The verdict by the jury at the second inquest into the deaths of 96 people at a football match on 15th April 1989 now stands as a damming indictment of the police and the whole establishment, including the then Tory government and its tame press. In the words of campaigner Margaret Aspinall (whose son James was one of those killed), speaking on the rally platform held the day after the verdict - the whole system is rotten!
The verdicts confirm that the 96 were unlawfully killed and that the blame clearly lies not with the fans, but with the police and the stadium authorities at the Hillsborough ground of Sheffield Wednesday, which was being used to stage an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, where the deaths occurred. What is also clear is that afterwards the police authorities began a long process of lying and covering-up the truth, seeking to push the blame for the death onto the fans themselves.
For 27 years these people denied the truth, getting full backing from the senior levels of the force. Even at the inquest – which was not, as we shall see, the first such examination of what happened – current and ex-police officers continued with the lies even under oath. Only with the admission from David Duckenfied, the senior officer in charge on the day, that his decision to open the gates behind the fans being crushed in the Leppings Lane “pens” directly caused their deaths, not any actions by the fans themselves, and that he had then lied about this, broke the back of the conspiracy of untruths. The reality that the police and the authorities had acted slowly and seemed more concerned with “crowd control” than getting help to the injured and dying was exposed for all to see. This man, who even his own officers called arrogant and inexperienced in football ground control, had been forced to admit his lies of 27 years.
For 27 long years the families, backed by campaigners and football supporters all over the country, fought for justice and the truth to come out. For them these terrible deaths were an open wound that could not heal until their dead had been served with justice. They fought on in the face of constant opposition from the establishment. The government, the press, the judges and lawyers, and the whole system opposed them from day one and some family members even reported that the police were seen lurking outside their homes. This outrage reflects much bigger issues than just that of one particular group of fans on one particular day.
The first point that should be made is that what happened at Hillsborough in 1989 reveals a much wider attitude of contempt on the part of the establishment against the working class. This remains still, as Owen Jones describes in his excellent book, Chavs, about how the working class are treated by politicians and the press. Football fans in the 1970s and 80s were seen as a particularly visible example of working class trouble-makers (along with trade unionists of course) to be demonised at every point. The words “football hooligans” became the norm to describe any young person attending a game. The police and the stadium officials treated you accordingly. They were happy of course to still take your money and then squeeze you into outdated Edwardian grounds complete with rusty crash barriers and iron fences. Thatcher had been keen to use incidents of trouble such as that at a Luton-Millwall game and the Heysel disaster to introduce ID cards for all fans, effectively treating them as de facto criminals guilty until proven innocent, as a precursor to introducing ID cards for everybody. Ironically, the early fallout from Hillsborough would consign that plan to the dustbins, although New Labour tried to revive it.
Naturally the authorities had no interest in learning any lessons from the early-warning incidents that has preceded April 1989. In 1981, at another semi-final staged at Hillsborough, the author of this article had been one of those to note from personal experience that fans in the Spurs end were being so tightly crushed together that it was no longer possible to put both feet on the ground. On that day the gates behind were not opened as happened in 1989, rather the gates on the fences in front were opened instead to let supporters onto the pitch where they could then be moved to safety, thereby reducing the pressure. A similar problem of crushing was again noted at a semi-final staged at Hillsborough in 1988. In fact, every football fan who attended matches at that time can describe multiple incidents of crushing and being pushed around by stewards and police. Despite all this, no one thought to raise concerns about the safety of fans, after all they were just “hooligans” drunk and looking for trouble. Had such problems occurred at a rugby match (with its higher concentration of middle and upper-class attendees) or even say at the opera for example then merry hell would have been raised and immediate action demanded. No such action had been taken anywhere by 1989.
It was this class hatred that enabled the police in conjunction with the rest of the establishment to be confident about being able to cover up what had really happened at Hillsborough in 1989. The South Yorkshire police were well prepared for this. They had acted as Thatcher’s storm troopers during the miners strike of a few years earlier showing particular brutality, not least at Orgreave. They were run on a military fashion where orders were to be obeyed come what may. They were not alone. David Pearce’s series of books, the Red Riding Quartet (1999–2002), describes the levels of corruption in the West Yorkshire Constabulary even prior to the miners strike. Thatcher had been very keen to establish the “them and us” attitude amongst police officers early on, giving them a huge pay rise to buy their loyalty.
It was very clear therefore that the police had no problems whatsoever with implementing a cover-up and shifting the blame for Hillsborough firmly onto the “drunken hooligans.” It fitted nicely with an image of Merseyside that had been built up most noticeably since the militant fight of Liverpool City Council against Tory cuts of a few years back. They began collecting “evidence” of drunkenness even while the victims were still dying or dead. Naturally it became essential to establish that all those who died were dead or unsaveable by 3.15pm on the day. This would absolve the authorities of any charges of being negligent or not quick enough to take action that could have saved lives. Witness statements that contradicted this story and confirmed that some of the 96 were still alive after this time had to be “lost” or never taken. As a result all police officers present on the day were ordered to write their accounts of what happened not in their official notebooks but on sheets of paper. Those who gave accounts that differed from the official line were pressured into changing their statements or simply had them altered without being told. Those officers who bravely held out against this pressure were threatened that action would be taken against them.
However this was not enough. Officers began briefing Fleet Street journalists with stories about the drunken fans looting the dead, etc. and the likes of The Sun and other Tory papers were happy to print them. Even those papers which steered clear of the worst of the lies printed by The Sun (a rag now boycotted on Merseyside), were happy to push the general line of fans being responsible in one way or another. Number 10 was complicit in this with press secretary Bernard Ingham happy to push the line behind the scenes. This remained the official Tory position for decades afterwards. Boris Johnson presented this fiction as fact in an editorial in The Spectator. In 2011, David Cameron said, “the families of the Hillsborough tragedy are a blind man, in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there.”
Early on, the official Taylor Report (which dealt with the general lessons) into the events at Hillsborough raised serious concerns about how the police and the stadium officials had operated on the day but despite this no criminal charges were ever laid against anyone involved. The cover-up was aided in the first full inquest in 1990 that suspiciously ruled that no evidence should be heard about events after 3.15pm on the day thereby ruling out any challenges to the official line that those who died were dead by that point. To be on the safe side the police legal representatives outnumbered that of the families by six to one. Police giving evidence were allowed every assistance whereas fans and the families were treated like criminals. In every case the alcohol levels of each of the deceased were read out to back the police lies. The ruling was never in doubt – all had died as a result of “misadventure.” The families were devastated and with the lawyers departing all seem lost. However some seemed keen to fight on with limited legal aid. A request to have the inquest verdict overturned was rejected in 1993 by a High Court that was more than happy to back the police and the coroner.
In passing, we should remember a similar rushed inquest following the Bradford City fire disaster. No evidence was presented there about the smell of petrol noticed before the fire started in the wooden stadium or the Bradford City owner’s tendency to see his factories burn down when they were in financial trouble. Again it was felt that football fans were not worthy of a serious investigation into their deaths.
All now seemed lost but the one ray of hope was that Labour had promised to establish a new enquiry should they come to office, which they did in May 1997. So on 6th October 1997, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith sat to hear new evidence. However his remark to the families asking “Have you got a few of your people or are they like the Liverpool fans, turn up at the last minute?” revealed how this was to go. The Stuart-Smith enquiry was heavily biased towards the police, refused to look at most of the suppressed evidence and inevitably ruled in favour of the original verdict. Clearly New Labour with its establishment links (Tony Blair was an ex-lawyer) was clearly intending to preserve the status quo and continue the cover up. However, despite the home secretary Jack Straw backing Stuart-Smith, the justice minister Lord Falconer broke ranks and felt that the enquiry conclusions were wrong and that justice had not been served.
The Hillsborough Family Support Group and others continued to fight for the truth to come out. The calls for justice became louder as time went on with protests around the grounds and at the annual memorial events. The issue of the release of all relevant documents became central and in April 2009 pressure told as the then Culture secretary Andy Burnham together with Angela Eagle MP raised the demand for a system to be found by which this could be done. As a result the Hillsborough Independent Panel was established. In 2012, it reported that the evidence showed that the fans were not to blame, police failings were clear and – most critically – that evidence had been doctored and the truth covered up. In passing it also noted that then-Tory MP Irvine Patnick has played a central role in passing false information from the police to the press. The whole establishment stood indicted and as a result under pressure the original inquest verdicts were crushed and a new inquest ordered. Cameron was forced to stand up in parliament and apologise for what had happened. West Yorkshire and Midlands police services were accused of involvement in suppressing evidence and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was forced to announce an investigation involving the names of at least 1,444 serving and former police officers. The Crown Prosecution Service is also reviewing whether charges should now be laid. Incredibly the police were demanding that the new inquest be delayed by as much as six years to allow the IPCC and CPS investigations to run their course. Now we know why.
The families have finally heard official confirmation that their loved ones were killed by the failings of the system. Even now the police are in reality trying to deny wrongdoing or least limit accusations to a few “bad pennies.” This is how the establishment always tries to avoid responsibility for their actions. This scandal is not a one-off: Bloody Sunday, the Shrewsbury pickets, the Birmingham Six… the list goes on and on. This system is indeed rotten. The Panama Papers with the revelations about the culture of tax dodging amongst the rich and powerful is just the latest in a very long list. The police and the authorities think they are above the law and with good reason – it is easier to drive by bus to the moon than get a conviction for a serving police officer. The paedophile sex scandals linking politicians like the late Cyril Smith, where evidence was collected and then “lost” shows how these people operate. They know that it is indeed one law for the rich and another for the poor. That is capitalism.
The fight for justice for the 96 (and for the 700 plus who were injured and the many more who were traumatised that day) goes on. Those who were quietly of wrongdoing must be brought to justice although it is clear that they will use every means of avoiding or limiting that. We must understand that this is not a “one-off” or a relic of the past that will not happen again. In fact scandals like this are happening all the time as the state shows which side – and which class - it really serves. Marx’s analysis of the state, developed later by Lenin in writings like “The state and revolution” shows how the state operates and in whose interests. The scandal of what happened to 96 men, women and children on a sunny warm Saturday in April 1989 serves to put a grim flesh on that analysis. Every football supporter of a certain age can remember exactly where he or she was on the afternoon of April 15th 1989. They can remember the wall of flowers and tributes outside every ground in the country, the tearing down of the hated fences, the field of flowers at Anfield, the grim-faced players attending funereal after funereal.
The agony of the 96 united Liverpool and Everton supporters, the people of Merseyside and beyond. The cries for justice were repeated up and down the country in all grounds as each anniversary came round. The families gained great strength from that as working class people in solidarity always do. They have seen the real face of the system exposed to them, robbing them of the chance to move on for 27 long years. However the fight goes on – it is not finished yet by any means – both for justice for the 96 and for justice for all victims of this capitalist system. There can be no greater encouragement to be a socialist and to fight for socialism.