Freedom from fear

Reflecting on the 1981 Greenham Common protest, Green Councillor Joanna Wright recalls how the UK’s nuclear weapons testing impacted the community in which she grew up, and how we may still be experiencing the fallout today.

A group of protestors celebrating 40 years since the Greenham Common protest
Joanna Wright

The peaceful protest at Greenham Common, held 40 years ago by a group of women committed to our future, is still a source of inspiration. They demanded a nuclear-free future and a peaceful world for our children. 

It is important that the 40th anniversary is remembered through walking from Cardiff to Greenham Common, this action creating a trajectory that spirals out, one that will create other possibilities and discussions and allow a space for alternative visions. The coming together of so many women in the UK and the demand for a better future were needed in 1981, and are still needed today.

Trajectories create intersections. Over the last 40 years, each of us has been affected by the nuclear arms race and the politics that support it, some more obviously than others. My understanding of why the Greenham Common protests mattered began in my childhood in the 1970s. I grew up in the Solomon Islands, a group of over 1000 islands that run southeast of Papua New Guinea. At that time the Solomon Islands were under colonial rule, officially called a British Protectorate, part of the British Empire. For several years my family lived on a tiny island in the Western Province, called Gizo. The island is small enough that you can walk around it in a day. 

At the equator, on a ridge top, sat our family home. If you looked in a straight line south, the view was straight down the Pacific Ocean to Antarctica. The wide blue ocean and sky was my childhood landscape. I ran barefoot and was indulged by the local Islanders. Nearly 50 years have passed and I can still smell the afternoon thunderstorms, hear the buzzing of dragonflies and remember the effortlessness of days spent in childhood games with local children. My mother regularly sent us to learn dancing at the far end of the island with the Gilbertese community. 

My older sister and I had our very own grass skirts and woven straw body decorations made especially for us, and we were taught to sing and dance. I remember these people, their warm, welcoming smiles and kind teaching. As I grew older, questions arose: who were these Gilbertese people and why were they there? The Gilbertese or I-Kiribati are significantly different in language and custom to the Solomon Islanders, and I remember that difference. As the years went by, I wondered why the Gilbertese were living on Gizo. On speaking to my parents I was told that they were moved from their homelands in the Gilbert and Ellis Islands and Christmas Island because the British were testing nuclear weapons.

My halcyon memories of learning to dance, wearing a hand-woven raffia skirt and being loved by this welcoming community are then muddled and bittered by the visualisation of mushroom clouds and radioactive fallout. The generosity the Gilbertese offered, their warm welcome and kindness are what I remember. It would seem though, through no fault of their own, they had been transported thousands of miles to another place and culture and resettled, so that the British could test their bombs.

According to British records, the Gilbertese were moved to the Solomon Islands because of drought and overpopulation. That was not my parents' view, nor was it that of local Gilbertese people. The Gilbertese believed that they were moved so that during the 1950s the British could carry out nuclear weapons tests. There were a total of 36 British and American nuclear tests in the 1950s. The British undertook tests between 1952 and 1958 on Christmas Island. Of all the Pacific nuclear testing, these were considered the biggest and used the dirtiest bombs and created the most dangerous amount of fallout. 

While the damages and injuries caused by the American’s nuclear test in the Northern Marshall Islands have been documented, Britain has hidden its impact on the Gilbertese inhabitants on Christmas Island. Local Gilbertese in the Solomons spoke about the explosion on Christmas Island and its huge bright white light, believing that the effect of the bright light caused their coconut trees to die. It would appear that the British did make an emergency decision to remove the Gilbertese people and relocate them to the western province of the Solomon Islands, so that nuclear weapons could be tested and Britain could stay at the top table of the arms race.

Nuclear testing from the 1950s is still impacting the earth and causing environmental issues and land rights struggles. The fallout from the explosions leads not only to radiation, but has probably added significant CO2 into the atmosphere. The impact that we are facing today in terms of the Climate Emergency, is in tiny part from many large bombs being exploded in hidden corners, far away. We know that not only is there nuclear testing. but a great deal of conventional arms and military operations across the globe – Diego Garcia is another example where the British have allowed indigenous people to be moved for ongoing military operations.

Today we are living with what could be called the fallout from our combined civilian and military activity and its contribution to rising oceans and catastrophic weather. People across the Pacific know that they have done very little to cause climate change, but feel that they are paying the highest price. Islands are impacted by sea levels rising, which in turn contaminates fresh water sources and makes the coastal zone uninhabitable. Some islands in the Solomons have halved in size in the last 50 years. The impact on diminishing natural resources is a recipe for conflict and division.

The women at Greenham Common were against conflict and division, and questioned the politics and policy behind the location of nuclear weapons on an American military base in the UK. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, TV news was filled with images of Greenham women holding hands, singing and putting up pictures of their children on the perimeter walls of the Berkshire base. They were mocked and derided for being women, for wanting a better world and for making the unseen nuclear bombs visible. 

The direct action of these women means that today we are aware of the real threat of contamination from nuclear testing, although these radioactive contaminated areas will be with us for tens of thousands of years. All life on earth is still under the shadow of nuclear bombs and the calamitous environmental impact that dropping them would and does cause.

The Greenham Common women have left a lasting legacy that reminds us how important it is to protest and be free from fear. The walk this week (August 23rd - September 6th 2021) from Cardiff to Berkshire will remember these women and their commitment to the future, and allow all of us to stand on their shoulders. We must continue to make visible the social injustices that many people in all corners of the world contend with on a daily basis. We must continue to challenge these injustices without fear.