08:16, February 03 68 0 theguardian.com

2021-02-03 08:16:04
Former trade union strikers challenge convictions at appeal court

The actor Ricky Tomlinson is among a group of trade unionists seeking to overturn their criminal convictions arising out of an industrial strike that took place nearly five decades ago.

The legal challenge by 14 trade unionists will be heard at London’s appeal court in a two-day hearing that is due to start on Wednesday. Tomlinson was among six men who were jailed for offences connected to the strike.

They have been campaigning to clear their names for years arguing they were persecuted by the establishment to deter trade unionists from taking action to improve their pay and working conditions.

The trial is due to examine allegations that a covert government unit that disseminated anti-Communist propaganda helped to get them convicted. Declassified documents suggest that Edward Heath, the then prime minister, personally approved of the unit’s campaign to undermine leftwing trade unionists.

Terry Renshaw, one of the convicted men, said: “We are looking forward to finally having our day in court to show that we were victims of a miscarriage of justice.”

The appeal court judges will examine evidence compiled by the trade unionists during their long campaign that centres on a 1972 strike by building workers to boost wages and safety regimes on construction sites.

In total, after three trials, 22 trade unionists were convicted of unlawful assembly, conspiracy to intimidate, and affray, while two were acquitted.

They were given sentences ranging from three years’ jail time to four months’ imprisonment suspended for two years. Tomlinson, then working as a plasterer, was jailed for two years after he was convicted of affray and conspiring to intimidate.

Subsequently he left the building industry after being blacklisted by managers and became an actor, starring in programmes such as the Royle Family and Brookside.

Documents unearthed by the campaign, known as the Shrewsbury 24 campaign, shed light on a secretive government agency, called the Information Research Department (IRD).

The IRD was set up in 1948 to wage a propaganda campaign against communism around the world during the cold war. It did this by furtively disseminating documents to selected journalists and academics until it was shut down in 1977 after ministers accepted it had overstepped the mark.

The documents show that in 1973, the IRD gave a dossier about leftwing trade unionists to the makers of an ITV television programme.

This programme, called Red under the Bed, was broadcast during the prosecution of six of the men.

The campaigners allege that the programme unfairly swayed the jury against the trade unionists, helping to get them convicted.

The declassified documents show that a Whitehall official congratulated IRD on their work supplying the dossier to the programme-makers. Thomas Barker, the unit’s then head, described how “we had a discreet but considerable hand in this programme”. MI5, the security service, had also been involved.

Heath’s aide, Robert Armstrong, noted in another memo that a transcript of the programme had been shown to the prime minister. According to the memo, Heath “commented that we want as much as possible of this sort of thing”.

The trade unionists also argue that police destroyed witness statements and that this fact was not disclosed to lawyers defending the men. A number of the men who were convicted have died.

Last November, a public inquiry into the covert infiltration of political groups disclosed that undercover police had penetrated the trade unionists’ campaign in 1974.