The coking plant just outside Sheffield in South Yorkshire called Orgreave was an innocuous place, producing the bi-products of deep-mined coal. It earned its notoriety as a result of the national miners’ strike which raged throughout 1984-5. The strike led to the biggest civil unrest in this country for many years.
What took place at this plant in the summer of 1984 was the catalyst for the standoff between the National Union of Mineworkers led by Arthur Scargill and the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Determined to bring the government down, the strike went way beyond the problems with the long term viability of deep coal mining at that time; Mr Scargill had a much different agenda. The social-economic problems of the day are complex and far too intricate and lengthy for a discussion here.
The Hillsborough disaster, whereby 96 people lost their lives at the Sheffield Wednesday football ground two years later, has only one thing in common with the so called ‘battle of Orgreave’. Both events were under the auspices and command of South Yorkshire Police. At Orgreave though it is a very important factor that many other police forces from all over the country were involved. It was for instance a Chief Superintendent from West Yorkshire Police who had day-to-day control on the ground in the front line.
I was a bobbie on that front line at the siege of the Orgreave coking plant near Sheffield in the summer of 1984. I was just 23 years of age. Having been on the front line in the 1982 inner city riots in Chapletown, Leeds and Toxteth in Liverpool I thought I was fairly well equipped physically and emotionally for what was to happen. How wrong I was.
The front line of policemen standing across the road was supported by up to 10 files of men behind us. This thinned out to two lines of men across the large expanse of grass to our left, the miners’ right.
Most mornings started out with a bit of fun and hilarity; one miner came forward every morning and walked along the line of bobbies in a mock inspection. He would comment about our scruffiness, lack of shiny boots and our unkempt, unshaven appearance. We took this in good part bearing in mind we had been working between 16 and 18 hours a day for months. We had not seen our families nor had a break of any sort from the continual violence and serious disorder, from the many many hours spent cramped in the back of vans awaiting deployment to what would almost certainly be a fight.
After this mock inspection the hilarity was quickly forgotten and it would simply start raining bricks and pieces of pavement and boulders that they, the miners, had brought with them. After the rain of rubble, which injured many officers, the miners would amass in front of us, hundreds of them, and then when their gander, bravery and blood was at the right level they would charge. And charge they did, hundreds of them running straight into us, punching and kicking and head-butting. Their attempts to get through us were thwarted, but the violence was unbelievable.
That first wave hit us each morning like a steam train; such was the pushing and movement you could find yourself lifted off the ground and you would be moved by the sheer force of the clash many feet away from where you started. It was not funny, it was frightening and having your arms linked with the officers either side of you there was no way to defend yourself from the punches and head butts.
We never attacked the miners, we never made the first move toward them. We never threw bricks at them, we never charged them. Horses were used to disperse them when the violence was just too much. Any and all violence was precipitated by the striking miners. Many on both sides were injured, some quite seriously.
The recent call for an enquiry into the violence is a waste of time and tax-payers’ money based on what that enquiry would seek to achieve. Violence was present and that is not in doubt – it is well documented and evidenced. I fear there is no case to answer and nothing to prove following this line of enquiry. Mass picketing was unlawful, charging at and assaulting police officers is an offence too. Alleged individual acts of assault or violence would be impossible to evidence and prove.
The people seeking the enquiry have got this wrong. If they had sought an enquiry based around the arrests, evidential gathering and subsequent failed prosecutions of individuals by South Yorkshire Police, then there is quite possibly, given their behaviour with Hillsborough and Sir Cliff Richard, a case to investigate and answer.
The Labour Party, and in particular Andy ‘I-will-jump-on-any-national-campaign’ Burnham, did nothing at all about promulgating an enquiry in the 13 years they were in power, no, nothing was said, nothing was done so they should simply shut up.
The fact is, though, that no one was convicted of any offences post Orgreave and no one died during the clashes. What took place there is best left confined to the annals of history.
See also a story in the Guardian