It has been three months and one week since the release of the independent panel’s report into the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 finally started to undo some of the damage done by twenty-three years of mendacity and incompetence on the part of many people. Their report is probably the most important football news story of the year, but rather than representing the end of a story that has hung like a dark cloud over our game for almost a century, their damning verdict was really the ending of one chapter and the start of another for those that have been fighting for truth and justice for all of those years. The quest for the truth was one thing. The quest for justice, we might well have reckoned, could be something else altogether.
This morning, however, a critical juncture in that journey was reached with the quashing of the original inquest verdicts that were brought against those that died that day. That verdicts of “accidental death” were found in the case of those who died at Hillsborough has always been considered an outrageous miscarriage of justice, based on what has now come to be understood to be a systematic campaign of smearing and disinformation on the part of those who were seeking to blame the dead for their own deaths. An earlier attempt to force a judicial review of this fundamentally flawed inquest was turned down in 1993 but, while that it is an outrage that it has taken almost twenty years to finally get to this point, there will at least have been sighs of relief at the fact that the wheels of justice might finally be beginning to turn.
That all of the victims of disaster could could not have been saved after 3.15pm that day was something that sounded ludicrous to anybody with so much as a cursory knowledge of what happened that day, yet this evidence was taken for granted by the coroner, Dr Stefan Popper. Witnesses who saw their loved ones alive after the cut-off time imposed upon the inquest were pressured by West Midlands police officers to change their evidence. This cut-off time prevented – conveniently, it could certainly be contended – any examination of the response to the unfolding disaster by the police and ambulance services. In a submission from Dr Bill Kirkup, the panel’s medical expert, and the pathologist Professor Jack Crane, it was established that at least fifty-eight of the ninety-six people that died that day might have been saved after this cut-off time had proper medical aid been administered. It was the sort of fact that is so horrifying that words can scarcely do it justice. Yet this was the sort of battle that the families of those that died that day have been up against for more than two decades.
These were not the only matters that came under the spotlight with regard to the inquest. That the police’s apparent pre-occupation with the alcohol consumption was despicable was never in doubt as far as those that have campaigned for justice have been concerned. The attorney general, has confirmed that this could be considered something that would “wrongly stigmatise the deceased” and will be further investigated. The alteration of statements by officers of the South Yorkshire Police will also be looked into again, as will the dilapidated state of Hillsborough that day. This was, we should remember, a ground without no valid safety certificate, at which crushes on the very same terrace as that which would kill ninety-six people in 1989 had been seen before, perhaps most notably at the 1981 FA Cup semi-final between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers. How many Spurs supporters have pondered “There but for the grace of God went we” since the horrors of eight years after their experience on the Leppings Lane terrace?
It should go without saying that it is now to be hoped that justice is seen through to its full logical conclusion. The tragedy of Hillsborough is that all supporters who stood on the death trap terraces of the 1980s know that it might have been us, rather than those that perished on the fifteenth of April 1989. We saw police presences, we bought numbered tickets, we assumed that there was a plan of some sort – that it was surely impossible that, if the pressure built up too greatly, something would happen to alleviate any problems. Perhaps, though, there never was very much of a plan. Perhaps the policy of containment (which was almost reached an illogical conclusion in law with the wretched ID card scheme for all football supporters, but was plainly apparent at a nominally more opaque level in every aspect of how football supporters were treated at the time, from Ken Bates’ s infamous electric fence at Stamford Bridge to the wretched David Evans MP and his banning of all away supporters from Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road) was so dyed in the wool, so absolutely a fact of life that nobody really gave a tu’penny damn whether we lived or died.
As such, the quest for justice over Hillsborough remains a saga which is – obviously and entirely naturally – deeply personal to the families of those that died that day, but it also has a broader significance for all football supporters. There but for the grace of God went all of us during the mid to late 1980s. And if we think we have come a long way since 1989, then we only need to look – and to mention the reaction to this is not to trivialise what happened at The City of Manchester Stadium – at the shrieking hysteria which followed a coin being thrown at Rio Ferdinand during the weekend before last’s Manchester derby and the demands for nets to be put up around grounds to see that there are plenty of people who are just as capable of demonising all football supporters because of – at worst – the misbehaviour of the very, very few. With justice, perhaps, can come closure for those who lost loved ones and we should all be supporting their ongoing battle in every way that we can.
As many of you will already be aware, a single – a version of The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – has been released for in support of the ongoing quest for justice for those that died at Hillsborough. We urge you to buy it – it is available to download from Itunes or Amazon, amongst others.
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