Historical Posters: Trial of Conspirators for Peace at the Old Bailey

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Always looking out for historical law and justice related art whether in posters, broadsheets, murals, street art or in pamphlets, ephemera and so forth.

I came across these few art works created for the ‘Defend the 14 Campaign’ of the early 1970s in the UK. Who remembers?

 

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I clearly remember the turmoil of the 1970s, ‘The Troubles’, as the fighting for peace raged in the UK and Northern Ireland.

 

1975 14 peace activists were charged under the Incitement to Disaffection Act 1934 with conspiracy to incite disaffection. They had distributed leaflets produced by the British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign (BWNIC) entitled ‘Some Information for Discontented Soldiers’, encouraging soldiers not to serve in Northern Ireland and providing details on how to avoid service there.

 

While the Campaign was generally about defending the free speech rights of the 14 ‘conspirators for peace’ it was more specifically aimed at having the charges dropped. When that did not happen the Campaign became a rallying force in support of the 14 conspirators as they faced an allegedly politically motivated trial at the Old Bailey in London.

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A free speech postersput out by the British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign Defence Group.

BWNIC had its roots in the pacifist movement and came to prominence following some court cases around the leaflet, “Some Information for Discontented Soldiers”. Supporters of BWNIC had been leafleting serving soldiers giving them information on their rights of conscientious objection. Many soldiers were unhappy about the war in the Six Counties and there was a steady trickle of deserters.’

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The following notes from 40 years ago: How do you plead? a commentary by Albert Beale (one of the 14 charged) in Peace News, gives some insight into the attempts to have the conspiracy charges dropped, the public outcry and protests, including from the international community.
The trial of the 14 people charged with conspiracy to incite disaffection began on September 29, with a valiant attempt to get the conspiracy charges thrown out. PN2bluegrey_opt[1].pngThe main argument was that one could not conspire to attempt something (the word ‘attempt’ being included in the 1934 Incitement to Disaffection Act itself); either one attempted something or conspired to do it. The prosecutor explained that if he had brought all the substantive charges he could have done under the 1934 Act, they would have added up to 20 years [of possible imprisonment] anyway. So they might as well have it all in a lump with a conspiracy charge (or words to that effect). The Judge agreed…. September 27-28 was a ‘weekend of action’ to gain publicity for the beginning of the trial on the Monday. [In London, on Saturday] 150 people formed a poster parade and moved to the Home Office. Here the petition organised by the Peace Studies people in Bradford was handed in by Peter Hain and Bruce Kent, while everybody else sang Conspiracy Songs… copies of the Incitement to Disaffection Act were burnt… Supporters in other countries also showed their solidarity. Copies of ‘Some Information for Discontented Soldiers’ [a leaflet at the centre of the trial] were distributed [at British army bases] in West Germany… and in West Berlin, where three leafleters were arrested. In Belgium, [campaigners] gave leaflets to British soldiers stationed there. Pickets were held all over Europe outside British Embassies and Consulates… In Strasbourg, [local activists] gave out leaflets at the European Parliament. In the USA, 39 ‘movement celebrities’ (Noam Chomsky, Phil Berrigan, Liz McAlister, Barbara Deming…) signed an open letter… which was delivered to the British Embassy in Washington and the British UN Mission in New York. Support actions also took place in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and in Honolulu members of Catholic Action picketed the offices of British Airways.

 

The conspiracy charges meant there was no upper limit to the prison sentences faced by the defendants.

The trial at the Old Bailey lasted 51 days, a long trial in the scheme of things.

The jury acquitted all the defendants in December 1975 holding that the leaflet, ‘Some Information for Discontented Soldiers’, produced by the British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign was not an incitement to disaffection.

 

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This exchange (below) between the judge and defendant at the opening of the trial, formed the basis of this widely circulated poster. Originally the two quotes were on the front cover of Peace News.  The first quote is from one of the defendants, Tenebris Light (I think charged under his given name, Michael Westcott) responding to being asked whether he pleaded guilty or not guilty. The second is that of the Judge, Neil McKinnon.

 

‘How do you plead?’ ‘I plead for peace in a world of war, love in a world of hate, free speech for all, and an end to politically-motivated trials in this country.’ ‘I shall have to have a medical report on you if you’re not careful.

 

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Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland

 

This commentary by Albert Beale in the January 2016 issue of Peace News “40 years ago: Expensive production a big flop”elaborates on the real reasons for the issuing of the pamphlet by the pacifists – to make contact with the many discontented soldiers and to explain the rights and meaning of conscientious objection:

Someone in the Department of Public Prosecutions now has a very red face. Not only has the main attempt to stamp out communication with soldiers failed, but it has given an embarrassing amount of publicity to soldiers’ lack of rights and their ignorance of those they have, and also to the existence of the British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign. Northern Ireland may not have trial by jury, but we still do, the factor the DPP probably didn’t take into account…. Now that no-one need hand out this leaflet as an act of defiance against repression, let us recall its original purpose was not to provoke a confrontation with authority, but to make contact with the many discontented soldiers, to respond to their needs and to widen their choices…. From the statement to the jury by defendant Phil Cadbury: ‘I am an agent of a foreign power… the power of love, which seems to be foreign to this court’…. The jury retired on Wednesday 10 December at 11am. By 12.40, they were back with a resounding acquittal on the 31 counts they had to decide. They were officially dismissed, but all came back after lunch to ‘keep an eye on [Judge Neil] McKinnon’ while he sentenced Gwyn Williams and John Hyatt [two of the 14, who had admitted separate offences of helping soldiers who were Absent Without Leave]. For a few minutes the people took over the court, showing a solidarity with their sister and brother that must have shaken the court officials. In the cheering and waving and hugging that followed [Gwyn and John were only fined], the distinctions, preserved rigidly by the geography of the court, broke down between defendants, friends in the gallery, the lawyers, the press, the jury; there were only people. ‘This is a bad day for the country,’ Michael Coombe [the prosecutor] was heard to remark. Ah yes, but a great day for the people.

 

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Divis Street Murals, Belfast | © Ardfern/WikiCommons Divis Street in Belfast city centre is the starting point of the Falls Road, marked with a republican mural that celebrates the thousands of women from the west Belfast suburb of Andersonstown, who marched into the Falls district to disrupt a 36-hour curfew that had been imposed by British troops searching houses for weapons during 1970. The women and children brought with them groceries for the locals confined to the area.

*For more murals and wall art in the genre see here: Ireland’s most powerful murals

The defendants argued they were not trying to disaffect soldiers but to assist those already disaffected. Most of those arrested were in the libertarian/Peace News milieu rather than supporters of physical force nationalism. The affair fatally damaged BWNIC though as few people had the energy to rebuild the campaign. It did, however, become a little easier for soldiers who had developed a conscientious objection to war to get out the army so some progress was made. This was the second such prosecution of BWNIC members. In an earlier case Pat Arrowsmith was convicted and given an 18-month custodial sentence, later reduced on appeal. Arrowsmith subsequently brought a case against the government — Arrowsmith v UK (1978) — arguing that the 1934 Act breached Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (freedom of religion) on the basis that the 1934 Act prevented her from expressing her pacifist beliefs. The court ruled that such restrictions could be justified in the interests of national security and to protect public order.

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