By Joe Mellor, In house Reporter
This morning, 22nd January 2014 at 11.15am, Eileen Turnbull, a British Erin Brockovich, will finally see her fight for justice heard in the House of Commons. Without campaign researcher Eileen’s tireless work, the circumstances surrounding the imprisonment of six men and death of one man might never have been heard.
Her story began one sunny day in September 6, 1972, when during the national building strike, five coachloads of pickets visited seven building sites in Shropshire. Escorted by 80 police and with the site owners’ permission, they called on workers to join the strike against poverty pay, grim conditions and appalling health and safety.
Unlike the brutal miners’ strike, nobody was arrested and the police chief even thanked the pickets for their behaviour on the day. But the lives of the protesters were destroyed when five months later, the police arrested 24 men on conspiracy charges and six were imprisoned after trials in 1973-74, including actor and household name Ricky Tomlinson, who served two years in prison.
In a tribute to his most famous screen character, Jim Royle, he said:
“Guilty, my arse.”
Luckily for Ricky he took up acting when he was released – as he couldn’t get a job on a building site – but the rest were not so lucky. One of the “guilty” men Des Warren died from Parkinsons attributed to his spell behind bars.
Four decades on, Conservative minister Ken Clarke and now his Cabinet colleague Chris Grayling have refused to release vital documents on grounds of national security, saying they will now be held until 2021. But brave Eileen, through intensive forensic research into government records, has managed to force today’s debate calling for the disclosure of all files relating to the Shrewsbury trials of the 70’s.
A pre-debate gathering in a Commons function room (not as glamorous as it sounds sadly) saw Eileen address an audience including key campaigner Dave Anderson MP, News International Tom Watson MP and firebrand “beast of Bolsover” himself Dennis Skinner, who strangely had never set foot in the room before. The best speech of the evening came from a woman, who in her own words, is “much more comfortable in front of a box of government records than speaking to crowd”.
She described how, “in 2004 Des Warren died and in 2006 a committee was set up and I decided to find out the truth and clear these innocent men’s names.
“I enrolled on a Masters at the University of Liverpool, purely so I could write a dissertation about criminal case review. I had to teach myself to appeal against this injustice, and I find a 30,000 word dissertation on the subject really helps!
“After I passed that I applied for a PHD, so I could get access to Conservative papers from an archive in Oxford.”
Armed with this information, Eileen has built a watertight case against the government, which reaches all the way to the top, perhaps to the PM of the time Edward Heath.
Eileen says: “Everything about the case was wrong, the Judge presiding had never taken a criminal case and as far as I can find never did afterwards.
“The police took 900 statements and only used 200 they found “helpful,” including 80 from officers present on the day, who had quickly changed their tunes. In their statements they now claimed that during that peaceful day in September 1972, they were actually under threat.
“There is correspondence from the then Attorney General Robert Carr to the then Home Secretary Peter Rawlinson which said there was no case against the pickets, but within weeks they were arrested anyway, I want to know who overturned this decision.
“This is the information the government won’t release, because of “national security.” I demand to know who overturned this decision.”
Similarities with the WMD dodgy dossier are too many to mention. Is it possible that Lord McAlpine, one of the largest building firm owners and as it happens, Treasurer for the Conservative party, might conceivably had anything to do with the case?
The last thing a major building firm would want was a workforce demanding workers’ rights and safety, and building sites were not anywhere near as safe as they “almost” are these days.
Eileen says: “Between 1970-73 there were 591 fatalities on building sites in the UK, all these men wanted was to make it a safe place to work.”
The conspiracy theory is supported by Len McCluskey General Secretary of Unite, he says: “All people want is justice, of course there was a conspiracy. The only ever national strike in construction had just taken place and succeeded. They didn’t want it to happen again and that is why these men suffered their fate.”
This sentiment is supported wholeheartedly by TV legend Ricky Tomlinson: “This is a miscarriage of justice that we believe goes all the way to Edward Heath, the then Prime Minister.
“They need to stop hiding pieces of the jigsaw. It’s been 40 years and now they want to push it back to 2021. We know that they’re trying to kill us all off. I’ll be 81 in 2021. Some of the lads have already died.
“Without Eileen we couldn’t have got this far, I spend more time with Eileen than her fella does, which he says is a relief!”
Eileen and the other protesters will never give up. It’s been a long time since this phrase was so pertinent and spoken with so much gusto, but the workers united will never be defeated.
Some may have called them militants, others heroes, but nobody in their right mind can deny that these men were wrongfully convicted, no matter where your political allegiances lie. We have Eileen to thank that this matter will not be laid to rest, unlike Des Warren, until the truth will out.