To prevent a greater crime

In July, Andrea Needham and four others who admitted causing pounds 1.5 m worth of damage to a British Aerospace warplane walked free from court. Here she explains why they did it
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The Independent Online
Our action was not just a protest, it was a very direct action to prevent the crime being committed. This was central to our defence. The argument for reasonable force to prevent crime has probably been used in hundreds of peace protest cases but normally there isn't such a strong link. The link between cutting the fence of a nuclear base and preventing nuclear war is remote and that defence is not usually allowed. In our case, we identified a Hawk military jet that was going to Indonesia, where it would have been used to kill people.

There was also the imminence of the crime. We felt that we had to act then, 29 January, because as far as we knew that plane was about to leave the country. We started planning it in April last year. By then, I'd been campaigning for two and a half years. The anti-Hawk Coalition had been going a year and thousands of people were involved. But there was not the slightest sign of movement from BAe or the Government.

They persisted on the same old lines: Indonesian guarantees that they're not being used for internal repression, Hawks are just training aircraft, Indonesia is improving its human rights record and so on. All nonsense. It was very clear that they weren't about to cancel the deal - for 24 Hawks. It's not good enough just to stand by and to say, "There's no blood on my hands". We had to physically stop them ourselves.

It was easy to find out things like serial numbers of aeroplanes from looking at military magazines. Then we spent days sitting in fields watching the site. We wanted to see where the Indonesian Hawks were put away so we would know the particular hangar. We felt that it was such a serious crime that we were trying to prevent. We would probably only have one chance. We couldn't risk getting it wrong.

Support for our action has come more from ordinary people than from national institutions. All these people can see the morality of it. For example, our fellow prisoners at Risley. When we told them what it was all about they were almost without exception very supportive.

For them it was straightforward: the plane was going to kill people, you stopped it. On the last day of the trial, they said in a really nice way: "Now don't come back this evening." Meanwhile, the Home Office was saying we were a security risk.

We've had a lot of support from Catholics in Liverpool. There's a Carmelite monastery, a totally enclosed order, they live in silence. They've been praying for us throughout the trial. I went to see them this morning, and it was wonderful. They were overjoyed with the verdict.

On the other hand, the Archbishop and Bishop of Liverpool wrote to John Major a couple of weeks ago to call for a complete arms embargo and yet in the same letter they said that our action contributed to lawlessness and condemned it outright. They had said this before the trial without coming to us and asking: "Did you have a lawful excuse for your actions?" - which of course we did. I feel that, of all institutions, surely the church should be the one to uphold morality.

Our experience with the Labour movement was similar. We've had a lot of support from local trade unions (though not the unions within British Aerospace) and Labour Party MPs and members. Unison is part of the Anti- Hawk Coalition. But nationally, Labour has been as bad as the Tories.

I wrote four letters to Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, asking what Labour's policy was on this. He never replied to any of them. I wrote to Labour's defence spokesman, David Clark. He said that as long as they're not being used for internal oppression, everybody has a right to self-defence; if there was any evidence that these Hawks were being used in East Timor then we wouldn't allow their sale, he said. His letter could have been written by a Tory. A Labour lord, Lord Hollick, is on the board of British Aerospace. I have no hope that the Labour government will change anything.

I doubt if we can have a direct effect on the arms industry. I'd like to think that it will now consider what it's doing. But the whole basis of its being is profit. Obviously, if you're selling arms you really have little concern about morality or human rights or issues like that. I think it's more likely it will just fortify its sites and carry on.

Broad change, as opposed to change in small sectors of the industry, has to come about through legislation; so there has to be a political will for it. There is no sign of such commitment, because there are so many vested interests in the arms trade. For instance, take the issue of jobs - given as an excuse for inaction by Tories and Labour alike. If they invested money spent on arms in the environment or health care or education they could create hundreds of jobs.

We care about people's jobs. I've spoken to workers who've said they are uncomfortable about the Hawk deal, who don't think we should be selling Hawks. I don't blame them. They have to feed their families. So it has to be a fundamental change in policy if the situation is going to change. Incidentally, in the last few years, BAe has gone from 130,000 to 40,000 workers at the same time as profits have risen. They are sacking people and using more automation. Then they accuse us of threatening jobs!

We hadn't really prepared for an acquittal. I hope that now the issue will be taken up in Parliament. There should also be an inquiry, like the Scott inquiry. Some of the issues are exactly the same. Scott revealed that the Government was breaching its own export guidelines. An inquiry into the Hawk deal would show exactly the same.

We had a meeting with the head of BAe communications in October 1995, and he said: "If the Government has approved the exports that's good enough for us." That was a complete abdication of moral responsibility.

East Timorese refugees went to the Foreign Office and said that the Hawks were being used in East Timor. They were just ignored. The journalist Hugh O'Shaughnessy actually saw Hawks flying over Dili last year, on the anniversary of the Dili massacre. Foreign Office officials said he must be wrong.

You just have to keep on trying. You can go for years with no sense of anything you do having an impact. And then, just once in a while, something like this will come along and suddenly it has made a difference. I hope that this verdict really inspires people to think, "Yes, we can do things, we can make a difference". Even four women can make a difference.

This article appears in the September issue of 'Red Pepper', available next week.