Tribute to John Arden

John Arden at the Shannon vigil in June 2010

For everyone involved in the campaign to end US military and CIA use of Shannon Airport, the death of peace activist, playwright and novelist John Arden on 28th March is a sad loss. A lot of tributes to John have been written, including pieces in The Guardian and New York Times, but it was John's lifelong commitment to peace and social justice that we in Shannonwatch remember best. Over the last four years he regularly attended the monthly vigils at the airport, and continued to do so right up to January of this year despite illness and being wheelchair bound.

John Arden's opposition to war, in art and in real life, were inspirational. To his lifelong partner Margaretta D'Arcy and his family, we extend our sympathy. And we will continue the efforts against war and injustice which he contributed so much to, until justice and human dignity prevail.

Below is a tribute to John Arden written by the peace campaigner and researcher Michael Randle:

John Arden’s reputation as playwright, novelist and short story writer rests on an impressive body of work which will surely be noted by other contributors to this occasion when we both mourn his loss and celebrate his life. I want to say a few words about him as a political activist and campaigner, the capacity in which I knew him best and in which I have collaborated with both him and Margaretta.

In truth, however it would be a mistake to draw a sharp division between these roles. His work from the early plays like Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance down to his most recent collection of short stories, Gallows and Other Tales of Suspicion and Obsession published a couple of years ago were an expression of the same commitment that took him in his 80s in a wheelchair to join protesters against the use of Shannon Airport as a staging post for US warplanes on their way to bombing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I got to know John as a fellow member of the Committee of 100, the anti- nuclear organization set up in 1960 by the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the anti-apartheid campaigner, Rev Michael Scott, to launch a campaign of civil disobedience against nuclear weapons during a period in which there was a real danger of nuclear war. I got to know Margaretta properly in that same period too as she was also an active member of the Committee, though our paths had crossed tangentially many years earlier when we were both pupils, or should I say inmates, of a Dominican Convent School in Dublin during the Second World War.

Many Committee of 100’s activities closely paralled those of today’s campaigners at Shannon airport to whom I would also like to express my support. At first the mass sit-down demonstrations were mainly focused on city centres; later the focus shifted to military bases. On 17 September 1961 an estimated 12,000 people took part, in a sit-down demonstration in London, some 1,300 of whom were arrested while the previous day 500 supporters of the Scottish Committee of 100 blockaded the Holy Loch nuclear submarine base in Scotland.

Prior to the September demonstrations around 50 members of the Committee were summonsed to appear at Bow Street magistrates’ court, including some of its well-known members, notably Russell and Scott, and spent a month in an open prison. Neither John nor Margaretta were among those summonsed, and talking to them afterwards I had the sense that they saw it as something of a slight! A subsequent call in December 1961 for 50,000 supporters, to blockade military bases, fell far short of this target, though it did lead to a highly publicized prosecution of six of the organizers, myself included, under the Official Secrets Act and prison sentences ranging from a year to eighteen months.

Some at the time felt the move from the city centres to the bases was a tactical error. Perhaps the move was premature. But when in response to the threat posed by the NATO Cruise and Pershing missiles, and the Soviet SS20s in the late 1970s and 1980s there was a world-wide resurgence in anti-nuclear campaigning, the women at Greenham Common, among them Margaretta and my wife Anne, showed that a mass sustained blockade and nonviolent occupation was possible and could have a significant political impact.

John was also a regular contributor in the 1960s to the weekly pacifist paper Peace News, and  for a number of years was Chair of its Board of Trustees. His contributions to the paper were always lively and succinct, and he was never afraid to challenge received opinion either inside or outside the movement. His literary work too is imbued with anarchic energy and sense of the absurd.

I want, finally, to express my appreciation of the support that John and Margaretta have given me and Anne during various campaigns and trials and my admiration for their own involvement in anti-militarist and kindred campaigns in Ireland. The greatest tribute that the Irish authorities could now pay John would be to close Shannon Airport to the US military traffic. May I appeal, as someone with Irish as well as UK citizenship, to President Michael Higgins, who has an honorable record of speaking out against racism and military adventurism, to use whatever influence he can to achieve this end.

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