This police inquiry will get no help from me

I am being pursued by the head of the New Cross fire inquiry, a Detective Chief Inspector Peter Newman. He claims that, judging from a recent column in these pages, I may be in possession of information that could assist the inquiry and enable him and his team "to find the truth in this matter". He has also informed me that I had "a prominent role in relation to this matter in the 1980s".

Prior to this letter, he telephoned the Voice newspaper seeking my phone number. Next, he called my daughter at her place of work at London Weekend Television, shattering her nerves and her composure. Mine are still intact, for I have no more information than was available to the general public from the reportage at the time, and from a subsequent inquest held within months of the fire.

Let me take you back to January 1981. Gee Ruddock held a birthday party for her daughter, Yvonne, at 439 New Cross Road in Deptford, south-east London. The party went up in flames claiming the lives of 13 young blacks. Later, another, who lost nearly all his friends, committed suicide.

I was at a Black Parents' Movement meeting one evening when a call came from a hostel where a homeless Mrs Ruddock was staying. A delegation left the meeting to meet her.

She told us that two policemen had spoken to her separately and told her that a firebomb was thrown through the ground-floor window. The New Cross Massacre Action Committee was formed to campaign for justice, there being at the time a deep suspicion about police methods of detection. A parents' committee was also formed and a fire fund established to help with burial costs and to assist Mrs Ruddock, who had lost everything she owned, including two children.

A weekly meeting monitored the investigations and discussed what action should be taken. Soon it became clear that the police were playing fast and loose with the evidence - the firebomb explanation was thrown out and several of the young people who attended the party were unlawfully detained and bullied into signing statements that the fire was caused by arson, after a fight between black youths.

This nonsense was taken to the inquest, where a string of young blacks gave evidence about how intensively the police had coerced them. In response to this contamination of the evidence, the action committee called a demonstration. Though it was held on a weekday, 20,000 people responded and a petition was handed in at Downing Street.

Side by side with the fight theory there existed vicious rumours that Mrs Ruddock had a jealous lover who had burnt the house down. The police even found some man who they claimed had fled to America and and returned him to this country. It was just a counter-information strategy.

DCI Newman, who wasn't involved in the original investigation, has now rightly dismissed the fight theory as though it hadn't violated the truth, contaminated the evidence and trampled wildly over the rights of young blacks. And armed with some computer graphics the inquiry is now pursuing some other mumbo-jumbo. Heaven knows how, after ten years, the team can produce another theory. I hear they are playing around with a lighted cigarette and nail varnish, both dangled before the public in the past.

I did not attend the party in New Cross Road on that fateful night in 1981. At that time, with the trail hot, the police officers on the inquiry team made no attempt to contact me. My view of what happened is born out of an intelligent scrutiny of their behaviour and other evidence at large.

I smell a rat and will not be drawn into co-operation with what appears to be a useless pursuit.

My lawyer is Gareth Peirce and has been so, long, long before her rise to a well-deserved fame. DCI Newman may contact her at her offices. And that is all.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Judge the US by deeds, not words