By LE Desk
London, March 23: UK’s court of appeal judges have overturned the criminal convictions of a group of trade unionists, including the actor Ricky Tomlinson, after a campaign lasting more than four decades.
Three judges quashed the convictions, which were related to a strike by building workers in 1972, after concluding they were unsafe, the Guardian reported.
The ruling was welcomed by leading figures in the Labour and trade union movements. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, called it a “huge victory”, adding: “It’s taken unimaginable determination to ensure justice, finally, prevailed.” Frances O’Grady, TUC leader, tweeted that the campaigners “never gave up – and now they are proved right.”
The group of trade unionists, who became known as the Shrewsbury 24, had run a long campaign arguing that they had been persecuted by the establishment to deter workers from taking action to improve their pay and working conditions.
After the ruling, Tomlinson, who had been sentenced to two years in jail for conspiracy to intimidate and affray, said: “Whilst it is only right that these convictions are overturned – it is a sorry day for British justice. The reality is we should never have been standing in the dock.
“We were brought to trial at the apparent behest of the building industry bosses, the Conservative government, and ably supported by the secret state. This was a political trial not just of me, and the Shrewsbury pickets – but was a trial of the trade union movement.”
Terry Renshaw, another trade unionist, said: “We never thought that we would see this day when this miscarriage of justice was overturned. The police and the prosecuting authorities used every trick in the book to secure guilty verdicts, even if it meant trampling over our rights and manipulating the evidence.”
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.
Lawyers for 14 of the group argued successfully that their trials in 1973 and 1974 were unfair because original witness statements had been destroyed by the police – a fact withheld at the time from those convicted.
Announcing the verdict at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Lord Justice Fulford said: “If the destruction of the handwritten statements had been revealed to the appellants at the time of the trial, this issue could have been comprehensively investigated with the witnesses when they gave evidence, and the judge would have been able to give appropriate directions.
“We have no doubt that if that had happened, the trial process would have ensured fairness to the accused. Self-evidently, that is not what occurred.” He added: “By the standards of today, what occurred was unfair to the extent that the verdicts cannot be upheld.”
In their appeals last month, the trade unionists had also argued 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.
The documents show that in 1973, the unit, known as the Information Research Department 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, leading to their convictions.
However, the judges dismissed this argument. Fulford said: “Given the political climate of the early 1970s and the clear issues in the case, we are confident that any juror who saw this programme would not have been prejudiced against the appellants as a consequence.”
The 1972 dispute was the first nationwide strike by building workers who wanted to increase their wages and abolish a casual system of employment that denied them protection. They were also concerned about the high number of deaths and injuries on construction sites.
Tomlinson worked as a plasterer in the 1970s but left the construction industry after being blacklisted. He became an actor, starring in programmes such as The Royle Family and Brookside.
Piers Marquis, Tomlinson’s barrister, said “There is no question that this was a politically motivated trial that ultimately intimidated workers and broke picket lines.”