Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ricky Tomlinson in new appeal over 1972 construction strike convictions

New evidence is being presented in a bid to overturn the convictions of three building workers jailed for conspiracy charges in 1972. One of the men, actor Ricky Tomlinson, tells John D'Arcy he was a political prisoner and is determined to clear his name.

Ricky Tomlinson in new appeal over 1972 construction strike convictions

Above: Tomlinson leaving Leicester Prison on parole after serving 15 months of a two-year sentence for plotting to intimidate workers during the 1972 construction strike.

Some 35 years after three building workers were jailed on conspiracy charges following events during the 1972 national construction strike, new evidence is to be put before the Criminal Cases Review Commission in a bid to overturn the convictions.

The men sentenced at Shrewsbury Crown Court were Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson - now better known as the star of programmes such as Brookside and The Royle Family - and John McKinsie Jones. They were jailed for three years, two years, and nine months respectively.


Ricky Tomlinson in new appeal over 1972 construction strike convictions


Now a campaign to reverse an alleged miscarriage of justice is gathering pace. Last year's TUC conference unanimously called for a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the prosecution of the 1972 building strike pickets. It was claimed that the trial was the result of collusion between the building employers, the then Conservative government, and the police.

"The charges and the sentences were absolutely ridiculous," says Tomlinson. "At the time, the government had just suffered defeats at the hands of the miners and the dockers. Our union was seen to be not very strong. So we were made the whipping boys."

He adds: "I am still classed as a subversive. They won't release all the files on the case. But I want to know who said what and why.

"I was a political prisoner. I am absolutely convinced there was political interference in the case. I want my name cleared. I have suffered. My wife has suffered. My children have suffered. I don't want people pointing at my grandchildren and saying I was some kind of terrorist."

The 1972 strike resulted in substantial gains by the workforce. Subsequently, however, the employers presented the Home Secretary with a dossier - largely newspaper cuttings - which purported to show widespread violence and intimidation. There were suspicions that particular pressure was put on the government by the unofficial but powerful lobby of top contractors known as the Dorchester Group.

"We have tried to get information released through the Freedom of Information Act about which contractors were involved," says Tomlinson. But parts of what is available are still blanked out."

What made the case of the "Shrewsbury Three" a particular cause celebre was the fact that charges were brought under the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act. In the wake of the strike, a total of 24 men were convicted for alleged picketing offences mainly on sites in the North West and North Wales. Most faced lesser charges of affray and received suspended sentences. Prior to the Shrewsbury trial, a number had already been acquitted.

Conspiracy was seen as a catch-all charge that was difficult to defend against. As was famously pointed out by the trial prosecutor, it was not necessary to show that the "conspirators" had ever met to agree a common purpose. It could be done "with a nod and a wink". Yet, as the defence noted, police were present at all but one of the sites where the picketing offences were said to have occurred and still no arrests were made at the time.

The convictions came amid mounting government alarm over what it saw as excessive union power especially through the use of "flying pickets". Some union leaders were equally disturbed at the growth of internal left wing and rank and file factions (the then Ucatt general secretary used the employers' house journal to attack Communist influence in his own union). Hence the anger of supporters of the Shrewsbury pickets at an apparent lack of support from the TUC.

In the event, of course, Tomlinson has gone on to make his mark elsewhere. Des Warren was not so fortunate. The treatment he received in jail is said to have broken his health and accelerated his death in 2004.

Successive Labour administrations have shied away from re-opening the case. As Tomlinson says: "We actually spent more time in jail under a Labour government. I would have thought this Labour government would welcome the chance to right a wrong."

Ucatt backing

Such is the direction the Shrewsbury campaign is currently taking, it is now wholeheartedly backed by Ucatt and spearheaded by Mick Dooley, previously a candidate for election as the union's general secretary.

Dooley comments: "A public inquiry into the Shrewsbury affair can restore faith in our legal institutions and vindicate these men. We want to know if there was MI5 involvement in their prosecution. My view is that the state should not be involved in the judiciary."

The last word goes to Tomlinson. Back in 1972 he told the court: "I have heard the judge say that this was not a political trial, but just an ordinary criminal case. I refute that with every fibre of my being."

Key questions the appeal will ask:To what extent was this a political trial?Why were conspiracy charges brought? After appeal, this was the only conviction that stood and the men were never charged with committing violence.What influence did the employers exert in bringing the prosecutions?What role, if any, has MI5 played?Did the trials proceed against police advice?Were some pickets approached before the trials to act as prosecuting witnesses only to be charged when they refused?Did the government send a message to the prosecuting Counsel saying that under no circumstances should there be any jail sentences?

Picketers doubt Vought can keep up