Campaigning for Blair Peach in New Zealand

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The articles I’ve been reprinting from the British press give (hopefully) a sense of how activists in the UK attempted to keep pressure on the government here to come clean about police involvement in the death of Blair Peach. The demands of the Friends of Blair Peach committee were for a public inquiry, and for disclosure of all documents relating to Blair’s death. Neither demand was immediately successful, although it is clear from reading the Home Office files that the government felt under considerable pressure for the entire year from Peach’s death, and right up until the findings of the Inquest, considered it a realistic possibility that it would have to concede a judicial inquiry.

How about in New Zealand? The organisers of the campaign were Natalia Aston and Richard Hill, a friend of Blair Peach’s who had met him while studying in the UK in 1972, and had been in the IMG (Peach was of course in IS/SWP).

In November 1979, the National Executive of the NZ Labour Party discussed whether to support the call for a further Inquiry and voted to do so.  The National government in New Zealand, however, refused to take up this call:

“The Government has followed this case closely through the High Commission in London because it involved the death of a New Zealand citizen. Nevertheless the Government had held the view that the framework of British law provides an adequate setting for the Peach family and its supporters to to seek redress … The question of whether there should be a public enquiry is for the British Government alone…”

A number of New Zealand MPs supported the campaign including Russell Marshall, the MP for Wanganui, a former Methodist Minister, and a Labour MP. In 1981, Marshall was the Labour Shadow Minister for Education, and he agreed to ask a question in Parliament of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Brian Talboys, the National Minister, declined to make any enquiries of the government in London.

As late as 1986, April 1986, Russell Marshall (now the Minister for Education) was still writing to Hill, saying that he doubted the Thatcher government would concede an inquiry but was heartened by news that the Metropolitan Police was likely to have to concede the disclosure of the Cass report. (As we know, it was only in fact disclosed in 2010).

The boldest decision taken by the New Zealand Friends of Blair Peach was its call in April 1981 for a labour movement boycott of all British imports. “We conduct this campaign”, the campaign wrote, “in the interests of civil liberties and justice, and to commemorate the life and work of a comrade devoted to anti-racist and anti-fascist activities among the most under privileged layers of British society.”

The boycott was widely publicised. The New Zealand Friends were interviewed by a series of national newspapers and on radio. The call also had the effect of forcing  a response from PJ Priestly, the first secretary of the British High Commission, which had been trying to ignore the campaign.

According to Hill, “I can’t  as yet find any records relating to the boycott, but I recall  we had support from a number of left-of-centre organisations (such as the Socialist Left of the Labour Party), community groups  and trade unions. We didn’t really anticipate a significant boycott, and it was more of a way of dramatising the issue (and of course the boycott   of South African  goods was often in the news, and a parallel call  seemed a good way of focussing people’s minds on issues) so we just let the campaign die away when it had served its publicity purposes …  I don’t think we asked the Labour Party per se to support the boycott, though I’m pretty sure some branches – especially in the Wellington region, the most radical region – did so, including the Kelburn Branch of which I was chair.”

Colin Revolting: My friend Blair Peach

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Guest post by Colin Revolting

My Mum knew Blair Peach as a ‘nice gently spoken man’ as they were both in  the National Union of Teachers Rank and File group. She told me Blair taught ESN (“Educationally Sub-Normal”) kids and that National Front members had pulled him off his bike whilst cycling to and from the school in East London.

There were lots of times to confront the Front during their election campaign of 1978-79.

Me and mates had spent Sunday in Leicester. Thousands of us took over the city centre and rained rocks down on the master race when the cops stupidly paraded them past a building site. (“I got hit by a rock against racism,” moaned a copper when he caught us fly-posting for RAR).

The next night in a little place called Southall sounded like it’d be a quiet affair in comparison to our riot in Leicester, so I spent the evening printing pages for our punk rock fanzine instead. But my best mate, Neal and my big brother, Stuart made the journey across London by Ford Cortina.

They felt like they’d entered an occupied city, with police vans patrolling as Asians and Anti-Nazi’s filled the streets with tension and anticipation. Neal and Stuart got out just as the police’s Special Patrol Group went wild.

I was still asleep when my Mum burst into my room the next morning – what was she doing? – she never came into my teenage bedroom and anyway I was doing the late shift on the Town Hall’s computer.

“They killed one of us,” she said.

That afternoon I went to visit our punk band’s drummer in hospital as he’d broken his leg and I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard. RIOT MAN DEAD was the headline.

Going on anti fascist marches and protests were always exhilarating and terrifying, adrenalin-fuelled affairs  – but from that day on they felt different again … It wasn’t a game.

Blair Peach in the press: “Liberties panel demands full Peach inquiry” (9 October 1979)

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As well as the Friends of Blair Peach Committee and the Anti-Nazi league, one of the main organisations keeping pressure on the Home Office to concede an inquiry was the Committee founded by the National Council of Civil Liberties.

Chaired by Michael Dummett and with members including Joan Lestor MP,  Patricia Hewitt General Secretary of the NCCL, Paul O’Higgins, an academic lawyer at Cambridge, and the philosopher and activist Stuart Hall, the NCCL report would eventually conclude:

“There is reason to believe that Blair Peach was killed by an SPG officer, and no evidence to suggest that he was killed by anyone else. It is a matter for astonishment that the police investigation in his killing has resulted in no criminal or disciplinary proceedings.”

 

 

 

Blair Peach in the press: “who killed Blair Peach” (9 October 1979)

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As reports came out that six police officers were at the centre of the investigation, attention turned to the inquest and whether that would be capable of being a fair process. There were widespread concerns about Coroner John Burton, who had initially refused the request of Peach’s family to have the case heard by a jury. By tradition, juries were mandatory at all inquests. But since 1926, they had been optional, save with some exceptions: where a death occurred in prison, where it was caused by an accident, poisoning or disease requiring notice to an inspector or government department, and where it occurred in circumstances whose repetition would be prejudicial to public health or safety. At this stage, Peach’s family’s understanding of his death was that he had been killed by a weapon, probably not a truncheon, and it appeared that police officers were routinely taking such weapons on demonstrations. This was the argument which they wanted to test. By its very nature, it was an argument which made a jury appropriate. Burton’s initial refusal to accept a jury can be seen as an attempt, from before the inquest had started, to keep control and close off any lines of inquiries which would be impliedly critical of the police. The Coroner’s decision had to be appealed twice, before the higher courts agreed and accepted that a jury would be appropriate.

While this argument was taking place, the Friends of Blair Peach Committee for a much more straightforward judicial-led public inquiry. This advertisement in the Guardian, making that demand, was signed by 6 MPs, two national unions, Peach’s old union branch (NUT East London Association) and Spare Rib magazine.

Blair Peach in the press: “six police in probe” (7 October 1979)

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The news that the DPP did not support prosecution of any of the officers named in the Cass report did not prevent others from taking up the call for the report to be published. By autumn 1979, the Conservative government was maintaining its line that there would be no public inquiry, which meant that the most important public forum would be the coming inquest. Would the Coroner John Burton agree to let Peach’s family see Cass’ report?

We know now that he never did disclose the report, which he referred to, and which counsel for the Metropolitan police also had, making it practically impossible for the barristers at the Inquest representing the family and the ANL to properly examine witnesses.

The National Council of Civil Liberties was watching the inquest closely, and its Committee of observers chaired by the Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett, complained of the injustice of depriving one party to a public inquest access to information held by another, “We believe that the existence of private evidence, available to the coroner and the Metropolitan Police counsel but not to the other parties, made it impossible for the inquest to be a proper and fair investigation of the cause of Blair Peach’s death and seriously weakened public confidence in the proceedings. Such evidence should either be exclude altogether or, if given to anyone involved in the inquest, should be given to everyone… [T]he law should be changed to provide all parties at an inquest with an entitlement to see all evidence made available to the coroner.”

Blair Peach in the press: “why the police report on Peach’s death must be published” (5 October 1979)

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Commander Cass completed his second, substantial report, on 14 September 1979. Cass found that Peach must be assumed to have been killed by a police officer, as there was no evidence of any other potential cause of death. He considered the possibility that the blow might have been struck accidentally or unwittingly, but again, there was no evidence at all to suggest this. If an officer had wanted to say that it had been a mistake, they could have come forward to say so and none had. Cass wrote. “In the absence of other evidence it is therefore a matter of consideration as to whether the death was unlawful, there being little evidence from any source that criminal acts were being committed by the demonstrators at the time of the death.”

Cass had one primary suspect – “Officer E” - “Officer E is aware of what actually occurred”, he wrote, “It can be clearly seen from the various statements and records of interviews with these officers that their explanations were seriously lacking and in the case of Officer E, Officer F and Officer H, there was [a] deliberate attempt to conceal the presence of the carrier at the scene at the vital time.”

Yet just three weeks after the Cass report, the Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Thomas Hetherington announced that despite Cass’s “very thorough” report, there would be no prosecutions, either for murder or for conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

The authors of the above letter – 12 academic lawyers at the University of Kent including Wade Mansell and Ian Grig-Spall – did not know what was in the Cass report, the main details of which only became public knowledge in 2010 – but they rightly insisted that the Cass report should be published.