On 17th April 1984, a young police constable called Yvonne Fletcher paraded for work on a day that would normally have been her day off. She had been due to spend the day with her working partner, a fellow officer called John Murray. Yvonne and John were both working, both as part of a small contingent of officers whose role was to supervise a demonstration outside the Libyan People’s Bureau in St James’s Square.
The large number of demonstrators present that day were very vocal in expressing their objections to a regime in Libya led by Colonel Gaddafi. To keep the crowd away from the Bureau, they were held behind a series of steel barriers. Between them and the Bureau – a building occupied by pro-Gaddafi supporters – stood one PC, John Murray. The spot was noisy and uncomfortable. Although he wasn’t the object of the demonstrator’s anger, John was directly in front of it. Seeing her working partner had been in this position for some time, Yvonne approached John and offered to take his place. She would stand in front of the demonstrators for a while. John was grateful and accepted the kind offer.
None of the police officers present were aware that pro-Gaddafi supporters had infiltrated the demonstration to try and encourage key targets toward the front of the crowd into a position where they were directly in front of the Bureau. Those pro-Gaddafi supporters, having achieved their objective, retired to a safer place. The reason – they knew what was about to happen. A first floor window in the Bureau was opened, a machine gun was pointed at the crowd and the man holding the weapon opened fire.
We all know what happened next. Watch it here.
Yvonne Fletcher’s murder deeply affected the Met Police from the rank-and-file PCs through to the highest ranks. It was, and it remains, the only time a British police officer has been murdered live on television. It remains the most photographed and recorded death of a policewoman in the annals of British history.
The effect of Yvonne’s murder is still felt in the police today. Her death prompted the formation of the Police Memorial Trust by Sir Michael Winner after Michael wrote to the Charity Commission and received the response ‘Are you telling me you want to erect memorials to mere policemen?’ This attitude displayed in this reply amazed Michael, but he felt it was not untypical. It fuelled his determination for form a charity and the Police Memorial Trust was born.
Yvonne’s was the first memorial the trust laid. A cherry tree – still thriving today – was also planted in her memory. In February 1985, during the unveiling ceremony, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said this. “Today, the Square has resumed its peaceful way. But memories of those terrible events are still vivid in our minds. We have come here to remember Yvonne Fletcher, privately in our own thoughts, and publicly by this ceremony. Her death was a grievous loss; to her family, to the Metropolitan Police, and to all of us.
This simple memorial, erected by the Police Memorial Trust, will be a reminder to Londoners and to visitors alike of the debt that we owe to Yvonne Fletcher and all her colleagues in the Police. Without them the law could not be upheld. Without them, indeed, there would be no law, and no liberty.
We have become used to seeing our police men and women respond magnificently to any challenge. But we must never take their professionalism for granted. Too often especially recently, we hear that our police have been killed or wounded on duty. This has got to stop, and every single citizen has a duty to help make it stop. Our police uphold the law without regard to their own feelings and their own safety, never knowing what the day may bring. The greater the risk, the greater their courage. The greater their courage, the greater our loss.
Today as I unveil this memorial to Yvonne Fletcher, let us also pay tribute to the other brave men and women police officers who have been killed or injured, calling to mind as we do so the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Let us have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
Every year, for 36 years, a memorial service has been held at the spot where Yvonne was shot. Every day sees police officers and members of the public stop to view her memorial and to stand in silence for a few moments. New police officers are taken to the scene by their supervisors, so they may understand what Yvonne’s death meant to the police service, and to remind them we may all one day be required to make the ultimate sacrifice. Young officers understand, through Yvonne’s death, what might be asked of them.
Television and radio documentaries have been made about what happened that day. Huge numbers of feature-length articles have appeared in the press. Last year, the Victoria Derbyshire programme made a short documentary about the campaign to bring the main suspect to court and only last week, a Facebook group created by John to gauge support for his campaign attracted over 5K applications in just a few days.
Yvonne’s death inspired a generation of young women to join the police service. Many of these women are now retired having completed full-length careers and some have gone on to lead our police services at the very highest levels. One of them is the highest ranking police officer in the UK.
No murder is ever routine, no murder is special. Every victim matters. This murder was different, though. It took place in the public eye and the victim was someone protecting us. To our discredit, it remains unsolved.
I’m not proposing to go into the rights and wrongs of the numerous criminal investigations that have taken place, the conspiracy theories, the alleged actions or inactions of the security services, of politicians and of ministers. I simply want to ask you, the members of the PFEW, to re-consider your decision not to fund John Murray’s civil claim against one of the alleged conspirators in the murder of Yvonne Fletcher.
John was a serving police constable. He, like all of us, paid a regular subscription to the Police Federation. He paid that subscription, as we all did, because it provided us with support in times of difficulty. It provided us with help, with expertise, and it provided us with finance should we ever need to take court action against someone as a result of our work. John’s court action is made against one of the alleged conspirators for personal injury. It is for the Post Trauma (PTSD) he suffered as a result of Yvonne’s murder. With all criminal avenues exhausted, this is perhaps the final opportunity to secure a legal finding against someone responsible for her death. It isn’t an easy option. John has to demonstrate – on the balance of possibilities – that he suffered PTSD, that the PTSD was caused by the murder of Yvonne and that the respondent is responsible for that murder. He is claiming just £1 in compensation. This isn’t a measure of how much Yvonne’s life was worth, it is a symbolic payment to John. He doesn’t want to make money from this. What he seeks is a legal finding against one of Yvonne’s killers. What he wants is justice.
I’ve seen various figures banded about with regards to how much John needs from the PFEW. I don’t know what figures the PFEW were presented with but what I do know is John has already spend a huge amount of money getting this far. He has journeyed to Libya – risking his life in the process – to interview people the official enquiries couldn’t reach. He has been dogged and determined. He has been warned off and intimidated, he has had his telephone and mail intercepted. He has seen witnesses warned off and has been the subject of smear campaigns. He has never given up.
The Police Federation (PFEW) is paid for by police officers who, on a daily basis, take the same risks as Yvonne Fletcher did. Retired and serving officers the length and breadth of the country would wish to see John supported. The PFEW can afford to do so. I beg them to. People who murder need to understand that, no matter the time and no matter the cost, we will never give up in our pursuit for justice.
On 27th April 1984, Sir Michael Winner wrote in the Daily Mail at the invitation of the editor, Sir David English. Michael’s letter ended with these poignant – and prescient – words.
“I can see a day in the future when human memory, being what it is, has discarded the events that now seem so important, and the shadows from the trees above sway slowly to and fro on the pavement of St James’s Square, the sunlight catching a small memorial. Maybe two people passing by will stop and one will say to the other – ‘Yvonne Fletcher? Who was she?’ To which there will be a simple and noble answer. She was a member of the British Police Force.”
Many who read this post will have either been members of the Police Federation or have a connection to it. Many others will share the desire to see justice, to see a legal finding against at least one of those responsible for her murder. When the going got tough, let us be able to say we met the challenge with a steely resolve. Let us be able to say we never, ever gave up.
Let us not be amongst those who forgot.
On behalf of The Campaign for Justice for WPC Yvonne Fletcher
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