This weekend marks the 23rd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. Twenty three years since 96 people went to watch a game of football and never came home. By any marker 23 years is a long time.
However, imagine 23 years of being accused of being responsible for those deaths. All those years of finger pointing, blaming you for what happened. It would be hard, wouldn’t it? This, however, is the experience of thousands of Liverpool fans who were there on that fateful day.
Many of those fans behaved heroically and undoubtedly saved lives. Many were physically injured themselves and many more are psychologically damaged to this very day. However, the myth that drunken, ticketless fans were responsible for the disaster remains embedded in the wider English psyche and continues to deflect from the true facts. For the record the main cause of the disaster was the breakdown of police control (See the Taylor Report). Alcohol or lack of tickets were not factors.
Why then does the myth remain? One reason is undoubtedly the fact that although the police were held responsible no prosecutions arose from the deaths. No-one has ever been held accountable. The Director of Public Prosecutions ruled that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to prosecute. Hard to believe when you consider that Hillsborough must have been one of the most filmed disasters ever with thousands of witnesses able to offer first hand accounts.
A look at old footage reveals, even to the amateur eye, that people were dying whilst many police stood by. Moreover, when the inquests into the deaths were heard, the coroner returned verdicts of ‘accidental death’ in all cases. The fact that he imposed a 3.15pm cut off time i.e. he wouldn’t hear any evidence relating to events after 3.15pm on the day meant that a verdict which incorporated ‘lack of care’ was excluded. This has become possibly the most contentious issue in the aftermath of the disaster.
It is also vital to acknowledge the political context in which the disaster occurred. The Tory government of the day were no friends to the working class generally, to the north of England especially. Liverpool as a city was extremely hard hit by unemployment and a negative reputation. The Football Spectators Bill aimed at bringing in identity cards for supporters was going through Parliament.
Margaret Thatcher had gone head-to-head with the miners, ably assisted by her police forces. In particular South Yorkshire Police played a crucial role in the policing of the miners. It was brutal. It was also this same police force which went on to police the fans at Hillsborough. This week Guardian writer David Conn outlined the similarities in the response to policing at The Battle Orgreave and Hillsborough. It can be strongly argued that the police mindset was on control rather than safety. This mindset had disastrous consequences.
When extracts from the minutes of the cabinet meeting held under Margaret Thatcher were recently leaked by the BBC, it was obvious that this mindset was prevalent amongst senior officers in Merseyside police also. These officers reiterated the lie as to where the blame for the deaths lay. More of Thatcher’s foot soldiers.
The perpetuation of the myth of Hillsborough goes hand in hand with the stereotypical myth of Liverpool and it’s people. ‘Self-pity city’, ‘whinging scousers’; we’ve heard them all. True, there will always be people who live up to the stereotypes. However, I believe that as a city we have been maligned.
Why criticise and condemn us because we choose to pay our respects to our dead in a specific manner? Yes, we did turn Anfield into a shrine after Hillsborough, yes, Alan Davies, we choose to pay our respects to the 96 rather than play football on the 15th April. Just because that mightn’t be your way doesn’t mean it is wrong. Why condemn us because we continue to fight for justice not only for the 96 who died but also for those who were wrongly blamed?
We are merely reacting to a set of circumstances that were forced upon us by virtue of the cover up. Had there been accountability in the early days then I have no doubt that people would have moved on in the way that all of us who have been touched by loss eventually accept the inevitability of it.
Make no mistake about it, the government of the day knew exactly what it was doing post Hillsborough. There was no way they were going to let a police force which had done it’s dirty work (with the miners) take the blame. Moreover, the force brought in to investigate the South Yorkshire Police (and assist the coroner and provide the evidence to the DPP), was the West Midlands Police, whose Serious Crime Squad had, by then, been disbanded because of corruption.
Ask any of the Birmingham Six about their methods of investigation and the picture becomes clearer. Indeed prior to the disaster, Clare Short MP, had asked questions in the House of Commons relating to a former Head of the Serious Crime Squad in relation to another corruption case. Nevertheless, this officer, Stanley Beechey, was assigned to the Hillsborough investigation.
As the years go on people are dying without ever having had the justice for which they have fought. There is now in place a Hillsborough Independent Panel assigned to the task of reporting on government documents made available to them. Whilst this is seen as a step forward by many, there are those of us who see it as a means of archiving the history of Hillsborough. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, however, it does effectively mean that no one will ever be held accountable for the deaths of 96 people.
Whilst the lengthy passage of time effectively rules out prosecutions, nevertheless, there needs to be a formal ruling that proves two things; Firstly, that South Yorkshire Police should have been held accountable for being responsible for the deaths of 96 people and the injury and trauma of many more. Secondly, that there was a subsequent cover-up of the facts of the disaster orchestrated by the government of the day and implemented by the West Midlands Police force.
This is the least the government should do. Allow the dead the truthful legacy of the circumstances of their death.
Sheila Coleman is spokesperson for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. You can learn more about the HJC and the events of 15 April 1989 here.