines at 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 story.

© The Irish Times

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