The tumult of the 1984 dispute may be retreating in the memory, but for those arrested and charged, the events of that angry summer have been life-changing. Now a campaign seeks a review of what it claims is wide-scale malfeasance by the police
A truncheon is clearly visible in the picture, poised above a figure wedged against a wall. Witnesses say police struck the miner repeatedly before he was dragged from the perimeter of Easington colliery in Durham and arrested for a “picket-line offence”.
Dozens of corroborating statements described the beating, but Durham constabulary denied any use of violence. Then they received the photograph. Days later, all charges were dropped.
The picture was taken on 28 August 1984, at the height of the miners’ strike. Britain was mired in one of the bitterest chapters of industrial unrest in its recent history. And the gloves were off.
Miners were striking in their tens of thousands against planned colliery closures. In Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, they met an implacable foe, prepared to go to extreme lengths to see off the challenge to its authority.
Following the defeat of the Argentinian forces that invaded the Falkland Islands two years earlier, Thatcher was now determined to face down internal forces of resistance, which she described to Conservative MPs as “the enemy within … much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty”. The summer of 1984 was to provide a backdrop to one of postwar Britain’s most divisive, angry and violent struggles.
As the Observer today reveals, for many of those behind the picket lines, one legacy of the strife that scarred the Midlands and the north was the damage done by hundreds of criminal records handed out on the basis of frequent frequent mass arrests. The arrests, strikers have always claimed, were followed by bogus charges. Nearly 30 years on, they want their names cleared and a true account of that summer recorded for posterity.
Former miner Paul Winter was convicted of obstruction 28 years ago after police allegedly falsified evidence following his attempt to drive from the north-east into Nottinghamshire to bolster picket lines, at a time when secondary picketing was still legal. He says the consequent criminal record compounded his difficulties in seeking an alternative job. In his own case and in others like it, the reputation of characters with no history of criminality has been tarnished.
“All I want is for somebody to say: ‘I’m sorry, you have not got a criminal record any more, you were fitted up’,” he said. “I don’t want compensation or anything else, just somebody to say sorry.”
Fresh testimony from miners speaking for the first time claims that fabricated statements were presented in court against them. It is alleged that false accounts were given by officers who were not at the scene of arrests, that miners’ statements were routinely invented, and that union activists and their families were systematically targeted and intimidated.
Ian Lavery, Labour MP for Wansbeck in Northumberland and a former National Union of Mineworkers president, believes there has been a “massive miscarriage of justice” that requires investigating and correcting. Last week he put down a Commons early day motion calling for a comprehensive inquiry into police activities during the miners’ strike throughout the UK.
As of this year, there is a precedent. The momentum for an inquiry into the policing of the dispute has been building since the Hillsborough Independent Panel unveiled its report into the 1989 stadium disaster, and revealed how South Yorkshire police covered up its failures through the systematic fabrication of evidence.
Five years earlier, the chief constable that presided over Hillsborough, Peter Wright, was in charge during the defining, brutal clash at Orgreave, when 8,000 picketing miners and 4,500 police fought at a British Steel coking plant. South Yorkshire police later paid out £500,000 in compensation to 39 miners who were arrested in what became known as the Battle of Orgreave. But no officer has ever been disciplined in relation to the events.
Last month, in the wake of a BBC documentary and mounting pressure for a thorough account of events in the summer of 1984, the South Yorkshire force referred itself to the policing watchdog over Orgreave. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has confirmed it is looking at allegations of assault, perjury, perverting the course of justice and misconduct in a public office.
A new group, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, has begun orchestrating support for a public inquiry into the policing of the bloody confrontation on 28 June 1984. Last Tuesday, at the Unite union offices in Sheffield – three miles from Orgreave – plans were put in place to begin contacting fresh witnesses.
The campaign’s organiser, Barbara Jackson, who went on strike from her job at the National Coal Board for the whole year of the dispute in support, said: “The police have never been held to account for their actions, yet so many of those who were there remain traumatised, defined by the violence of that day.”
The official police version of events remains that the miners at Orgreave rioted and that officers caught beating miners were acting in self-defence – despite the subsequent collapse of attempted prosecutions for riot against 95 miners due to doubts about the veracity of police evidence. Many now want a much wider investigation to take place.
Provisional estimates by the NUM suggest that 60% of the charges brought over picket line offences were “bogus or exaggerated”. More than 11,000 miners were arrested during the dispute.
The NUM is working with Michael Mansfield QC to evaluate material that might lead to the prosecution of police officers. The union wants the director of public prosecutions (DPP) – now investigating police misconduct over Hillsborough – to follow suit in relation to the strike. Yesterday law firm Leigh Day appealed for miners to come forward, “given the pattern of police abuse and misfeasance which is emerging”. Sapna Malik, a partner at the firm, said: “It is now time for accountability for these past wrongs.”
Chris Kitchen, the NUM leader, said it was important also to look beyond Hillsborough and Orgreave. “Cases from other picket lines were very similar: lads getting lifted, dragged into court on trumped up charges and then offered a deal to plead guilty.”
For the miners themselves, there is a sense that a tipping point has been reached. David Hopper, general secretary of the Durham Miners Association, says that only now has the perception that the police were untouchable begun to recede. He said: “We weren’t aware at the time how to get after the police, they were a law unto themselves.”
Mansfield, who currently also acts for the Hillsborough Family Support Group, said: “Nobody was even disciplined, never mind prosecuted. That fact raises huge questions, it requires a review to find out which cases are worth pursuing. There is material that can be acted upon. ” Such material includes footage of miners like Russell Broomhead, now 53, being repeatedly struck by a truncheon in front of police lines at Orgreave.
Myriad incidents in the pit villages of the north-east need investigating, says Hopper. One such incident occurred just three days after Orgreave, at Stainforth in south Yorkshire. The then Police Complaints Authority found officers guilty of disproportionate force, but could not identify them; some had removed their numbers from their uniforms. The authority stated: “During a very violent day some police officers did overreact and a few officers did assault prisoners after arrest, others were abusive and uncivil.” The file, several hundred pages long, was sent to the DPP. No action was taken.
Winter, who was 20 in March 1984, is among those who claim they were framed as part of a blanket policy of arresting pickets and bailing them with conditions prohibiting them from playing any further part in the strike.
During March 1984, Winter was travelling south on the A1 to act as a flying picket at mines in Nottinghamshire, which were effectively ringfenced by police to thwart pickets. He was intercepted near Blyth, Northumberland, and ordered to turn around. Winter refused and was arrested, appearing before Mansfield magistrates later that day, where he was advised to plead guilty to obstruction.
He said: “In court it was read out what I was supposed to have said to the arresting officer. His exact words were that I had said: ‘You don’t want us to be effective’, which implied I was a picket. I was 20, I’d never have thought of saying that.”
Winter was fined and given bail conditions that prevented him from travelling near collieries. Then, he says, he was assaulted. “I was in custody,” he said, “eating food from a metal tray. A sergeant saw me and shouted ‘Who fed him?’, then grabbed the tray and rammed it into my face. It bust my nose, blood went all over my food.”
Gary Kirby, 53, from Hemsworth, west Yorkshire, was arrested at Orgreave after complaining that officers were pushing him as he walked slowly in front of a police line. Apprehended by officers from Greater Manchester Police, he says his statement was signed by an officer from another force. “When I got my statement, weeks later, the arresting officer was from South Yorkshire. I’d never seen South Yorks police when I’d been there. It said that I ran at him with my arms and legs flailing. He said he’d never been so frightened in his 20 years as a police officer – that was his statement. It was totally made up.”
Intimidation of strikers within their own communities was reportedly routine. Hopper’s 14-year-old son was arrested seven times during the strike, but never prosecuted.
“It was simple intimidation,” said Hopper. “Police vans would stop outside my door for hours on end. The local police told me I was wanted for insurrection. Our solicitors said, don’t go out on your own. Always have a witness.”
Three decades years after Orgreave, the call is out for old witnesses to come forward. The true story of the miners’ strike is just beginning to be told.