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3 February 2005 Edition

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I fought the law - Talking to Arthur Scargill 20 years after the Miners' Strike

The 1984 British Miners' Strike caught the public's attention, not just because of its length, but also because it resulted in some of the most vicious and bloody clashes between protestors and state forces of any strike in living memory. The Tory Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, sent out her riot squads en masse to defeat the miners, using anti-union legislation, which prevented flying pickets, as an excuse. Her tactics were backed all the way by a biased right-wing media, which demonised the miners and propagated the myth that they were attacking the police, rather than the other way round.

In this, the last of our three-part series, Arthur Scargill talks to An Phoblacht's JOANNE CORCORAN about the various devices used against the miners, from the police, judiciary and the media, to the MI5 spies sent in by Thatcher.

An Phoblacht: The police were used heavily by Thatcher throughout the strike. What was the attitude of the NUM's members to their tactics then and how do they feel about the British police force now?

Arthur Scargill: Our feelings towards the police are like the feelings of the British soldiers in the Second World War towards the Germans. They established Nazi concentration camps saying they were only following orders and that they had no choice.

The British police cry the same excuse. They had a choice in that strike — they chose not to take it. For that we'll never forgive them.

Some of them say say now they have deep regrets. That's their problem. At the time they were knocking the shite out of the miners. We would be holding a peaceful picket and the next thing you'd see bloody thousands of them coming down the road, wielding their batons and charging in. They didn't care who they hit, man, woman or child.

Of course, all the television stations and papers would show pictures of the miners throwing stones at the police — well, that was all they had to defend themselves. What they wouldn't show was the police charging in on horses in full riot gear.

Journalists would ask me if I condemned violence and I would say yes, I condemned the police violence. No one asked Thatcher if she condemned the thuggery of her police force.

The miners weren't a threat. The police were not there to keep the peace. This was a class war and I wouldn't criticise mineworkers who had to defend themselves against Thatcher's troops while fighting for their jobs.

The police, to their eternal shame, were part and parcel of the entire system taking away the miners' right to work.

The judiciary was as bad. It played a deplorable role, sequestering the union's funds. They were so stupid they thought they could sequester people's minds as well. But they couldn't. We would have operated out of a bloody phone box if we'd had to.

And then there were the agents from MI5 and the rest of Thatcher's spy rackets. When I was asked was I surprised that there were two members of the security services working in our office, I said I was. I thought it was many more than that.

Thatcher used many similar tactics against the miners as she used against in the Hunger Strikes of 1981. Were you aware of that and did the miners' struggle lead you to have a political view on what was happening in Ireland?

I fully understood the Irish struggle when we undertook ours, me being half-Irish anyway. I knew about Thatcher's treatment of the Irish, and I knew that she would use many of the same sneaky tactics against us that she had used against the Hunger Strikers — propaganda, brute force, refusing to budge an inch. After all, the North of Ireland was a training ground for the British police and army.

But the strike opened up a lot of the miners' minds to the struggles that were happening elsewhere in the world, and did give them a new perspective on the North. And it stretched further; they suddenly realised the right of the Palestinian people to own their own state, and that they were being oppressed by Israel.

Do you think that if a strike of the same scale broke out today, the same tactics would be used, or did everyone take a step back after 1984?

I can tell you that if their was a strike today along the same lines, the police, the judiciary and the media would do exactly the same and they would probably be more vicious. The media especially are the ones to watch out for.

In our strike, the BBC acted an agent of the state. They took footage of the police attacking us at Orgreave, and edited it to make it look like we were attacking the police. Even the bloody police footage was fairer than the BBC's.

The media labelled you as the Devil incarnate during the strike. What effect did that have on you?

Well, if I hadn't been called the Devil Incarnate, I would have been sorry, because it would have meant I wasn't doing my job. The media did make me a hate figure, but I managed it by believing that that was part of my job.

The establishment can make hate figures as easy as ABC. For example, it's interesting how they characterise a whole range of people today as terrorists, in many cases simply because they are Arab, or following the Islamic faith. And yet when Mark Thatcher plans to assassinate the President of an African state and take over its government, the media cover it in a way that sees it out of the headlines in a week. Yet, by the government's definition, he is a terrorist.

Go further back and you see that when America demanded independence from Britain, their leaders were being called terrorists in the British press of the time. The media will always take the establishment's line on these matters. Things did get very bad though. There were actually five assassination attempts on me during the strike and shortly after. The media didn't report that.

The media's attacks on you continued well after the strike was over. In 1990, you and Peter Heathfield (the NUM's general secretary) were the subjects of an unprecedented media-led smear campaign that eventually ended up in court. Can you tell us about that?

Robert Maxwell's Daily Mirror was accusing us of skimming money from the miners' fund during the strike. The rumours were started by an MI5 agent, Roger Windsor, who had risen quite high in the NUM.

First we were accused of not declaring money given to us that should have been sequestered.

Well, of course we kept money away from the establishment. I've only got pride in how we managed that. We had to live out of paper bags, and we did a good job. In court at the time, it was pointed out to me that there were 17 different accounts all over the world and I was asked why the union had needed 17.

I said, "I don't know. We needed many more. If I could do it again, it would have been 117." We had to baffle the sequestor and hiding money all over the place was one way to do that.

But there were glaring anomalies in the other accusations made against us. In one case, Windsor said he had brought a sum of money from Libya, £150,000, in October 1984. He said this money was carried over by a Libyan agent, who, incidentally, had no trouble in customs at all.

I challenged the Libyans soon after that, because we never got any money from them and I was furious that they hadn't denied the accusations. But they said: "We did send money, but we sent it through a bank in Doncaster in December."

So where did the money come from in October?

The second allegation was that I instructed this money to be used to pay off my mortgage. One problem — I didn't have a bloody mortgage.

Every one of those allegations was disproved and thrown out by the courts. Now Windsor is in France up on charges of forgery and owing debts of over £400,000. He made a comment a few years ago that I would pursue him until I died. I said: "He's wrong. I will continue to pursue him after I'm dead because others will pursue him."

This man, and the media, tried to destroy the heroic efforts of the miners by besmirching the strike. The Labour leader of the time, Neil Kinnock, to his shame went along with that nonsense and bayed like a Welsh windbag for the whole bloody thing. If he'd supported us, he would have ended up Prime Minister.

The strike ended in March 1985 and it's often said that it wasn't Thatcher that finished it, but the enemies within the mining industry. What do you say to that?

We had a number of people and industries that deliberately betrayed the miners. For example, the Communist Party bears a heavy responsibility for what took place. They were pushing from day one for the strike to be called off.

The Labour Party leadership, and I distinguish that from the Labour Party membership, were disgraceful.

The Trades Union Council leadership also betrayed the miners. I told the TUC that they would live to regret it. I told them it was their jobs we were trying to protect as well.

Look at the steel industry. Ravenscraig worked against us through the strike, now it's a green field. Thatcher finished with us and went straight after them.

Orgreave was closed too. I was there when they closed it down and I went to a public telephone box outside and rang the police. I said, "Can you please send some riot police straight away down to Orgreave?" And he said, "I beg your pardon sir?" So I said, "They're trying to close this plant." "What's that got to do with us sir?" he said.

"Well it had a lot to do with you in 1984," I said. You sent down thousands of police to keep it open, now they're closing it. Don't you think you should be down here?"

He said, "I think you'll have to talk to my superior, the Chief Superintendent."

"I've talked to him before," I said. "He arrested me here a few years ago!"

Did the end of the Miners' Strike bring about the slow demise of British trade unions?

After 1984/'85, people adopted this mentality of, "Well, if they can crush the miners, they can crush us". And that started to spread. But 1984 was not the beginning of the end for trade unions. We fought valiantly against what was happening, we couldn't have done any more.

Yes, the capitalist state got its way, but the seeds of discontent were still there. The unions are growing again — look at the firefighters' dispute in 2003. You can only keep the workers down for so long.

Timeline of the Miners' Strike

September 1984 - March 1985

September - Home Secretary Leon Brittan promised extra cash to councils who sent police to picket lines.

Talks between the NUM and the National Coal Board broke up after two hours.

The TUC begrudgingly endorsed the NUM negotiating team, but smelling treachery in the air, Thatcher broke talks for the rest of the month.

October - High Court officials were permitted to enter the Labour Party conference in Blackpool and serve a writ on Arthur Scargill. The NUM went into sequestration and was fined £200,000. Scargill was fined £1,000 for declaring the strike was legal.

The IRA bombed Thatcher's hotel in Brighton during the Tory Party conference.

In Yorkshire, the parents of Davey Jones, killed in March on a picket line, tore up a cheque for £250 sent by scabs to their home, calling it "blood money".

November - Taxi-driver David Wilkie was killed by a slab of concrete thrown at his cab by miners, as he drove two scabs to work. The miners were condemned as "vicious thugs" by the government, while at the same time, police were terrifying pensioners in Hatfield, Yorkshire, for speaking out on television in support of the miners.

A judge fined the T&GWU transport union £200,000 for refusing to call off an official strike, and in London, Thatcher called the NUM terrorists.

December - The TUC attempted to sell the miners a deal, but were rejected as traitors.

Labour leader Neil Kinnock denounced talks of a general strike in support of the miners.

The miners endured a poverty-stricken Christmas, but maintained pickets at every pit in the country on Christmas day.

January - The economic cost of the strike became clear as sterling plummeted. Heavy oil purchases by the Tories allowed them to avoid power cuts, but at enormous cost.

Miners received long sentences for scuffles on picket lines — Kent man Terry French was jailed for five years. A verbal agreement between the coal board and the miners was rubbished by Thatcher's press secretary and then the coal board itself.

February - Thatcher recorded her "Appreciation" of the TUC for trying to end the strike. Eleven months after the strike began, the NUM was still able to rally over 30,000 people in London in support of the miners.

March - The TUC got a return-to-work vote narrowly passed by its delegate conference. The NUM, defeated in the vote, had no choice but to ask its members to go back to their pits. Scargill led some of the workers back, and told the crowd: "I believe that the fact that this union has struggled for 12 months is in itself a magnificent achievement. It has inspired workers not only in Britain, but throughout the world."

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

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