Twenty two years after 96 football fans were crushed to death in Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough football stadium, the long and tenacious campaign to establish the truth of what happened on that fateful day looks set to come an important step closer.
The Cabinet Office will release key documents which were used to brief prime pinister Margaret Thatcher immediately after the event. Many believe these will confirm that the police offered a partial version of events in order to avoid their own culpability for the tragedy. Altogether, 766 people were injured on April on April 15th 1989. A judicial inquiry later blamed the police for their failure to manage the crowd properly.
Many of the 96 fans who died were under 30; a third were teenagers, while the youngest was just 10 years-old.
As Rogan Taylor, director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool (and an attendee at the game), points out in The Independent:
“Lord Justice Taylor’s Inquiry [into the tragedy] principally blamed the police. But the Hillsborough families have never received justice; they never accepted the ‘accidental death’ verdicts and the fact that so much evidence of incompetence before and after the disaster was not heard in court.
“They have fought for over two decades to unearth the real ‘truth’, supported by almost everyone in Liverpool and many outside too.”
Fast forward 22 years. The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, ruled last month that the Cabinet Office should release “briefings and other information provided to the prime minister in April 1989 relating to the Hillsborough disaster” following a Freedom of Information request by BBC journalists.
David Conn in The Guardian offers an excellent summation of why the information set to be revealed is so important and eagerly anticipated:
“The families have always pointed to Thatcher’s visit to Hillsborough the day after the disaster, 16th April 1989, when she was briefed by the then South Yorkshire police chief constable, Peter Wright. The police case, to Lord Justice Taylor’s subsequent inquiry and the coroner’s inquest, was that the disaster was caused by misbehaving and drunk Liverpool fans, many arriving late and without tickets.
“Taylor rejected that completely, laid the blame firmly on police mismanagement of the crowd – together with the unsafe ground, which was not properly overseen by the council – and he criticised the police for presenting the story of fans’ misbehaviour. Despite that, Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, who went with her to Hillsborough, maintained a view that the disaster was caused by, as he put it, ‘a tanked up mob’ of Liverpool fans.
“That led families, survivors of the disaster and supporters to believe that he and Thatcher must have been told that version of events during their visit, and so would have been more sympathetic to the police’s conduct of its case through the legal processes which followed.”
This Information Commissioner’s fairly straightforward instruction to disclose the files has, however, run into a bureaucratic web.
The government has challenged the ruling on the technicality that the documentation should first be given to the Hillsborough Independent Panel – the body set-up in 2009 to wade through the voluminous raft of documents about the tragedy kept by a variety of statutory bodies in order to pull together an authoritative account of what happened.
The panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, is reviewing hundreds of thousands of documents and, after some initial confusion, now looks set to oversee the publication of the Thatcher briefings. Although not the immediate release that the Information Commissioner has sanctioned, this course of action is acceptable to the Hillsborough Family Support Group
Chair Margaret Aspinall said:
“We want full disclosure of all documents, with no redactions…
“But although we are cautious given our experience over 22 years, we do trust the panel and maintain that the papers be released to the panel first, so they can be put into context, and then shown to the families, before then being released to the wider public.”
As with the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday, it is vital that those who have been given little or no reason to take the word of the authorities at face value, feel that what they receive is a full and final version of the truth.
The legacy of the Hillsborough tragedy is not confined to the worlds of sport or even the city of Liverpool.
The long and patient campaign for the truth waged by the families of the bereaved and injured is an inspirational tale of ordinary people holding public bodies accountable for their lethal failures; an e-petition calling for the release of the information attracted 125,000 signatures and looks set to trigger a parliamentary debate. This latest important victory for the families’ campaign brings the prospect of understanding a key aspect of that dreadful day an important step closer.
As Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool Football Club’s current manager (and their manager 22 years ago), put it:
“Everything is looking positive for the families and everybody, irrespective of what team they support, has made a massive contribution towards the success they are having at the moment.
“Long may it continue because it was Liverpool, but it could have been any football club and I think people respect that.”