Today in military history: 14 pacifists acquitted of incitement to disaffect soldiers, 1975.

In 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.

The trial lasted 51 days, at of the end of which the jury acquitted all the defendants.

The British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign advocated a political solution by the Irish and not a military one imposed by the British. The group issued a statement in June 1973 and published a leaflet “Some information for British Soldiers”, targeted at those who had already decided to leave the army.. Peace campaigner Pat Arrowsmith was arrested and charged with incitement to disaffect and in May 1974 was sentenced to 18 months. The leaflet was re-worded and re-issued as “Some information for Discontented Soldiers” and activity increased – with leafletters from different parts of the country subsequently arrested.

Fourteen people were charged with conspiring to contravene the Incitement to Disaffection Act of 1934, including possession of the leaflet. The wording of the Act made the attempt to ‘seduce’ a member of HM Forces from their duties an offence. The case did serve to highlight issues surrounding the use of conspiracy charges and the fact that many of the conspirators had not met or communicated with each other until the trial. The maximum punishment for incitement was two years, but conspiracy to incite carried a life sentence.

The 14 were, in alphabetical order: Albert Beale (journalist, London); Wendy Butlin (secretary, London); Phil Cadbury (student, London); Bill Hetherington (social worker, Walsall); Juliette Hornsby (secretary, Chelsea); John Hyatt (journalist, Nottingham); Frank Keeley (unemployed, Liverpool); Ronnie Lee (soliticor’s clerk, Luton); Chris Roper (aeronautical engineer, Essex); Paul Steed (student, London); Bob Thomas (factory worker, Cardiff); Rick Walker (unemployed, Liverpool); Mike Wescott (make-up artist, Birmingham); Gwyn Williams (social worker, London); Two of the 14 were also charged under the 1955 Army Act with helping soldiers who were absent without leave. Other individuals were then charged with related offences including distribution of leaflets and supporting the 14 which is why it became the ”Defend the 14+ Campaign”.

On 10th December after a 51 day trial and an estimated cost of £250,000, the jury took just 30 minutes to return a unanimous not guilty verdict on all 31 charges. (This was conspiracy against all 14 and other charges under the Incitement to Disaffection Act. The two individuals who had pleaded guilty to assisting a soldier who was absent without leave were both fined.

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.

The defendants argued that 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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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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