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"White people don't do [soul music] very well because we don't want to let go. Nihilism suits us." — Bono

Tell Me Our Kids Are Safe

In the name of love: the wife of U2 star Bono has sacrificed her privacy to front the shut Sellafield postcard campaign. She tells DAVID BELCHER why.
The Glasgow Herald
For the past 20 years, Alison Hewson has approached the role of being Mrs. Bono in a deliberately low-key manner. Until the past few weeks, she's wholly shunned the global media spotlight in which her husband has spent his adulthood being bathed, initially as U2's frontman and latterly as rock 'n' roll's most notable social conscience.

While the erstwhile Paul Hewson has long been public property, entertaining multi-millions worldwide at the same time as acting as a voluble focus for various governmental-level campaigns of political activism, Mrs. Bono has remained quietly at the couple's seaside home on the choice southern outskirts of Dublin.

She's side-stepped tabloid gossip columns. She's avoided being caught in the late-night paparazzi flash-bulbs. No glossy mags have been courted to share her taste in home decor. Instead, aside from one large-ish magazine interview nine years ago, 41-year-old Ali Hewson has simply concentrated on being mother to her four children, aged from almost 13 to 11 months.

Within the past seven days, though, Ali Hewson has voluntarily upped her media profile with dramatic suddenness. Reversing a lifetime's policy, she's been talking to dozens of newspapers and radio stations as a means of helping alert Britain to Irish unease about the nuclear threat posed by the Sellafield re-processing plant in Cumbria.

Her efforts are scheduled to reach a climax at three prominent U.K. addresses early tomorrow morning, when up to a million postcards should drop through the letterboxes of Tony Blair, Prince Charles, and the chairman of British Nuclear Fuels, Norman Askew.

This mass postcard protest campaign is intended to mark tomorrow's sombre sixteenth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In particular, Britain's prime minister will be button-holed with a simple query: "Tony, can you look me in the eye and tell me I'm safe?"

Ironically, Hewson herself has discovered a minor degree of personal disquiet in her recent self-exposure to the eye of the media whirlwind. Over-heated tabloids: they can be a pain. I open my interview with Ali Hewson by asking her if there's any truth in a feverish tabloid report this week that she has been named as the Irish Labour party's number one candidate for the presidential election in 2004.

She laughs heartily in response, before adopting a more diplomatic tone. "I haven't been approached by anyone," she days. "It's not a serious proposition. It would obviously be a huge honour if I was asked to take on such a huge task, but for one thing I'm not sure I'm qualified, and for another I've got four small kids to bring up first.

"On top of that, my husband has joked that we couldn't possibly move into the president's official mansion in Phoenix Park in Dublin and set up home in a smaller house."

For the moment, Ali Hewson is content with the amount of interest stirred up by the Shut Sellafield postcard campaign, of which she has been a part since its genesis in January. The anti-nuclear protest has been prominently supported by a range of figures from contemporary Irish cultural life: ex-Boyzone pop stars Ronan Keating and Keith Duffy, comedy dramatist Brendan O'Carroll, boy-band managerial guru Louis Walsh, Celtic roots music legend Ronnie Drew, of the Chieftains.

"It's been great to have put the issue back on to the level of public discussion rather than just political discussion," Hewson says. She's also keen to stress that Shut Sellafield isn't her sole possession. "The idea came to me via a friend of a friend, a guy I hadn't at that time met -- Michael Carroll. He'd had this genius notion of postcards to register the protests of people in Ireland, thus giving everyone an individual chance to speak.

"Post-September 11, we're surely all reconsidering our ideas on public safety. In Sellafield's case, it's not so much that it's producing nuclear energy as acting as a re-processing plant, gathering waste in one spot -- 75 tonnes of plutonium. You'd have to be living in a vacuum not to be aware that there's some potential in that fact for terrorists.

"On top of that, I'm a mother living on the east coast of Ireland with small kids, and I've been concerned about Sellafield, 60 miles away, for a long time. How safe is it for my kids to swim in the Irish Sea? How safe is it for them to eat the fish?

"Up until now, whatever the arguments for and against Sellafield's nuclear power and nuclear waste re-processing, the Irish nation hasn't been involved in the debate."

Hewson had earlier been drawn into direct consideration of all matters nuclear by an invitation to present a documentary on Chernobyl for Irish TV in 1993. She accompanied Adi Roche, the director of the Chernobyl Children's Project, an offshoot of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to neighbouring Belarus. "They received 70% of the fall-out from Chernobyl," she says. "Nuclear fall-out doesn't have any respect for borders, and going over there simply consolidated the fears I had about Sellafield. It's simply a matter of which way the wind might blow. Given BNFL's safety record, it didn't inspire any great confidence."

Subsequent to her visit to Belarus, Hewson supported Sellafield protests by Greenpeace, in one of which U2 staged a symbolic seaborne raid on Sellafield's waste outlet pipes. At that time, in what until now has been her sole big interview, Hewson told More magazine of her dismay at discovering the increased incidences of leukaemia and childhood cancer in the region adjoining Chernobyl.

She also expressed an awareness that her actions could be dismissed as the dilettante posturing of a left-leaning lady-who-lunches. "I can really see where that criticism comes from -- that some people are rich and can go out and raise money for charity, and feel like they've done something, but never really care," Hewson told her interviewer.

"But I don't think it's justified. The people who criticise are giving in to cynicism, and I think if you get cynical about life, you lose the true meaning of it. I couldn't allow the fear of someone saying that about me to stop me from doing what I believe in."

Family is what she most believes in, although had child-rearing not intervened, she might have pursued an independent academic career following her marriage to her schoolboy sweetheart, Bono, whom she met in her teens at Dublin's inter-denominational Mount Temple secondary school.

As it was, the birth of the Hewsons' first daughter, Jordan, followed mater's final exams as a mature student at University College, Dublin, by barely a fortnight.

Hewson nevertheless attained a social sciences degree, in sociology and politics. Jordan Hewson has since been followed by Memphis Eve; the extravagantly named Elijah Bob Patricius Guggi Q, and the more plainly monickered John Abraham.

Ali Hewson's four children underpin her involvement in the Sellafield postcard protest. "I don't feel that I'm the best person to be fronting the campaign -- in fact I'd rather someone else was doing it," she says.

Despite the support and media-literate advice of her husband, she still finds speaking to interviewers a bit of an ordeal. "All I really have is the privilege of knowing a few celebrities," she adds of her involvement.

"But what keeps me going is the thought of turning to my kids in 20 years' time and saying: 'Hey, do you know what, I had a chance to do something about Sellafield -- and I didn't take it.' There are times when we all sit and watch the news on the telly and ask ourselves: 'What can I do to help? I feel so useless, I feel so helpless.' My opportunity just landed in my lap, and I had to take it."

Kids being kids, of course, minor protests from the more literate of the junior Hewsons have been triggered by mum's occasional brief absences in selfless pursuit of securing everyone's long-term future.

For, over the years, the young Hewsons have become accustomed to dad going off for months at a time. Mums aren't meant to go away, though, as Ali Hewson has been made aware. "I've had a few notes under the pillow saying: 'I want my mummy back.'

"But the girls are sanguine and also pretty switched on about environmental issues. They would rather I was doing this than getting involved in the music business.

"I feel I'm just speaking out from a position of common sense. I'm simply saying: 'When it comes to nuclear waste, let's err on the side of caution.' "

© The Glasgow Herald, 2002. All rights reserved.