The Fairford Five: Margaret Jones interview


"We are always shy about recognizing the historic worth of events when they take place before our eyes, about recognizing heroes when they are still flesh and blood and not yet transfixed in marble."  US historian Howard Zinn had black civil rights activists in mind when he wrote that, but his observation could equally apply to 58-year old Margaret Jones.

 

Just after 7:00 pm on March 13 2003, Jones and fellow activist Phil Milling snuck in to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire with the intention of damaging support vehicles to American B-52 bombers.    Aware the aircraft were about to attack Iraq, the pair acted to delay their take off to give Iraqis "the chance to get out of harm’s way before the bombing" says Jones, a retired American Studies Lecturer.  They tried "to prevent war crimes – more concretely, to save life", she adds.

 

"It was a beautiful moonlit night", remembers Jones.  "As you can imagine, it felt very tense – not so much with fear, as with anxiety about not getting caught before we’d achieved anything."

 

Carrying bolt cutters, hammers and grinding paste to put into fuel tanks, they slipped in to the airfield’s bomb compound and cut the brake pipes on "several dozen" trolleys used to load the bombs on to the B-52s.  Committed to non-violent protest Jones and Milling left warning notices to say the vehicles had been tampered with so nobody would have an accident.  They then used the bolt cutters to gain access to the main airfield and proceeded to smash the windscreens and dashboards of three fuel tankers.

 

It was at this point they were discovered by an American serviceman and hauled off to Stroud police station.  In the morning a magistrate ordered the two Trident Ploughshare activists to be remanded in custody and Jones spent a week in Holloway prison before being granted bail.  For carrying out the action they faced up to 10 years in jail, on charges of conspiring to cause criminal damage to property.

 

Did Jones feel they achieved what they set out to do?  "We certainly damaged the vehicles quite thoroughly!"  However, she believes they conducted the action a week too soon.  "We certainly made the technicians do some lengthy repairs – but I doubt whether we really created any delay, or gave anyone time to flee Baghdad." 

 

Between Jones and Milling’s action and the start of the war three other activists were also arrested trying to enter the airbase – Phil Pritchard, Toby Olditch and Josh Richards.  All are now life-long members of what has been dubbed the ‘Fairford Five’.

 

Since then the group has been involved in three years of legal proceeding described as "a marathon" by Jones.  After a series of pre-trial hearings, they made appeals that went all the way to the House of Lords.

 

"We were seeking the right to say in our defence that we were resisting an illegal war", explains Jones.  In the end the Law Lords ruled that the legality of the war could only be tested by the International Criminal Court, not by a British court.  Nevertheless, in an unprecedented ruling, the Law Lords allowed the "secondary effects" of the war to be discussed by the defence – war crimes such as carpet bombing, says Jones.

 

Although all three of the first ‘Fairford Five’ trials ended in hung juries, remarkably Pritchard, Olditch and Richards were all acquitted in their re-trials.  In short, two 12 person juries accepted the activists’ defence that they were acting to prevent the US Air Force from committing war crimes.  However, as these were jury verdicts in a crown court, the rulings did not set a legal precedent. 

 

Before her own trial, Jones – a self-professed "green socialist" – was hopeful about the outcome of her case.  "I have huge faith in the good sense of the average jury", she commented, noting the Iraq war had "divided juries, the way its divided the nation."    Unfortunately, as Jones now knows "the jury system is a gamble."  After just three hours the jury found Jones and Milling guilty, with the latter receiving a conditional discharge and £250 court costs.  Sentenced on August 2, the judge imposed a curfew order on Jones, confining her to her home from 7 pm to midnight, Tuesday to Saturdays, until January next year.

 

As she left court Jones was unrepentant, telling reporters "I’d like to see Tony Blair with a curfew and I’d like to see him in an international court because he’s the real criminal here."

 

Solicitor Robbie Mason notes there were several important differences between the ‘Fairford Five’ cases.  Jones and Milling acted over a week before the other three and actually succeeded in causing significant damage to support vehicles (allegedly $18,000 worth).  The former made it "significantly harder" to argue there was an imminent danger "to life, limb and property", while the latter actually made "it easier to establish ‘efficacy’ of preventative action in their case, rather than mere protest."

 

According to Jones, her and Milling’s punishments differed because she had "roughly a dozen previous convictions for protest-related actions, including cutting through fences at military bases".

 

Would she do it again if she had her time over?  "Id definitely do it again", Jones states unequivocally.  "The impending invasion was so clearly wrong – not only morally, but in international law.  We felt so strongly we were acting to uphold the law."

 

 

Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, Englandian_js@hotmail.com

 

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