Originally written for the Sheffield Telegraph

As wars rage on in Ukraine and the Middle East, it’s important to reflect on Sheffield of a city of peace and what we can do to de-escalate conflicts abroad.

Over 27,000 people have been killed in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, the vast majority children. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, with a just resolution still out of sight. We are also seeing the US and UK launching air strikes in Yemen, without democratic sanction, to protect western shipping interests.

For those who favour peace, we live in truly dark times.

In Sheffield, demonstrations for peace have continued apace. In January two Palestinian women, Sahar Awadullah and Lena Mussa, led a campout to add to the international pressure for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, with Lena undertaking a weeklong hunger strike.

Our city has a proud legacy of peacemakers. Round the corner from the campout, fittingly, are Sheffield’s Peace Gardens. Overlooking these are seven stainless-steel doves perched atop St Paul’s Parade. These were inspired by doves Pablo Picasso drew during his 1950 visit, when Sheffield hosted the second World Peace Congress.

Then, the US and UK were gearing up for the Korean war, despite rationing still being in place from WWII. The World Peace Congress was being held against the will of the then Government; of the 2,000 planned attendees, hundreds were refused visas and only 500 ultimately made it..

One of those who welcomed Picasso in 1950, Rotherham’s Tommy James, had previously joined the International Brigades to oppose Franco’s fascists. Tommy was among 20+ from South Yorkshire that volunteered to fight for Spanish freedom, and who are commemorated by a plaque in the Peace Gardens. Another was Joe Albaya, elected a Labour Councillor after his return to Sheffield. They joined over 40,000 worldwide to advance the cause of freedom.

With a government once again militarily intervening in the Middle East, it’s important to remember peacemakers that have come before. It was recently Martin Luther King’s 95th birthday anniversary. MLK famously once said that ‘those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.’ This is something all of us wanting a peaceful world, a ceasefire in Gaza, and peacemakers in the Commons, must learn and practice.

De-escalation in the Middle East and peace-minded politicians will not come easily. Our government is invested in the business of war: in 2022, UK arms exports amounted to £70.6 billion, with the Middle East accounting for 43% of UK defence exports. Closer to home, Sheffield has invested heavily in Boeing to redevelop our manufacturing base, including the recent Investment Zone. While jobs in advanced manufacturing and decarbonising aviation are important, Boeing’s military endeavours and complicity will rightly come under scrutiny as conflicts continue.

Recent years have seen waves of protests at Sheffield’s universities, with activists’ banners decrying arms companies on campus. Their targets—Rolls Royce, BAE, and Boeing—have heavily invested in both universities, with the University of Sheffield in particular coming under flack for hiring private investigators to tail suspected protesters and crack down on dissent.

Nationwide, the campaign group Workers for a Free Palestine have blockaded arms factories to prevent weapons being sent to Israel. The UK’s BAE factories supply the fighter aircraft parts that facilitate the mass killings in Gaza.

Sheffield Councillors with Lena and Sahar, outside the Town Hall.

Sheffield Councillors with Lena and Sahar, outside the Town Hall.

At November’s Full Council meeting, we voted to call on the Government to cease arms sales being sent to Israel. While symbolic—this Tory Government not often minded to listen to Opposition—it is important for the Council to back our the city’s legacy of peacebuilding and current protest action.

For those of us who wish to see an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and in Ukraine, an end to military action in Yemen, and policies to de-escalate rather than garner war, we must learn to organise as effective as those who love and profit from war, using all available means. Organising protects, consumer boycotts, contacting representatives, peaceful blockades, will be key to win the case for justice.