Wednesday, 27 April 2016

"Unlawful Killing" - Thoughts on Hillsborough

The ninety six victims of 1989's Hillsborough disaster.

I was only six and a half years old.  But it remains one of my oldest, clearest memories.  I can vividly remember the moment my dad sat down in his armchair, on 15th April 1989, to watch the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, played out at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough Stadium.  I was sitting on the floor, playing with toys, not really paying much attention to what Dad was watching.  At least, not until I noticed his brow furrow.  Not until I saw him sit forward in his seat, concerned eyes fixed to the screen.  Not until I heard him say: "Something's gone wrong."

Something did go catastrophically wrong, that day.  As the tragic events unfolded live on television, commentator John Motson announced that he'd been given information that the disaster had been caused by Liverpool fans without tickets, breaking down a gate and forcing their way into the stadium.  But the information he was given was false.  The world now knows - as it should have twenty seven years ago - that that gate was not forced down by violent Liverpool supporters.  It was opened by the police, who offered no direction to the thousands of fans who then went straight forwards down the narrow tunnel into the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, into two already dangerously over-crowded pens.  The police officer in charge, David Duckenfield, confessed in this final inquest into the tragedy, that he hadn't given any thought as to where the thousands of fans outside the stadium would go, upon the gate being opened.  He hadn't thought to close off the tunnel leading to the central pens opposite and direct the fans to the sides of the stadium, instead.  Because of this sheer lack of foresight, those fans headed straight down that tunnel and into a nightmare.  Ninety four people died as a result of the resulting crush, with two more dying from their injuries in the days and years that followed.  

Ninety six people went to a football match on a bright, Spring day.  They never came home.  And for years, their families suffered the heartbreak of those ninety six deaths being blamed on fan violence.  Lies were told about the Liverpool supporters being drunk, stealing from the dead and hampering the police efforts to assist the injured and dying.  It wasn't enough that those families had lost their loved ones in the most shocking, horrific manner.  Now, they had to hear senior police officers and members of the press blame the tragedy on the very people who'd been caught up in it.

Those families showed incredible strength as they refused to accept that version of events.  They campaigned with dignity and passion to have the truth unearthed.  And this week, after almost three decades of tireless fighting, they got it: "Unlawful killing."

Hillsborough Justice Campaign logo

The final inquest into Hillsborough took two years to reach its completion.  Over the course of those two years, the families of those who lost their lives that day in April twenty seven years ago - as well as several survivors of the tragedy - finally heard the catalogue of errors by senior police officials in the run-up to the game.  They finally heard the enormous mistakes that were made on the day.  But, crucially, they finally heard how those facts had been covered up and lies told to absolve those responsible from blame.  They heard how police statements, in which officers at the game admitted to poor direction from those in charge, were altered.  They heard how the story of drunken, violent fans was concocted immediately, with police officers being told to grill the families of those killed as to how much the victims had had to drink that day.  Medical professionals were even told to test the blood of every single victim for alcohol, despite the fact that the youngest killed was only ten years old.  They heard firsthand evidence that, contrary to the despicable smear conducted by the police and the press, the Liverpool fans who attended that fateful football match had behaved incredibly well, with many rushing to help those who were trapped in the ensuing crush.  They heard that the Hillsborough Stadium didn't even have a valid safety certificate at the time of the disaster.

A human error is one thing.  A mistake - however horrifying - can be admitted to and, in time, forgiven, if the person who made it shows contrition.  But for years after Hillsborough, those whose actions - or inaction - led directly to the deaths of 96 innocent people, maintained their lies.  It took twenty seven years - and an official inquiry, private prosecutions and more than one inquest - for the full truth to finally come out.  Twenty seven years to get any kind of justice for those people who only wanted to go to see their team play a football match and paid for it with their lives.  Twenty seven years in which those left behind had to keep hearing the same lies retold over and over, repeated by everyone from senior MPs to tabloid journalists.  That it took so long for those lies to be unmasked is difficult to comprehend and deeply, deeply troubling.

Everton's tribute to the 96, in 2012, following a report into the Hillsborough disaster.

From a young age, we're taught to respect the police.  We see them as people who will help us if we're in need.  People who protect us.  And yes, there were many officers at Hillsborough that day who worked tirelessly to try to save lives and assist survivors.  But, right at the very top, there were senior officers from South Yorkshire Police Force who, from the very first minutes after the tragedy began to unfold, were seeking to place blame where it did not belong, in order to cover their own backsides.  And they didn't just lie, they needlessly smeared the victims, survivors and other Liverpool supporters.  They referred to them as a "tanked-up mob."  They suggested that the Liverpool fans were drunken, violent thieves.  The press accepted those lies as truth and published them, whilst those who were truly guilty of causing the deaths of 96 people continued with their lives unaffected.  Senior politicians repeated those lies, whilst the families of the victims continued their dignified pursuit of the truth.  In short, what took place at Hillsborough led to one of the most shameful cover-ups in British history.  Yesterday's verdict finally gave us the truth and exonerated those who had been so viciously smeared:  The 96 fans who died as a result of the crush at Hillsborough stadium were unlawfully killed.  The Liverpool supporters did nothing to bring on the disaster.

As I said, mistakes can be apologised for and rectified.  The opening of the gate and the failure to close off the tunnel to the central pens could, if you're being lenient, be referred to as a mistake.  But the resulting cover up was no mistake.  It was a cold, calculated attempt to escape blame by instead placing it on the shoulders of those who were no longer there to defend themselves.  And, for a shamefully long time, it worked.  Plenty of people from all walks of life fell for the lies and the smears. 

But then the tide began to turn.  Then, we finally started to listen to the families of those who never returned from that football match.  We started to question what we were being told about events that day.

Now, the families finally have the verdict they always believed their loved ones deserved.  The complicated web of lies spun by South Yorkshire Police and the press have been sensationally unpicked for all to see.  

But there is more that needs to be done.  96 people were unlawfully killed and an elaborate cover-up staged; those responsible need to be brought to justice.

Floral tributes at Hillsborough.

We have to send a very clear message that the people of Britain will never stand for another cover-up on this scale.  We must ensure that those with blood on their hands - who spent so many years trying to evade the truth - are brought to account.

As a six and a half year old girl, I sat on the floor of the lounge, watching the tragedy at Hillsborough unfolding, thinking: "That's someone's Daddy."  Fifty eight children lost a parent that day.  Thirty eight of the victims were children or teenagers.  We use the term "the ninety six," but we must never forget that these were people, not numbers.  They were parents, brothers, sisters, friends and partners, all with hopes, dreams and families awaiting their safe return.  That safe return never came and the responsibility for those ninety six deaths rests upon shoulders that have yet to face any real consequences for the events of that day.

Imagine losing a loved one in a shocking, violent manner and being force-fed lies about how and why they died.  That's what happened to the families of those killed at Hillsborough.  The cover-up shames our police, our press and every single politician who repeated the lies, or insisted there was no need for further investigation into the disaster. 

Now, we know the truth in no uncertain terms.  And we must applaud the dignified, determined campaign led by the families of those lost at Hillsborough, for never giving up hope that the full truth would, one day, come out.  We must honour the memory of those whose lives were taken so needlessly, by ensuring that none of this ever happens again.  

Only by moving forward in a world where justice prevails and where those responsible for human tragedy are not allowed to simply wash their hands of guilt, can we truly show the families of the men, women and children who died at Hillsborough, that they do not - and will never - walk alone.

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