The emotionally draining findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel yesterday united people across Merseyside and the world of football.
The 450,000 pages of documents from agencies who bore some responsibility for the events that unfolded, from ground safety and the response of emergency services, through to the treatment of the families as they sought proper explanations for what happened, casts a powerful new light on events.
Altogether, 766 people were injured on the 15th April 1989 at an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, played at Sheffield Wednesday’s neutral Hillsborough ground. Many of the 96 fans who were killed were under 30. A third of them were teenagers, while the youngest victim was just 10 years-old.
Lord Justice Taylor long ago laid the primary responsibility for the disaster at the door of the police in not controlling the crowds properly. But there was much unfinished business.
Much of the opprobrium, deservedly, is now heaped on South Yorkshire Police. As Prime Minister David Cameron put it yesterday, insult has been added to injury by the “failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth” and then by a deliberate attempt to shift blame to the fans to make them “somehow at fault for their own deaths”.
The police’s actions were shocking and appalling. As the Guardian’s David Conn says, the nub of it was the “deliberate, relentless South Yorkshire police campaign to avoid its own responsibilities and craft the false case against the supporters”.
This included falsifying 164 statements from officers on the scene as the police concocted their story that drunken fans running amok were to blame for what happened. Most cruelly, the police tested the blood of victims to check their alcohol levels, a move the panel found had “no rationale”. They also ran background checks on them for previous criminal records.
But the bigger issue is what could have been done to prevent the deaths. If the rescue co-ordination had been what it should have, lives would have been saved. The medical advisor on the panel, Dr Bill Kirkup, said up to 41 of the 96 who died could have potentially been saved if they had received treatment earlier. This is perhaps the most shocking and certainly the most heart-rending finding in the report.
Ultimately, yesterday was a staging post. The welter of new documentation that has poured forth from the inquiry will keep the campaigners and their legal teams busy. It should lead to fresh inquests and it is hard to see how charges against the officers involved in perverting the course of justice can be avoided. As Ed Miliband put it in the Commons: “It is a picture not just of a tragedy, but of a gross injustice.”
As with Leveson and the Met, the reputational damage done to policing and the associated loss of trust is a massive blow to police modernisers. Police commissioner candidates take note.
But Hillsborough spawns something positive too. 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 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.
It also symbolises communities coming together. The goodwill towards the families stretches far beyond Merseyside. The people of Hillsborough in Sheffield also suffered that day, with many still traumatised by what they experienced. A local youth club was used as a makeshift mortuary and those living in terraced houses adjacent to the ground opened up their homes for Liverpool fans to use their phones to let their families know they were still alive, or to make the impossible calls to report that others were not.
So justice, in the shape of a new, truthful account of that fateful day emerges, after nearly a quarter of a century of obfuscation and prevarication. But as Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, put it: “It doesn’t make us feel better, because we will always be the losers at Hillsborough.”
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