'Burning injustice' of Orgreave is left smouldering | David Conn

Hopes of former striking miners, raised by Theresa May’s vow to fight injustice when she became PM, are dashed just three months later

In the government’s brief, high-handed statement turning down an inquiry into South Yorkshire police malpractice at Orgreave in 1984, there was no detectable trace of Theresa May’s promise on the threshold of Downing Street to fight “burning injustice” and champion the working class.

May herself, while home secretary, consciously raised hopes among former striking miners beaten by police at Orgreave then falsely accused of rioting, and among the families of the 96 people unlawfully killed at Hillsborough five years later due to the same force’s failings, that she did understand.

Yet the statement from May’s home secretary, Amber Rudd, was dismissive, superficial and in several aspects disingenuous.

Rudd declared there was “not a sufficient basis” for an inquiry partly because “nobody died” at Orgreave – as if this is the bar now being set for whether police wrongdoing should be held to account.

There was, she added, “no miscarriage of justice”, which is an alarming view of the miners’ ordeals; beaten by police at the picket of the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire and falsely accused of crimes that could have put them in prison for life, a trauma which has done lasting damage.

Worst was Rudd’s misleading assertion that the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign (OTJC) had argued that if the South Yorkshire police had been held to account after the Orgreave malpractice, “the tragic events at Hillsborough would never have happened”.

Having set up that straw man proposition, which neither the OTJC nor the Hillsborough families have ever argued so absolutely, Rudd purported to dismiss it, saying there was “no certainty” that the 96 deaths could have been avoided.

That was an extraordinarily insensitive evasion of this central concern articulated recently by Margaret Aspinall, the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, whose 18-year-old son, James, was one of the 96 people unlawfully killed at the Hillsborough FA Cup semi-final.

As the families have discovered more about the brutality of the South Yorkshire police-led operation against the miners at Orgreave, premeditated determination to press riot charges on men arrested, the falsification of evidence and alleged perjury in the failed prosecutions of 95 miners, the subsequent alleged cover-up and refusal of the chief constable, Peter Wright, to acknowledge any fault, the question has nagged.

The families have come to question why that chain of malpractice and culture was left unreformed, and to believe it explains the brutality of much South Yorkshire police conduct as Hillsborough descended into lethal disaster, officers’ terribly heartless response to grieving families, and the alleged cover-up, the force’s institutional effort to deflect blame on to innocent people attending the match, which took 27 years to overturn. Aspinall says they believe the disaster may not have happened, that her son and other families’ relatives might still be alive, had Wright and his methods not been left in unquestioned place in 1989.

Nobody, not the bereaved Hillsborough families nor the OTJC, has said there is “certainty” that Hillsborough “would never have happened” had South Yorkshire police been challenged after Orgreave rather than congratulated by a Conservative government for defeating the miners.

Along with Rudd’s dubious rationale, there has been a basic lack of respect to the working class campaigners. May encouraged them to believe the unlikely: that a modern Conservative government really might soften its class war, historically triumphalist view of the miners’ defeat, and accept that wrongs were done.

After the Independent Police Complaints Commission stated following a review of documentation last year that there was evidence of perjury by police officers in the prosecutions of miners, and of a cover-up afterwards, but that it could not investigate due to the passage of time, May could have left it alone.

Instead, she invited calls for an inquiry, and met the campaigners in July last year. She told the Police Federation in May that historic inquiries are necessary to deliver justice, and on the very same day, Nick Timothy, who had previously been her chief of staff – and who is now working in that role again, argued persuasively that there should be an Orgreave inquiry. Rudd met the campaigners again last month, then promised a decision by the end of October. Then, after all that, there it was, on the afternoon of 31 October: a page of flimsy dismissal.

May’s government has decided that South Yorkshire police’s grave misconduct in 1984 can be left unaddressed, because “nobody died” at Orgreave, there was “no miscarriage of justice,” and the Hillsborough families can be left wondering if their loved ones might be alive today had the police been held to account in 1984. This “burning injustice,” the first on which May’s government has reached a decision since she made her promise three months ago, is left smouldering.


David Conn

The GuardianTramp

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