Tuesday, 8 October 2013

‘We stared into the abyss ... and
then stepped back from the brink’

Women encircling the cruise missile base in Greenham Common in 1982

Patrick Comerford

Canon Cecil Hyland has kindly asked me to speak at this meeting this afternoon. I am not quite sure whether I should be explaining why an Anglican priest is President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND), or why the President of Irish CND is an Anglican priest. But let us see where we go.

But first, perhaps, a few words of self-explanation might be useful. For over five years now, I have been President of Irish CND. At different times during the late 1970s and for the first half of the 1980s, I had also been chair, vice-chair and secretary of Irish CND, and for some years I sat on the Council of CND in Britain and spoke at major rallies during the campaigns against the deployment of Pershing and Cruise missiles.

I was a CND activist at the time of the women’s campaign to close down the missiles base in Greenham Common, when Canon John Collins (1905-1982) was still alive and the elder statesman of CND, and when Bruce Kent was an internationally-known radical and turbulent priest.

I was elected President of Irish CND in February 2008, succeeding figures such as John de Courcy Ireland and Sean MacBride. I wondered whether I had become old and grey and too respectable when I was approached about becoming President of Irish CND. But it was an honour that came in the year CND was marking its golden jubilee, having been founded in 1958.

Other great campaigns on issues of global political morality have worked themselves into happier redundancies, from the campaigns for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the more recent Anti-Apartheid Movement. CND has been at the forefront of the peace movement in both Ireland and Britain, and remains Europe’s largest single-issue peace campaign. But its founding figures could not have imagined in 1958 that it would still be campaigning 50 and even 55 years later in 2008 ... in 2013.

Growing up in the 1950s and the 1960s, I was part of a generation that had its fears confirmed by the Cuban missile crisis, for which CND’s logo was an indispensible accessory, and for whom the slogan “Ban the Bomb” was a mantra on every protest march and demonstration.

Public fears about nuclear weapons emerged in Britain in the mid-1950s when the government revealed plans to build its own hydrogen bomb. When JB Priestley wrote an article in the New Statesman on 2 November 1957, “Britain and the Nuclear Bombs,” attacking Aneurin Bevan for abandoning his policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, the New Statesman received an avalanche of supporting letters.

Later that month, the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, chaired a meeting in the Amen Court rooms of Canon John Collins of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The meeting agreed to launch CND, with the philosopher Bertrand Russell as president, Canon Collins as chairman (1958-1964), and Peggy Duff as secretary (1958-1967).

The first executive included Michael Foot and the Nobel laureate Professor Joseph Rotblat, and the first sponsors included the cricket commentator John Arlott, the actors Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Dame Edith Evans and Dame Flora Robson, the composers Benjamin Britten and Sir Michael Tippett, the publisher Sir Victor Gollancz, the writers EM Forster, Doris Lessing and Compton Mackenzie, the scientist Sir Julian Huxley, the sculptor Henry Moore, the cartoonist Vicky, Barbara Wootton, one of the first life peers and author of the Wootton Report, the founder of the Iona Community, George McLeod, and three Anglican bishops: Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the Bishop of Birmingham, Leonard Wilson, who had been a PoW while he was Bishop of Singapore in World War II, and the Bishop of Llandaff, Glyn Simon, later Archbishop of Wales and who commissioned Jacob Epstein’s Majestas or statue of Christ in Majesty for Llandaff Cathedral.

About 5,000 people attended the inaugural meeting of CND at Central Hall, Westminster, on 17 February 1958, and hundreds marched afterwards to Downing Street. The first supporters included Fenner Brockway, EP Thompson, and AJP Taylor, as well as scientists aware of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and Church leaders concerned to resist the moral evil represented by nuclear weapons. The support base included academics, journalists, writers, actors, musicians, Quakers, Labour Party members and trade unionists.

The one early activity most vividly associated with CND was the four-day Aldermaston March each Easter weekend, with tens of thousands of people marching from Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Establishment near Aldermaston.

CND’s first high point came in 1960, when the British Labour Party conference voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament. But Hugh Gaitskell responded with a threat to “fight, fight, and fight again” against the decision. It was overturned at the 1961 party conference, and that year the Foreign Secretary, Alec Douglas-Home, declared: “The British people are prepared to be blown to atomic dust if necessary.”

Meanwhile, in reaction to the tameness of CND leaders who refused to engage in any illegal activities, Bertrand Russell formed the Committee of 100. In effect, the Committee of 100 became the direct-action wing of CND, and during protests in 1961, 4,000 people sat down outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall and 1,300 demonstrators were arrested in Trafalgar Square, including Bertrand Russell, by then 89.

The 1962 Cuban missile crisis raised public fears that nuclear war was imminent. But when the telephone hot-line between Washington and Moscow was set up, the Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba, US missiles were quietly removed from Turkey, and the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, the threat of nuclear war appeared to fade and CND numbers began to dwindle. From the mid-1960s, protests against the Vietnam War eclipsed concerns about nuclear weapons.

After a decade of little activity, there were only six remaining CND members in Ireland in 1979 when I convened and chaired a meeting in Dublin to revive Irish CND. The nuclear threat returned that year with decisions to deploy US Cruise and Pershing missiles in Britain and Western Europe and Soviet SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe, and talk of nuclear war was commonplace once again.

I had remained a member of CND not for political reasons, and certainly not for party political reasons. My Christian faith was first nurtured as an adult in the Anglo-Catholic tradition in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital in Lichfield, and in Lichfield Cathedral. It later benefitted from other experiences, including a brief sojourn among Quakers, but it had found a radical expression in my commitment to pacifism.

Anglo-Catholicism and Quakerism, when mixed, can make a very radical cocktail indeed when it comes to working out in daily life the implications of discipleship. I suppose it is something I share with Canon Paul Oestreicher, who was chair of Christian CND while he was working with the British Council of Churches and later a canon of Coventry Cathedral. Others who influenced my incarnational Anglican activism, to great or lesser degrees, have included: Dean Dick Sheppard (1880-1937), Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941), the Revd Sidney Hinkes (1925-2006), Bishop Colin Winter (1928-1981), Dean Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1912-1991), Bishop Colin Scott and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

With the late Revd Donald Soper (Lord Soper) at an early Christian CND meeting (Photograph: The Irish Times)

I had been involved in a small way in organising the sit-ins in the mid 1970s at the proposed nuclear reactor site at Carnsore Point, Co Wexford, and my pacifism and my resistance to all things nuclear were confirmed when, while I was studying in Japan on a fellowship in 1979, I had opportunities for both an extensive visit to Hiroshima, where I met many surviving Hiroshima bomb victims, and a visit to two, paired nuclear reactors.

Soon after that meeting to revive Irish CND in 1979, I found myself in the middle of a campaign that was growing suddenly and rapidly beyond any of my expectations, due to political decisions that I had never expected or anticipated.

There were major demonstrations in London, Dublin, and other cities in 1981, with similar marches throughout Europe. I addressed the biggest of these rallies in London, when 250,000 people marched to Hyde Park. In a major revival, thousands of new members were joining CND each month and local councils were declaring nuclear-free zones.

Liberty Hall in Dublin overflowed for a screening of The War Game, once banned on the BBC. Scorn was heaped on British civil defence plans in Protect and Survive, a booklet offering DIY instructions on how to survive a nuclear attack in the home. In September 1981, the first women’s march arrived at the US base in Greenham Common, where the cruise missiles were being deployed. The new women’s-only peace camp became a focus and symbol of women’s resistance to nuclear weapons.

Taking part in the Corpus Christi Protest outside the US Embassy on 9 April 1982 when the US navy planned to name a nuclear submarine Corpus Christi (Photograph: The Irish Times, 1982)

I think my father thought at the time that my public profile was embarrassing for him in his club and with his friends. I was pilloried as a communist stooge, as a Soviet agent, I even received a one rouble banknote in the post in an anonymous letter.

I was also chairing Christian CND, but no-one listened to my pleas that I was engaged in CND because of my commitment to Christian discipleship, to working out the demands of my Christian faith. At the time, I was also chairing Christian CND, writing my post-graduate theology thesis comparing different attitudes in the Roman Catholic Church on nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament. As a consequence of a late night meeting in Sean MacBride’s home, Roebuck House, attended by Todd Andrews and Captain John Feehan, I was also commissioned to write my first book, which was published by Mercier Press on 1984 with a title that now seems very twee to me, Do You Want to Die for NATO?

My first book ... written at the height of the CND campaigns of the mid 1980s

The international climate changed when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and a treaty to remove the new missiles was signed in 1987. With the end of the Cold War, the world seemed safer and CND membership declined once again. Yet CND is still on the march, protesting against the US “Star Wars” plans, the wars in Iraq, French nuclear tests and British plans to replace Trident and build new nuclear power stations. But has this single-issue campaign had any successes over the past five decades?

Despite Bertrand Russell’s misgivings about a tame CND, the tactics of the Committee of 100 found widespread acceptance and were imitated from the 1960s on by anti-war and civil rights campaigns across the world.

The women’s camp at Greenham Common inspired and motivated many new forms of protest. The last missiles left Greenham Common in 1991, the land has been restored to the public, and the SS-20s are gone from Eastern Europe, proving the nuclear arms race can be reversed at any stage, and that unilateral measures can be taken without incurring the wrath of the other nuclear powers and without risking nuclear conflagration.

But the ever-growing stockpile of nuclear weapons, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, India and Israel, the potential for nuclear explosives and materials being sold or stolen, the threat of nuclear material falling into the hands of corrupt regimes and terrorists, and environmental fears about the nuclear industry constantly call on CND to renew and reinvent itself.

‘On the Beach’ … an image of nuclear war half a century ago

Nevil Shute, who spent much of his childhood in Dublin, used a memorable quote from TS Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ on the title page of On the Beach (1957), his best-selling novel about life and death in Australia after a nuclear war has destroyed all life in the northern hemisphere:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river...

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.


The story tells of how a global, devastating nuclear war can start accidentally, and by mistaken signals being misinterpreted. Although the novel was published in 1957, it was set in 1963, half a century ago.

At the time Nevil Shute wrote On the Beach, the Cold War was at its height. The New York Times called it “the most haunting evocation we have of a world dying of radiation after an atomic war.”

A reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle called it “the most shocking fiction I have read in years.” The Times of London said this vintage classic is “the most evocative novel on the aftermath of a nuclear war.” The Guardian praised it for playing an important role in raising awareness about the threat of nuclear war. “We stared into the abyss and then stepped back from the brink.” The reviewer in the Los Angeles Times, who found it “timely and ironic,” was left “tearful and disturbed.”

More recently, The Economist has returned to On the Beach and said it is “still incredibly moving after nearly half a century.”

A few weeks after the film version of On the Beach was released, starring Gregory Peck, and the day before he died, Nevil Shute wrote: “A popular novelist can often play the part of the enfant terrible in raising for the first time subjects which ought to be discussed in public and which no statesman cares to approach.”

The Cold War is over, and it is half a century this year since the 1963 setting of Nevil Shute’s chilling, post-apocalyptic, end-of-the-world novel.

And today, the threat of nuclear war is more real and more terrible than it was half a century ago.

We do not know the exact number of nuclear weapons in global arsenals – each of the nine countries with nuclear weapons guards these numbers as closely-held national secrets. We know, however, half a century after the setting of that novel and more than a decade and a half after the Cold War came to an end, that the world’s combined stockpile of nuclear warheads remains at unacceptably high levels.

But it is probable that there are 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. Of those, 2,000 linger at hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched within minutes. The detonation of just one would cause a humanitarian catastrophe on a horrific scale, greater than that imagined by Nevil Shute.

The evidence is clear that nuclear weapons have catastrophic humanitarian consequences and that no adequate humanitarian relief is possible.

When he first read On the Beach, Thomas Finletter, a former Secretary of the US Air Force, responded: “I hope it is fiction.” Finletter, who later served as John F Kennedy’s Ambassador to NATO, was startled, and then asked: “Are you sure it is?”

As long as the nuclear stockpiles remain in the arsenals of the nine nuclear powers, Shute’s fiction threatens to become reality. And then it will be too late for, to turn around that citation from TS Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ at the beginning of On the Beach, the world may end, not with a whimper, but with a bang.

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river...

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.




It is my hope that the world can still realise the goal of nuclear disarmament. Otherwise, the consequence may be that the whole of humanity has worked its way out of existence.

The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons were brought to the fore in international arena once again this year, with the Norwegian Government hosting an international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

Several UN agencies – including OCHA, UNDP and UNHCR – as well as the international Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, and ICAN, presented their findings on the environmental, developmental, and health consequences of nuclear detonations. They concluded that no international response plan could effectively be put in place to respond to such an event. Any attempts to respond would be futile; prevention is the only option.

Dr Rebecca Johnson, Co-Chair of ICAN, said the conference showed “that any use of nuclear armaments would cause mass suffering,” with calculations of climate disruption and famine in non-nuclear as well as nuclear-armed countries. “This global impact makes it the responsibility – and right – of everyone to take action to stop this from happening,” she said.

Some governments have hailed Oslo 2013 – which saw the participation of 127 governments, UN agencies, international organisations, and civil society – as a success. But an opportunity for dialogue has been missed, and once again we are left waiting for the results of a follow-up meeting to be hosted by Mexico.

Two years ago, the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement adopted a resolution, which “finds it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law, in particular the rules of distinction, precaution and proportionality,” and that urges states to abolish nuclear weapons.

At Oslo this year, many states expressed their recognition of a shared responsibility to act to prevent any accidental or intentional use of these weapons of mass suffering.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu argued recently that we cannot intimidate others into behaving well when we ourselves are misbehaving. Yet, he says, this is precisely what the nuclear powers are trying to do by censuring North Korea for its nuclear tests and sounding alarm bells over Iran’s enriched uranium programme. “According to their logic,” he says, “a select few nations can ensure the security of all by having the capacity to destroy all.

And he goes on: “Until we overcome this double standard – until we accept that nuclear weapons are abhorrent and a grave danger no matter who possesses them, that threatening a city with radioactive incineration is intolerable no matter the nationality or religion of its inhabitants – we are unlikely to make meaningful progress in halting the spread of these monstrous devices, let alone banishing them from national arsenals.”

This hypocrisy among the nuclear powers has stymied multilateral disarmament discussions for decades. The nuclear powers must apply the same standard to themselves as to others – zero nuclear weapons. Otherwise, the consequence of deferring nuclear disarmament indefinitely, pending the satisfaction of an endlessly growing list of preconditions, can lead only to a world full of nuclear weapons.

The international community has imposed blanket bans on other weapons with horrendous effects – from biological and chemical agents to landmines and cluster munitions. So, why we have failed time and again to do the same for the very worst weapons of all?

The fourth fifth of the five Anglican marks of mission, as revised at the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in New Zealand last year (ACC-15) are:

● To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation;
● To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Sometimes, like the Guardian reviewer of On the Beach, I feel ‘We stared into the abyss and then stepped back from the brink.’ I see it is as part of my engagement in ministry and mission to call us to another way that is more reflective of the Kingdom of God and its potential and promise.

I regard this as the most compelling moral issue to face us today. And that is why, as an Anglican priest, and not for any imaginable or imputed political reasons, I am honoured to be President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a campaign that I hope works its way of existence because of the moral decisions others take for the sake of the future of our children and our grandchildren.

Canon Patrick Comerford is President of Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). He was speaking at a meeting of the retired clergy of the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough (Church of Ireland) in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute on Tuesday 8 October 2013.

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