Nick Jones

Files released by the Home Office have so far failed to reveal the operational secrets behind the Battle of Orgreave.

But they do show that officers of the South Yorkshire Police remained entirely confident that they believed their tactics were justified and effective in dealing with the largest confrontation during the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

If the operational order for the day is ever released for public inspection, it might show whether the police set a trap for the pickets, luring them into a confrontation, as the National Union of Mineworkers has always suspected.

More documents are to be delivered to the National Archives, and 65 South Yorkshire files are also in the process of being examined, as the hunt continues for answers to the many questions raised by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.

In view of the refusal of the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to authorise a public inquiry into the events that day, the Orgreave campaigners are determined to discover who was responsible for a “military” style assault on the pickets by 6,000 or more police officers that resulted in countless men being “seriously injured, falsely arrested and wrongly prosecuted”.

Instead of expressing doubts about the collapse of the Orgreave trial, and the acquittal of 95 people charged with riot and violent affray, the South Yorkshire chief constable Peter Wright suggested that the answer was to rewrite the law on rioting and public disorder.

However, inside the Home Office there was concern. The then Home Secretary Leon Brittan was said to be “very alarmed” that the trial had collapsed after it emerged that the evidence was unsound, and that police statements might have been fabricated.

But the files indicate that the South Yorkshire force had few if any doubts about the effectiveness of its command structure and conduct in the immediate aftermath of Orgreave, in the period that preceded its fateful role in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

Mr Wright said the way round the difficulties of identification and of gathering evidence when bringing riot and assault charges would have been to introduce new, lower level offences of missile throwing and of failing to disperse after police warnings that a gathering was disorderly.

He contributed to an ongoing debate within the Home Office over the preparation of possible new legislation on public order offences.

When it came to the events on the day of the Battle of Orgreave, the files reveal that the South Yorkshire officers felt entirely justified about the way the police had responded:

“The disorder lasted for several hours, during which large numbers of missiles were thrown at the police, and vehicles and a barricade were set on fire.

“To deal with the violence it was necessary to use mounted officers and officers equipped with shields and helmets. 93 arrests were made at Orgreave on that day and 28 police officers were injured.

“Every lorry load of coke left as planned and the convoys reached their destination.”

Another file described the events at Orgreave and assessed their impact on the wider policing of the year-long dispute. 

Despite the events at Orgreave, the police were able to cope with the strike without resort to aggressive equipment.

Defensive equipment such as shields and helmets “proved of great importance, as did the use of police horses,” and it was unlikely that any other police force in Europe would have been able to cope in that way with such provocation.

The overall impression on reading the files is that the South Yorkshire officers were confident, despite the collapse of the Orgreave trial, that they retained the support of Margaret Thatcher’s government – support that would be all the more important in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster.

These latest files underline the determination of her government to thwart any attempts to frustrate policing of the strike by local police authorities that “sympathised with the striking miners.”

When the South Yorkshire Police Authority ordered Peter Wright to close the Orgreave coking plant – rather than continue to prevent it being picketed out – the Attorney General and Home Secretary both intervened on his behalf.

The Police Authority advised Mr Wright to sell off South Yorkshire’s police horses and halve the force’s dog section – in support of its contention that the force should reduce expenditure on dealing with picketing – but the Home Secretary intervened to prevent such interference.  Illustrations: Daily Mirror 11.10.2016 and 2.11.2016