By Dr Katy Shaw
The Battle of Orgreave was one of the most violent and iconic moments of the 1984-5 UK miners’ strike. On 18 June 1984, a sunny summer’s day in Yorkshire, around 4000 miners clashed with around 8000 police outside a British Steel coking plant. Official police video accounts of the day show miners being directed into a field on site, before a violent confrontation ensued. Images of police officers on horse-back attacking miners on foot have since become symbols of the response from police that day. Facing a collective of officers drawn from forces beyond South Yorkshire – including most notably the London Metropolitan Police – more than 95 miners were arrested. BBC footage of events broadcast on television news that night significantly transposed events, making it appear that police charges were a logical and defensive response to the prior antagonism and aggression of pickets, rather than an unmotivated assault.
In the months that followed, the arrested miners were brought to court, and in each case the trial collapsed due to unreliable evidence. Six years later in June 1991, South Yorkshire Police was forced to hand out £425,000 in compensation to 39 miners, yet not a single police officer was prosecuted or charged with misconduct for their actions that day. The BBC also finally apologised for its coverage of Orgreave, claiming that live action footage from the day had been ‘inadvertently reversed’. During this period, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign was formed. The campaign set out with the aim of achieving a review of the Orgreave Trials and subsequent criminal records handed out to strikers. The campaign also called from an IPCC Hillsborough-style investigation into this monumental clash between pickets and police.
2012 was a key year in the Orgreave Justice campaign. The publication of the Hillsborough Report was met with renewed calls from ex-strikers for a similar inquiry into events during 1984-5. These were augmented by the revelations of a BBC documentary that examined police witness statements from Orgreave. It presented evidence that police statements from the day had been doctored by senior officers, arrest reports fabricated, and acts of violence left unrecorded. The report was significant because, in the words of Orgreave campaigner Granville Williams, it ‘burst this balloon, the idea that police would never fabricate evidence’ thereby making it easier to approach the notion of an inquiry. In response to the new documentary evidence, South Yorkshire Police made the unusual decision to refer itself to the IPCC, requesting an analysis of accusations of ‘assault, perjury, perverting the course of justice and misconduct’ in the force’s handling of the Orgreave conflict. The IPCC agreed to enter into a ‘scoping exercise’ that would ‘attempt to determine what matters may call for investigation, whether these matters are capable of investigation given the passage of time, whether there is a realistic prospect of a meaningful outcome and the extent of the resources that would be required for an IPCC investigation.’
In 2014, the release of declassified government cabinet papers covering the strike period underlined the potential significance of this scoping exercise and any future inquiry. Published under the 30 Year Rule, the papers showed that, despite initial denials from the then government, there actually existed a secret hit list of 75 pits planned for closure, with the resultant loss of 65,000 jobs. They also revealed that during the 1984-5 strike, Conservative ministers sought to influence police tactics and put pressure on Leon Britten and the force to escalate the dispute. Controversially, the papers suggested that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher considered declaring a national state of emergency, and deploying the Army against striking miners. As a result of these revelations, in October 2014 the Labour Party put the Justice for Coalfield Bill to the House. The Bill argued that the Thatcher government had deliberately misled the country about its pit closure plans during the strike. The bill was passed without opposition.
Amid this roar of new information, the IPCC and its now two-year long scoping exercise remained silent. In January 2015, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign were finally told that a decision had been made, but that the announcement would be delayed while the IPCC checked its legal status. In a statement, the IPCC confirmed that it ‘has completed the assessment of matters arising from the policing of events at Orgreave in 1984 and made our decision on whether there should be an investigation. We must now seek legal advice about the publication of that decision before we can proceed further.’
So why the delay? Despite claiming that the rationale behind an initial scoping exercise was to ascertain whether enough evidence existed for a full-scale investigation, the IPCC has paradoxically blamed the subsequent delay on the ‘vast’ amount of evidence needing to be processed – over 20,000 documents in total. However, it was also forced to concede that many police forces, most notably South Yorkshire, had not been forthcoming in releasing archived documents for the scoping exercise, and that the very existence of some documents had only come to the attention of the IPCC midway through 2014. The body issued a statement confirming that unless South Yorkshire Police offered the necessary documents, it would be forced to use its powers to order them to do so. By late 2014, the IPCC said that it had managed to assess 20 boxes of material from the South Yorkshire Police Archive relating to Orgreave. Many of these boxes were extracted from the insurers of South Yorkshire Police under direct permission from the force. Yet, writing in The Daily Star in 2014, Jonathan Corke revealed that this number was unusually limited, since the number of known archived boxes of Orgreave evidence held by South Yorkshire Police, actually numbers nearer 65. The IPCC has also blamed the delay on the time it had taken to obtain statements and documents from the NUM, to check the national archives and newly released cabinet papers mentioning Orgreave, to consult officers’ notebooks from Hillsborough and to engage with new civil material offered by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. Yet, with the advent of the Hillsborough legislation the process of gathering information and judging whether an inquiry was viable should have been a relatively straight forward, and speedy exercise.
Thirty years on, the IPCC scoping exercise and its recommendations about an inquiry into Orgreave are of pressing significance because the legacies of this period are as much about the future of the United Kingdom as they are about its past. With a total population of around five million, of which 3.75 million are in England, former coalfield sites constitute both a significant portion of the UK and a continuing source of tension for its government. From cultures of worklessness and social damage, to the role of regional development agencies and community initiatives, the 1984-5 UK miners’ strike was instrumental in establishing a range of discourses that came to define the subsequent decades. Orgreave had enduring implications for police tactics and community relations. As academics at the University of Sheffield have pointed out, the tactics for policing Orgreave have gone on to shape the policing of contemporary protests, while policing practiced from this period can be tracked forward to the tactic that eventually became known as ‘kettling’. Elsewhere, the legacy of those arrested during the strike has been a lifetime of unemployment and stigmatisation. The NUM is still campaigning for the erasing of criminal records for 7000 miners and their supporters involved in the strike. Perhaps unsurprisingly, experiences of the aftermath of conflict have produced a loss of faith in police/community relations in many coalfield areas.
Orgreave was a profoundly significant event, not just in terms of how the strike was framed at the time and recorded in historical account, but also because it made visible a series of cultures and practices that went on to shape future events. One major concern about any future IPCC inquiry into Orgreave is its potential to prejudice the ongoing Hillsborough inquiry. Many of the senior police involved in Orgreave were likely to have also been involved in Hillsborough, and the procedural patterns evidenced in both Orgreave 1984 and Hillsborough five years on are clear. The misconduct and cover-ups that have come to define Orgreave and Hillsborough– from the doctoring of police statements, to the falsifying of evidence and the shifting of blame from police to public – have become all too-familiar features in subsequent crises involving South Yorkshire Police. It is now impossible to know whether earlier investigations into the policing errors at Orgreave could have impacted on the extent of the tragedy at Hillsborough five years later. But the new millennium has witnessed further examples of mispractice in the Rotherham child abuse scandal, and the collusion between the force and the media in the raid on Cliff Richard’s home. In 2015, The Guardian asked if South Yorkshire Police are ‘the worst public organisation in the country?.’ As a result, some commentators have suggested that following the election in May, South Yorkshire Police should be disbanded, and subsumed into a single county-wide police force with the aim of increasing efficiencies and the quality of policing. The more significant question of why, despite a string of major failures, South Yorkshire Police has not been taken over by the Home Office already, has not been addressed.
March 2015 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the return to work following the 1984-5 UK miners’ strike, yet three decades on many unanswered questions remain. The IPCC is yet to comment on when the results of its scoping exercise will be released. Even the suitability of the IPCC to conduct an inquiry into Orgreave is questionable. As a government arm closely aligned to the police force, many critics have challenged the independence and potential disinterest of the IPCC in reviewing this conflict. Michael Mansfield QC has labelled Orgreave ‘the biggest frame up ever’ and called the delay in the IPCC scoping exercise ‘lamentable and the reasons unsustainable’. This week Mansfield exclusively revealed at an event in Huddersfield that he had been consulted by the IPCC as part of their scoping process, and his case papers requested to help them in their decision. He claimed to have refused this request, arguing that the IPCC did not require case papers for a scoping exercise. He used Yvette Vanson’s film ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ to suggest that all the evidence needed is already in the public domain, and reflected that he cannot understand the delay in the IPCC decision.
The first years of the new millennium have been defined by a series of inquiries seeking to re-frame our understanding of the recent past. From Saville to Chilcott, Leveson to Ellison, these reviews speak of a contemporary need for justice and closure. Why Orgreave should be immune from this wider process of review is not clear. While the decision to engage in an inquiry into Orgreave continues in a state of limbo, thirty years on we cannot move forward and begin to tackle the legacies of the strike and rebuild public trust. As the media spotlights fall once again on the anniversary of the miners’ strike, in the dark heart of Yorkshire, its legacies act as a permanent and urgent reminder that, in the words of the Justice for Coalfield Bill, ‘without justice, there can be no reconciliation’.