18 March 2004 Edition
Targeted by the state - The 1984 British miners' strike
BY FERN LANE
Twenty years ago this month, on 5 March 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers, together with the communities from which it drew its membership, embarked on an epic confrontation with the Thatcher government. Although superficially a struggle over proposed pit closures, in reality the Miners' Strike was actually about something transcendentally greater than that; it was a titanic clash the over what direction British politics was to take from that moment on. The strike was a desperate last stand by working class communities against a Tory machine which had, since coming to power in 1979, made clear its desire to destroy organised labour, most especially the NUM. It had made equally clear its determination to restructure the British economic landscape to conform to its greedy, market-led, profit-driven, vision in which, as Thatcher famously said, the thing called 'society' had no place.
Almost exactly three years prior to that pivotal week in 1984, another strike with equally momentous and long-lasting effects had also been set in motion, backed an equally politicised, defiant and largely working class community. Like the miners' strike, the 1981 Hunger Strike had been, outwardly at least, about the issue of the political rights of republican prisoners. But, like the Miners' Strike that was to follow, as it progressed it became much greater than its core issue. It became the struggle around which nationalist resistance to British occupation, with all its violations of person, property and human rights, became crystallised.
In both cases, as the miners' groups who visited the Six Counties in 1984/'85 quickly learned, the Tory government had similar motives —the destruction of the Republican Movement in Ireland on the one hand and of the Trade Union Movement in Britain on the other. And in both cases it used near-identical techniques in its attempt to crush wider political opposition to its policies.
It waged an unfettered propaganda war; it belittled and ignored the legitimate grievances of those involved; it used the full force of its security and intelligence services in the, often illegal, attempt to undermine the strikes; it sought by similar means to discredit their leaders and, backed up by force, it set out to impose its will on communities fighting for their very survival.
Like the Hunger Strike, the Miners' Strike was presented to the public in its most crudely simplistic form; the latter, as Séamus Milne has recently said, being portrayed as "an anti-democratic insurrection led by a ranting megalomaniac in defiance of economic logic". Similarly, anyone living in Britain in 1981, who did not make strenuous efforts to inform themselves about the Hunger Strike, would have been under the impression that a small gang of criminals, backed by slightly bigger, but infinitely dangerous, criminal conspiracy were attempting to blackmail a plucky British Government over apparently trivial issues such as the prisoners' (criminals') demand to wear their own clothes. And in both cases, the government could rely on a cravenly obedient British press to convey, unquestioned, its propaganda to the public.
And, as republican leaders were the subject of a determined campaign of demonisation in the British press at the behest of the government, so the miners' leader, Arthur Scargill, was relentlessly smeared with false allegations and portrayed as a villain of almost pantomime absurdity. Although a "ferociously principled" man, his reputation has never really recovered from the grievous defamation it endured. As recently as the firefighters' industrial action last year, Tony Blair sneeringly referred to their union representatives as "Scargillites", hoping no doubt to send a collective shiver down the spine of middle England, and reminding them in a single word that organised labour must be resisted, whatever the cost or however reasonable its demands.
There are other similarities. Like the Hunger Strikers, the miners were forsaken by those who should have supported them, but who were too afraid or too unprincipled to do so, and who chose to turn their faces away from the enormity of what was at stake. As the Catholic Church, the Dublin Government and middle-class nationalism abandoned the H-Block men, preferring instead to attack republicans and try to undermine the unity of the strikers and their families, so the Labour Party and the TUC blamed Scargill for the strike. They insisted that he should hold a national ballot and blamed him and the miners, rather than the police and the government, for the violence that occurred on the picket lines.
Another means of attacking both strikes was to lure in weaker members of each respective community and set them the task of destroying the strikes from within. Denis Faul was, of course, the chosen instrument in 1981, and in 1984 the British government refined the ploy and used it again.
It sponsored and ardently promoted the so-called Democratic Union of Mineworkers, courting a cabal of right-wing, strikebreaking miners who engineered the first cracks in the previously solid position of the strikers.
But the true extent of the dirty tricks the government had employed only really began to emerge in 1993, when five Labour MPs signed a Parliamentary motion accusing the head of MI5, Stella Rimington, of sending an agent into the heart of NUM "to destabilise and sabotage the union at its most critical juncture".
At the time of the strike, Rimington had been a specialist in F2, the MI5 unit dedicated to the monitoring and surveillance of trade union officials and members. She also had considerable prior form in the Six Counties. The agent she had deployed was named as Roger Windsor, the Chief Executive of the NUM at the time of the strike and Scargill's right hand man.
As chronicled by Séamus Milne since, this was all part of the MI5 "Get Scargill" plan, a campaign, authorised by Margaret Thatcher, to destroy the NUM leader "politically and personally". The agency about its task with vigour. It mounted the biggest telephone tapping operation it had ever undertaken. The homes of union officials and NUM branch offices were bugged. Scargill and many other officials were put under 24-hour surveillance, with restaurants and hotels they regularly used also bugged. The telephones of sympathetic groups and members of other trades unions were tapped.
MI5 also infiltrated the pickets during the strike, sending in undercover police officers to identify particular targets for arrest or to provoke violent incidents that would then be served up to an unwitting British public as part of the propaganda war. But, when two such police officers who had infiltrated the Creswell Strike Centre in Derbyshire were exposed, the national media conspired to ignore it.
Windsor had joined the NUM staff office as its finance officer in 1983, quickly becoming its Chief Executive. According to some accounts of the strike, he advised the NUM to transfer funds into a network of overseas trusts and accounts, supposedly to avoid the threat of confiscation, but all the time allegedly informing the security services about where the money was going. Ultimately, his financial 'advice' led the NUM into being placed in receivership. Its funds were sequestrated, with the effect that its work was severely hampered. It cost the union millions of pounds.
He was also responsible for one of the biggest public relations disasters to befall the NUM. Without the knowledge of the union, Windsor travelled to Libya to visit Colonel Gadaffi, at the time a figure of profound fear and loathing in a Britain, which was incessantly reminded of the killing of a woman PC outside the Libyan embassy six months earlier. Windsor arranged to be filmed and photographed embracing Gadaffi with predictable results; the NUM and its leader were vilified in the British press. What the public did not learn was that Scargill had been invited to Libya to "explain the NUM's position" but that he had declined the invitation, telling Gadaffi that if he wanted to help the miners he should stop the strikebreaking sale of oil to Britain.
Not content with this, MI5 also attempted to deposit £500,000 in a Dublin bank account, using the British Intelligence Services' 'house' bank, the now discredited Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), to carry out the transfer. Presumably, the idea was to subsequently 'expose' Scargill as a fraudster who was stealing NUM funds. The plan failed, however, when the Dublin bank involved uncovered the scam.
Thatcher's frontline troops
Crucial to the Thatcher government's plan to nail Scargill was the role of the British media, whose members were referred to by the miners themselves as "Thatcher's frontline troops". Indeed, in 1991 journalist Richard Norton-Taylor revealed the existence of a list of something like 500 prominent Britons, including around 90 in the media, who were in the employ of the CIA, and paid through the old friend of the intelligence services, the BCCI.
The Daily Mirror, in particular, much of it under the editorship of the now-repentant Roy Greenslade, launched a sustained and often demented hate-campaign against Arthur Scargill, a campaign which lasted long after the strike had come to an end in March 1985. As late as 1990, the paper was still printing MI5-planted front page 'exclusives' in order to smear Scargill and some of his associates.
The most notorious was the allegation — or rather the lie — that during the strike the NUM had received money from Libya. This money, claimed Roger Windsor in the Daily Mirror, had been intended to bring relief to the impoverished miners, but Scargill, along with another official, Peter Heathfield, had diverted some £70,000 of it in order to pay off their mortgages.
This story, on which, says Seamus Milne "the fingerprints of the intelligence services could be found like an unmistakable calling card", was also repeated in March 1990 on Central TV's The Cook Report. An inquiry by Gavin Lightman QC subsequently found that the story was "entirely untrue", but unsurprisingly, the British press proved itself highly reluctant to set the record straight. Indeed, it took until 2002 for Greenslade to publish a mea culpa piece in The Guardian and apologise, far too late many would say, to Scargill.
In the meantime, of course, the NUM and the Trade Union Movement in Britain along with it, was virtually destroyed. And, exactly as Arthur Scargill had predicted, in the wake of the defeat of the NUM, the Tory Government set about the dismantling of the coal industry with relish, reducing great tracts of the country to wasteland in the process.
Former mining communities in Britain still feel the consequences of the events of 1984 and many are only now beginning to recover. The understandable bitterness felt by those who fought for their communities towards those who broke the strike is also still apparent. A scab in 1984 is still a scab 20 years later.
The Six Counties also live with the consequences of the Hunger Strikes. The difference is, of course, that despite how it appeared in October 1981, the Hunger Strike could not be defeated. Thatcher's tactics, which were honed and applied with renewed determination three years later, actually achieved the very objective they were designed to prevent. She failed utterly in her plan to destroy republicanism. From the tragedies of 1981, a new generation of republicans was politicised. And it led directly to the realisation of the British state's worst nightmare; the spectacular electoral rise of Sinn Féin.
• Stella Rimington headed MI5's F2 branch, responsible for monitoring "subversion" in trade unions, where she was party to many of the agency's more sordid operations, such as the bugging of CND members and union leaders, and her key role in the 1984 Miners' Strike. For a period, Rimington worked in the Six Counties where, in F5, she worked closely with Military Intelligence, collating and analysing the data collected on republicans. She was promoted to direct MI5's 'counter-terrorist' activities and in February 1992 was appointed Director General of MI5. In 1993, she persuaded the British Government to give MI5 responsibility for countering IRA activities in Britain.
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
- This special edition which focuses on Irish Unity, features articles by Pearse Doherty, Dr Thomas Paul and Martina Anderson.
- Pearse sets out the argument for an United Ireland Economy whilst Pat Sheehan makes the case for a universally free all-island health service.
- Other articles include, ‘Ceist teanga in Éirinn Aontaithe’, ‘Getting to a new Ireland’ and ‘Ireland 1918-22: The people’s revolution’.