Peace movement mourns lifelong pacifist campaigner Bill Hetherington

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Bill Hetherington
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Peace Pledge Union

Bill Hetherington, who was at the centre of pacifist activism in the UK for more than half a century, has died at the age of 89.

Tributes are pouring in not only from other peace activists in Britain and Northern Ireland but from peace groups in other parts of the world.

Bill Hetherington played key roles in the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) and in War Resisters' International, of which the PPU is the British section.

Bill died in Sheffield on the night of Sunday 5 November 2023.

Bill took part in many nonviolent direct actions from the 1960s onwards, at military bases and events. He was arrested in many places across Europe, including in several countries on both sides of the Cold War, while supporting local pacifists. In later years, he was particularly renowned for his extensive and detailed knowledge of peace movement history.

PPU chair Albert Beale, who had been a friend of Bill's for many years, today expressed his sadness at his friend's death. "Discovering 'the human Bill' underneath the intellectual and well-worn exterior was ultimately a joy," he explained.

Born in 1934 - the same year that the Peace Pledge was founded - Bill later attributed his pacifist attitudes partly to his experience of World War Two as a child in Birmingham. He spoke often of his memories of losing neighbours in the Blitz.

He remembered particularly a child called Barbara who belonged to the same class as Bill at school, when they were both about seven years old.

"One day we happened to be chatting during playtime," he explained when interviewed in 2017. "And then the next day she wasn't there. Her house had had a direct hit by a bomb. She was dead. Her elder sister was blinded. This is the human cost of war."

After being conscripted to the Royal Navy for two years during the 1950s, Bill's hostility to war grew stronger. He later signed the pledge renouncing all war and became a member of the Peace Pledge Union. He was also involved with the Committee of 100, the group that promoted nonviolent civil disobedience in response to nuclear weapons in the early 1960s. Bill was also involved in an anti-nuclear convoy to Greece in the 1960s.

First elected to the PPU's National Council in 1972, Bill served on the Council for a record-breaking 50 years before standing down at the age of 88 in 2022 for health reasons.

As well as working with peace groups in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Bill travelled to countries on both sides of the divide in the Cold War to show solidarity with local pacifists. He is thought to have been the only person from any country to take part in every one of the 11 International Nonviolent Marches for Demilitarisation which took place around Europe - "East" as well as "West" - from 1976 to 1986.

Bill Hetherington always insisted on challenging war and militarism in all forms and all countries, whatever ideologies were used to justify them.

Bill spent time in prison in 1975 as one of 14 people tried with "incitement to disaffection" for handing out leaflets to British armed forces personnel advising them on how they could leave the military. He was imprisoned after being accused of breaking his bail conditions. But after a trial lasting several weeks at the Old Bailey, all 14 were found Not Guilty.

As chair of the PPU during the Falklands War, Bill was attacked and misrepresented in the pro-war media as the organisation challenged both the British and Argentinian governments.

Bill was renowned for his extensive knowledge of peace movement history and was described by several PPU comrades as "a walking encyclopedia" on the subject. He spent his later years as the PPU's archivist. He played a major role in the setting up in 1994 of the memorial stone for conscientious objectors in London's Tavistock Square, and in the organisation of annual ceremonies there to mark International Conscientious Objectors' Day on 15 May each year.

His knowledge of conscientious objection enabled Bill to set up the PPU's database of British conscientious objectors - building it from scratch to the point at which it contained details of over 12,000 individuals. He also provided advice on conscientious objection into his later years, for example by supporting Michael Lyons, who sought discharge from the Royal Navy in 2010-11 after developing a conscientious objection to war (Michael's request was turned down and he was imprisoned).

Although he stood down from PPU's elected Council in 2022, Bill nonetheless attended the PPU's AGM online in July 2023, despite his declining health.  

Speaking of his memories, the PPU's Albert Beale explained, "When I first encountered Bill more than half a century ago, he was already a seasoned direct actionist and militant pacifist. Since then we worked together in the PPU, and also in WRI. We got attacked on demonstrations together - both in Britain and abroad. We spent time in court together - he spent a bit of time behind bars - and we worked together as trustees of the parent company of Peace News and Housmans."

Albert added that Bill's attention to detail complemented his passion for promoting pacifism. "For years he took on major tasks researching material for the annual Housmans Peace Diary - to this job he brought a genuinely unique combination of finickity accuracy, and political sophistication and sensitivity." He joked, "With Bill, the term 'pedant' has to be a term of praise".

Bill's famous attention to detail is also thought to have saved the PPU and Peace News Trustees significant sums of money as he dealt with complicated documentation in legal wrangles.

"Knowing Bill was a privilege," said Symon Hill, who was until recently a member of staff at the PPU. He added, "I learnt a lot over the years from talking with him, campaigning with him and laughing with him. Although I knew logically that he would die one day, he just seemed so indestructible. Nobody could replace Bill Hetherington. It seems odd to talk about remembering Bill; how could anyone who knew Bill ever forget him?"

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This article was first published on the Peace Pledge Union website on 10th November 2023.

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About the authors

This article was first published on the Peace Pledge Union website on 10th November 2023.

This article was first published on the Peace Pledge Union website on 10th November 2023.