Let Scotland lead the way on nuclear weapons

By Steve Griffiths
March 21, 2013

While I’ve been out campaigning for the Scrap Trident Coalition, a fairly commonly voiced objection to the elimination of nuclear weapons from Scotland is that; “It’ll cost jobs at Faslane.”

Thankfully, this objection is very easily countered. Firstly, by pointing out the simple to grasp concept that the £100 billion earmarked to be spent on replacing Trident could, in fact, be used to create jobs where they are desperately needed elsewhere in the UK economy.

Secondly, if my questioner remains persistent on the issue, and very few do, given the facts above, I point out that according to the then Defence Secretary, Des Browne, in 2009, only 589 jobs at the Clyde Naval base were directly dependent on Trident. These jobs, and others like them in defence-dependent communities, could be transferred into other areas of the economy with suitable resource allocation.

What is interesting to me about these exchanges, however, is that the debate is couched in terms of economics at all. Aren’t the people of Scotland troubled by the potential use of indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction – devices designed to kill almost the entire population of a town or city almost instantaneously? Is there any number of jobs, any rate of economic growth that makes this an acceptable ethical choice?

It seems that present-day politics, indeed present-day living, is concerned primarily with the question of “how much does it cost?” rather than with “what is the right thing to do?”. However, there are other reasons to oppose Trident and I am glad that we are reminded of the existence of these by the Scrap Trident campaign tagline, ‘Let Scotland Lead the Way To A Nuclear Free World’.

‘Let Scotland Lead the Way To A Nuclear Free World’ is an especially resonant phrase for me. You see, this country, derided as it sometimes is as a wee, poor place on the outer fringe of Europe, has provided a global lead in the ethics of warfare in the past, in the passing into law of the Cáin Adomnáin, and I believe it can do so again.

The Cáin Adomnáin, (Law of Adomnán), also known as the Law of the Innocents was introduced in AD 697 by the then Abbot of Iona, Adomnán, and was one of the first systematic attempts to protect non-combatants from the savagery of warfare.

Adomnán mac Rónáin was the ninth abbot of Iona. He was renowned as a scholar and as the leader of a monastery with a reputation for sanctity and learning. He was also well connected and, as such, was a man of considerable political influence. Significantly, however, Adomnán appears to us now as someone most concerned with people who had no access to power. In the work for which he is nowadays best known, the Vita Columbae (Life of Columba), he often shows his patron saint aiding the poor and the needy – powerless people in a world where violence was a central feature of political activity.

Adomnán’s concern for the powerless came to glorious fruition in the formulation and promulgation of his Law of the Innocents. This law, for the first time in Europe, created a class of people who were exempt from suffering violence or taking part in it. It did so by establishing an absolute ban on the killing of women, children and clerics. It also protected peasants on church lands and church students. The protection of male children lasted until males were able to fight, but women and clerics had absolute, lifelong protection. Any warrior killing a woman was to be punished by death. The law commanded that women could not be made to fight in a war and, further to this, banned rape. At that time, penalties for rape were not severe, it was punished by compensation payment, and a ban was imperative. The law also forbade the taking of women prisoners, a practice that commonly meant a life of slavery and rape for its victims.

War did not cease with the passing of Adomnán’s law. But, significantly, Adomnán managed to get the King of Dál Riata, the King of the Picts and more than 50 Irish kings to agree to enact and uphold it during times of conflict. The law raised the barriers of what is and is not acceptable and was the first step in a long process. The killing of innocents and rape could no longer be condoned, and women acquired a new status of non-combatants. The law even made the children of enemies a protected group, inaugurating the principle of child protection.

The Law of the Innocents signifies the beginning of attempts by the Christian movement in this country to minimise social violence, a movement that continues in the present day. Furthermore, it was a genuine international law, developed and promoted by several nations, and binding on them all. In it, Adomnán was giving local expression, in the context of the Gaelic legal tradition, to a wider Christian movement to restrain violence. St Augustine’s expression of the notion of ‘Just War’ was part of the same process. Many regard the Law of the Innocents to be the first step in a long process culminating in the Geneva Convention.

It seems to me that Adomnán’s commitment to the protection of non-combatants makes him a moral hero for people of all ages, perhaps now more than ever. It is a well known fact that civilians have borne the brunt of modern warfare, with 10 civilians dying for every soldier in wars fought since the mid-20th century, compared with nine soldiers killed for every civilian in World War I, according to a 2001 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Nuclear weapons are the ultimate barbarous, indiscriminate annihilators of non-combatants. When one of these devices is exploded over a city, everyone, from the pre-term baby in a maternity hospital incubator to the enfeebled nursing home inhabitant, is a target. Is that right? Is it just?

Events have conspired to place Scotland now in the international spotlight. Once again, fate has placed our tiny corner of the world at the centre of the long historical struggle for justice in war. This was a struggle in which Adomnán, Abbot of Iona, played a significant part. Can we do his vision and his legacy justice? Can Scotland lead the way to a nuclear free world?

This Saturday, the Easter Witness for Peace 2013 will take place at the gate of Faslane Trident base from 12 noon. This will be an opportunity for people of faith to meet together and to underline their belief that nuclear weapons are immoral and should not be maintained or renewed.

The speakers at this event are the Rev Sally Fulton (Church of Scotland), Bishop Joe Toal (Catholic Church) and Bruce Kent (Vice President, CND).

Short statements against nuclear weapons from a range of churches will be read out.

For more details please visit the Scottish Clergy Against Nuclear Arms website.


© Steven Griffiths is part of the Scrap Trident Coalition (http://scraptrident.org/) and a member of CND. He is also a volunteer with Unity in Glasgow, providing moral and practical support to refugees and asylum seekers, particularly those who are destitute.

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