This won’t be the usual post about cycling I’m afraid. This week the one thing that has been on my mind more than anything has been the verdicts of the Hillsborough inquests.
For those unfamiliar, the Hillsborough disaster happened on 15th April 1989, at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool Football Club and Nottingham Forest. Many Liverpool fans arrived late due to a motorway traffic jam, and were slow to get through an inadequate numbe of turnstiles causing a crush outside the ground as kick-off approached. To relieve this pressure, a gate was opened to allow the fans in without checking tickets, and many of these fans headed for the first entrance available – a tunnel leading to the terrace behind the goal. This lead to a much more serious crush in the two central pens (football fans in those dark days were literally fenced in) and as a result 96 people died of asphyxiation.
I’m a fairly square kind of guy and I tend to assume that while nothing in this world is perfect and mistakes are occasionally made, the government, the police etc, the “powers that be”, are in the main good and just and serve the public as well as they reasonably can. I see very little corruption in Britain on the whole, and I detest conspiracy theories. To someone with this world view, the results of this inquest are shattering.
They lied again and again. They lied for twenty seven fucking years.
Instead of owning up to mistakes they covered them up and shifted the blame on to the very victims of their incompetence.
And they lied right from the start. Even as the disaster was unfolding, just fifteen minutes after the police themselves had instructed that the gate be opened, word was passed to the BBC commentator John Motson that Liverpool fans without tickets had forced the gate open. In his commentary as it happened Motson said “There is no question now that the problem was caused by non-ticket holders forcing their way through a broken gate.” LIE.
At least this is one lie that was corrected by the end of the day, though some associated lies persisted. It is patently obvious looking in retrospect that the gate across the tunnel should have been shut when the two pens reached capacity, and needed to be shut before the outer gate was opened. Opening the outer gate wasn’t a common occurrence, but it HAD happened before, and on previous occasions the tunnel to the central pen had either already been closed or had been ordered to be closed. This simple and straightforward fact of previous actions was removed from police statements in subsequent enquiries. LIE.
The corpses, many of them younger fans who were at the front of the terrace in order to get the best view, were tested for the levels of alcohol in their blood. Checks were made for any previous criminal convictions. The relatives who came to identify the dead found themselves, literally straight afterwards, being sat down and probed on how much the dead had had to drink before the game.
In retrospect, this was a clear (though unsuccessful) attempt to give some evidential basis for the totally synthetic narrative that the senior management of the police were already formulating. Four days after the disaster, with the whole city of Liverpool in mourning, this narrative was fed to the press via member of Parliament Irvine Patnick and published on the front page of the Sun, at that time Britain’s most popular newspaper:
So as far as the police were concerned the disaster was the result of drunken fans conspiring to enter the ground without tickets, who had furthermore behaved disgracefully as the disaster unfolded. That was the line of South Yorkshire Police, and at that time one has to say it may have come across as plausible to those without any further knowledge of the facts. In the 1980s football in Britain had an appalling reputation for hooliganism, and Liverpool was no exception having been involved in the Heysel disaster four years earlier, where 39 people died as a result of fan violence and a dilapidated stadium.
In this case, however, the fans were emphatically not to blame. Not only where they not to blame, but as the Taylor report and all subsequent enquiries noted they had in many cases been at the forefront of attempts to alleviate the pressure in the pen and to revive the victims, while most of the police were still trying to contain what they mistakenly took to be a pitch invasion.
The Sun’s front page could quite possibly be the most insulting single page ever printed. In Liverpool a fan boycott began and continues to this day: the Sun’s circulation on Merseyside dropped from over 250,000 to less than 2,000. The Sun’s editor later rang up Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish to see how they could make amends. He told him “You know that big headline – ‘The Truth’? All you have to do is put ‘We Lied’ in the same size. Then you might be all right.” They never did, although they have made attempts at a qualified apology. Still, on the day 27 years later when the second inquest gave its verdicts, the Sun’s front page totally ignored easily the day’s biggest story.
In the ensuing inquiries, South Yorkshire Police repeatedly attempted to cover up their own culpability and looks for ways in which the fans could be blamed. Unbelievably, police officers at the match had their subsequent statements doctored to remove passages that were unfavourable, their signatures forged, and the statements were pored over for evidence or patterns of drunken fans, violence, conspiracy amongst fans, and so on. To their negligence on the day they added a consistent corruption of the standards of public service. It utterly beggars belief.
The next untruth came at the inquest, and was concerned with the response of the emergency services. The first inquest found that by 3:15pm all 96 victims had either died or were already beyond saving. NOT TRUE. There is conclusive evidence of several fans who were still showing signs of life as late as 4pm, and some estimates have it that with a properly co-ordinated emergency response perhaps 41 of the lives lost could have been saved. One can perhaps understand the desire to comfort the relatives that their loved ones died relatively quickly, but the upshot of the 3:15pm ruling was that none of the actions taken after that time were properly considered by that first inquest to assess whether they may have contributed to the scale of the disaster.
What’s worse, the verdict of the inquest was “accidental death”. It was as if the family of a drunk driver’s victim had been told that it was just an accident. It let the police and others off the hook, and further delayed the time (which one hopes will soon come) when those responsible will be properly held to account.
For 27 years, a timespan longer than the lives of most of those who died, the families of the deceased, the fans, and the whole city of Liverpool have campaigned to have the truth officially acknowledged. The many lies that were spread, the endless attempts by South Yorkshire Police at every stage to return to their “drunken fans” narrative, the taunts from opposition fans (including banners displayed on bridges when Liverpool fans travelled to Manchester), one inquiry after another failing to tell the full truth of what happened and who was really responsible. Liverpool’s local rivals Everton have earned the undying respect of their neighbours for their steadfast support, and only in a city as great, as stubborn, as solid as Liverpool, could this fight have continued so long, with such tirelessness, with such dignity.
One can pinpoint the precise moment the dam burst. At Anfield, at the service marking the 20th anniversary of the disaster, sports minister (and Everton fan) Andy Burnham was called upon to make a speech on behalf of the Government. He made a somewhat formulaic speech, getting as far as “Today … we can at least pledge that 96 fellow football supporters who died will never be forgotten”
An angry voice in the crowd shouted “we want JUSTICE!” and in seconds, in that wonderful way football crowds, Liverpool’s in particular, can, the whole crowd – tens of thousands of voices – arranged themselves into a single bellowing chant of “JUSTICE FOR THE 96” that forced Burnham to pause and wait for the chant to die down. To his credit, Burnham realised what now needed to be done.
Burnham led a push for his government to get the evidence published in advance of the 30 years usually reserved for government documents, and to see whether the whole matter needed to be reopened. This led to the formation of the Hillsborough Independent Panel which released vast swathes of information into the public domain in 2012. As a result the original inquest was quashed, and a new inquest set up. This inquest delivered its verdicts on Wednesday. The verdicts returned recorded deficiencies in the planning and actions of South Yorkshire Police, the ambulance service, and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (Hillsborough’s owners). However, two particular verdicts were significant:
Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed? YES
Was there any behaviour on the part of the football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles? NO
So now, we finally have official acknowledgement of what the people of Liverpool have known all along. This was a disaster caused by negligence on the part of South Yorkshire Police, whose prejudices about the bahaviour of football fans blinded them to the disaster unfolding directly in front of their eyes.
And the fans, despite all the smears thrown at them, were utterly blameless.
After all that initial hurt, the 96 dead, the hundreds injured, the thousands affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the flashbacks, the suicides, the children who grew up without parents, the parents whose children never grew up, the marital break-ups. Was that not suffering enough? How could they have had to wait so long for the truth to be acknowledged? How could the police persist in their lies, even in this second inquest, when even the first investigation three months after the disaster had exposed them as false? How could public servants display such deep-set corruption, such a perversion of the course of justice? Why has the families’ suffering been so cruelly prolonged these 27 years?
Let us hope this unimaginable suffering is finally reaching its end.