No jokes today from this blog. It’s taken 27 years, and the longest jury trial in British history, but it’s finally arrived – the truth which Liverpool fans knew back in 1989 but needed to share with the world. Their parents, siblings and children were not responsible for their own deaths. Whatever the media and politicians had said in the aftermath, they had not arrived drunk and forced their way into the ground for an FA Cup semi-final, they hadn’t obstructed the police and they hadn’t looted or urinated on the bodies of victims.
It had been quite wrong of the authorities to regard the 96 who died and the injured as suspects in a crime and to prevent anxious and grieving relatives from seeing their loved ones.
All this has been said repeatedly in Liverpool since 1989 but nobody in any position of authority seemed keen to listen. Those we now know to have been responsible for the disaster – the largest in British sporting history — had their own reasons to cover up the truth and, in a distinctly unholy alliance between government, certain media and two police forces, they have until today succeeded.
But, through the untiring efforts of the families and their support group, and the implicit support of a whole city, they have reached a major milestone. Let’s set out some of the jury findings:
- Police errors caused a dangerous situation at the turnstiles
- Failures by commanding officers caused a crush on the terraces
- Mistakes in the police control box over the order to open the Leppings Lane end exit gates
- Defects at the stadium
- An error in the safety certification
- The police and the ambulance service delayed declaring a major incident, thereby delaying the emergency response
- Inadequate signage at the ground and misleading information on match tickets
- Kick off should have been delayed because of the large number of fans still outside when the game was due to start, owing largely to hold-ups on the motorway
… and that’s just a selection.
Why does this matter? Why, as friends of mine have occasionally said over the years, haven’t the families “moved on” and got on with their lives – as, no doubt you’re supposed to do after a child has died too young or been the subject of some atrocity?
Why? Because these football fans were not just killed in a tragic “accident” in May 1989; they were “unlawfully killed”, meaning that organisations and individuals were responsible and should be held to account, and because the victims themselves were held for so long to have been the guilty parties.
I’m prepared to believe that, in most parts of the country, this has all become a bit tedious. Is there nothing more interesting on telly tonight? Liverpudlians, eh, what are they like? Get over it!
But, from where I sit – as a native of the city, lifetime supporter and long time season ticket holder at Anfield, and now an ex-pat, professional, grumbling northerner living in the south – I feel proud today of the city of my birth. I’m not sure this story would have developed in the same way anywhere else. Perhaps in some “nicer” location with less “baggage” than Liverpool there would not have been such a swift assumption of fan misbehaviour, there would have been less inclination on the part of the authorities to organise such a cover-up of historic proportions, and lastly there might not have been the determination and community cohesion among the wronged to see it through.
This has not, as some have suggested, been simply a witch hunt against one or more individuals who “lost it” in a crisis and who themselves have no doubt suffered from the consequences. It has been partly a campaign to clear the names of the dead, partly a need to know the truth, and also a wish to hold organisations and their behaviour to account.
For me, however – not so personally involved as this was the first semi-final for many years that I had been unable to attend — an even bigger story is still working its way through. When we have finally heard, as we will, the detailed account of how South Yorkshire Police set out to cover their tracks and doctor their evidence, and how the investigation into their behaviour by the West Midlands force conspired largely to whitewash them, then we may have achieved something of lasting benefit in terms of accountability. With the passage of nearly 30 years it now seems so much more unacceptable that the police should have regarded their cover-up after Hillsborough as a feasible option. That it no doubt seemed a plausible option at the time says a huge amount about the politics in this country in the 1980s.
Everton Football Club has today described the jury findings as the greatest victory in the history of football. And I’m not going to argue.
Normal service is likely to be restored in my next blog. I’ll be back in the north west this coming weekend to resume my coast to coast walk.