On 31 October 2016, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd decided that there would not be any inquiry into the so called Battle of Orgreave. She said in a written statement that there would “be very few lessons for the policing system today to be learned from any review of the events and practices of three decades ago”, a surprising statement given that trust in the police is currently arguably at an all-time low.
Type Orgreave into Google and you are confronted by pictures and videos of unarmed, shirtless men being chased down by mounted police, men being bludgeoned and beaten with blood pouring off them. These pictures can only be described as horrific battle scenes in which a very well-armed police force attacked the unarmed and unprepared working class; a fight between the everyday man and the government of the time.
In 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers called a national strike to resist a programme of pit closures backed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government. Three months after the call to action, on 18 June 1984, around 10,000 people joined the strike action and gathered at Orgreave coking plant, South Yorkshire, in an attempt to prevent lorries leaving the plant and transporting the coke to the steelworks.
In response, the police deployed 6,000 officers, from multiple forces, but including the South Yorkshire police, equipped with riot gear, police dogs and some 42 mounted officers. Their sole purpose was to make sure the lorries were able to leave the plant and form a barrier between the product and the miners. The police then made it their mission to move the strikers into a field where they could surround and herd them.
When the strikers saw the arrival of one of the first lorries, they made to advance to stop the access, as planned. The Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Clement ordered a mounted charge against them, swiftly followed by two further mounted attacks where the police used their batons on the unarmed miners.
According to accounts from eyewitnesses, after the initial clash most of the strikers left as the plant had been closed for the day and those that remained were apparently just relaxing, when the police advanced again with a third mounted charge. The police then chased the strikers out of the field and through the Orgreave Village, again using tactics similar to ‘kettling’ and a degree of force which appears to have been unreasonable, aggressive, inhumane and unwarranted. There are accounts that a senior officer could be heard shouting ‘bodies not heads’ as batons struck down repeatedly on the miners. People were forced to jump into villagers’ gardens and run from the police and the dogs. 95 people were arrested and detained, and many arrestees with injuries reported being denied medical treatment.
71 of the Union strikers were charged with the crime ‘rioting’, which at the time carried a sentence of life imprisonment, and 24 others were charged with violent disorder. The first trial against the strikers began nearly a year later in May 1985. However, the evidence given by the police was deemed unreliable. The trial collapsed after 48 days, when the Prosecution abandoned the case. It became clear that many officers had had large parts of their statements dictated to them, and that many of them had lied in their accounts, claiming to have seen things they could not have seen, or that they had arrested someone they had not. It also emerged in the course of the trial that a new police manual setting out some controversial tactics had been used for the first time at Orgreave. The CPS dropped all cases against the 95 miners.
Although the evidence the police provided was unreliable and there were many criticisms of what happened that day, not a single officer faced disciplinary or criminal proceedings.
Five years later, in 1991, South Yorkshire Police agreed to pay a total of approximately £425,000 in compensation to 39 miners who sued for assault, wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution. But the police force admitted no wrongdoing and still no officer was ever disciplined.
In 2015 the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) prepared a report and concluded that they would not launch a formal investigation into the events. One of the reasons for this was that too much time had passed. What is remarkable about this is that the events of Orgreave happened just five years before the horrific Hillsborough disaster in which 96 people died. Campaigners claim that cabinet documents suggest that a politically motivated operation involving ministers, the police and courts was at the heart of events in 1984.
However, the IPCC did recommend that claims raised of a political conspiracy behind the police measures at Orgreave could only be dealt with by a public inquiry or an exercise like the Hillsborough Independent Panel. It found that there had been manipulation and concealment of evidence in both the criminal trial of arrested miners and subsequent civil litigation. The fact that the events have so many similarities in terms of timing location, police tactics used, and government policy support arguments that it is reasonable for an inquiry to take place.
The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign is pressing for a full and independent inquiry into what happened, just as the Hillsborough campaigners demanded an impartial investigation into the causes of the Hillsborough disaster.
In October this year it was announced that a group of retired police officers had offered to give damning evidence to any inquiry into the tactics deployed at the Orgreave confrontation. Junior officers have said that their witness statements were dictated to them by senior officers and that they were told to use excessive force on the day in question.
Controversially, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd, has now ruled out a public inquiry stating that “ultimately there were no deaths – or wrongful convictions”. However, there is talk that she will appoint a solicitor to carry out a formal review of material, although no further information has been provided about this. In any event, such course of action will not provide justice to the aggrieved, and the Orgreave Truth and Justice campaign continues to campaign for an independent inquiry
Campaigners believe that the Home Secretary has made a poor decision which denies accountability for the police and for government policy at the time. Given the current proceedings taking place around the Hillsborough incident this would surely be an opportune time to deal with Orgreave and the overlapping issues. It would help to raise awareness about what happened and assist the wider public’s understanding of the police, government and the media’s alleged ‘cover-ups’ which occurred during the 1980s.
Yes, the incident happened some 32 years ago, and yes, police tactics have moved on from then. But that does not provide any relief for those who suffered and does not allow the police force to be held accountable. The force and the government should not be allowed to sweep the actions of the past under the proverbial rug, and act as if it was not a significant and disastrous turn of events simply because no one died. There are strong indications that the police not only used excessive and unlawful force but also actively colluded to cover this up, which clearly requires further investigation. Although the police may have moved on, my view and that of many who work in the field of civil liberties is that they have not moved on enough. Indeed, it is hard to see how anyone can really move on from this without an inquiry into the events. There are still lessons to be learned and an apology is not too much to ask for. It is hoped the Government will change their stance on this matter.