Twenty-three years is a long time to wait for justice

Twenty-three years is a long time. You should be able to get a lot done like, I don’t know, invent new things, build cities, go to Mars and back, grow up. There aren’t many things that actually take 23 years, unless someone in your family died at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. Then you’ll find it takes 23 years to get the truth.

This isn’t strictly true.  Those campaigning for the truth of what happened that awful day have known all along that their loved ones didn’t die because of drunk football hooligans without tickets storming into the ground and causing a devastating crush against the barriers, even though that’s what the police, the press and even the government were saying.

They have, however, had to wait 23 years to learn the full extent of the conspiracy after the event by the police and the ambulance service to exonerate their own roles in the disaster and, with the collusion of the press, place the blame firmly at the feet of the fans.  As if 96 preventable deaths and 23 years of lies weren’t tragedy enough, we are again reminded that agents of the state do not always act in the best interests of the citizens they are supposed to serve.

An independent report into the events at Hillsborough published today has found that South Yorkshire Police and the ambulance service made ‘strenuous attempts to deflect blame’ for the deaths of the 96 Liverpool supporters.  This was not just a subtle spinning of the facts, but a concerted attempt to besmirch the reputations of the dead and those who had survived.

Why else would the police carry out criminal record checks on the deceased, or test the blood of all of them, even the children, for alcohol?  Why else would they doctor 116 of the 164 police statements to remove unfavourable comments?  Why else fabricate ‘despicable untruths’ about the behaviour of fans, including that they stole from the dead and dying and urinated on the police?

If the fact of the police cover up is not news, at least not to the families of the victims, the scale of it revealed by the report is more damning and shameful than anything most of us would have feared.  Equally depressing is to learn, for the first time, of the inadequacy of the response by the ambulance service to the disaster.  It failed to implement its major incident plan, only one ambulance made it to the pitch and only 14 victims were taken to hospital.

The report also raised ‘profound concerns about the conduct and appropriateness of the inquests’ into the deaths, in particular the decision to rule that all 96 victims died in the same way (which sounds unlikely to anyone with an ounce of common sense).  It also criticised the decision  to impose a 3.15pm cut-off time on the inquest, when evidence shows that a number of the dead survived ‘for a significant period’ after this.

In his apology to the victims’ families, the prime minister acknowledged the failure of the state to protect their loved ones and their ‘indefensible wait to get to the truth’.  Waiting 23 years for an apology must be something of a record (and it’s worth remembering that without the dogged persistence of Andy Burnham MP they might still be waiting) but the catalogue of errors and downright lies now exposed is not enough.  The families still want justice.

Justice would surely include a new public inquiry setting out not only what happened in the stadium but exactly what happened afterwards.  The government is under no legal obligation to do so, but given the evidence now uncovered, it would be difficult for them to resist.

The families also want to see the inquest finding of accidental death overturned to be replaced by a verdict of unlawful killing.  For this to happen, the Attorney General has to persuade the high court it is in the public interest to quash the original inquest and order another because new facts or evidence have come to light.

It is scandalous that no-one has ever been found guilty for the failings that led to the tragedy.  Shockingly, even though the original 1989 Taylor inquiry found the reason for the disaster was a failure of police crowd control, the director of public prosecutions decided not to bring criminal charges against any individual or organisation on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

With 450,000 previously unseen documents, there must now be sufficient information to prosecute the police officers who lied and tampered with evidence and the police commander, who retired on medical grounds before he could be disciplined, but later admitted, during a failed private prosecution, that he had lied about the cause of the disaster.

I expect the newspapers guilty of perpetuating the narrative of drunk, filthy, criminal football fans causing the disaster are going to have to do a lot more than issue front page apologies.  It may not be possible to libel the dead, at least not yet, but by they didn’t only sully the reputations of people who had died just for going to watch their team play football, they prolonged the agony of their families.

It would be easy to think, because this all happened 23 years ago when policing was more like Ashes to Ashes than Law & Order UK, it couldn’t happen again.  But if we haven’t yet quite come to expect police misreporting of the facts, we shouldn’t be surprised by it: witness the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and the death of Ian Tomlinson and the family of Mark Duggan, still waiting for answers about the police shooting that caused his death in August last year.

However much policing has changed, it is impossible not to conclude that there is still a dangerous culture of secrecy pervading some parts of it.  Perhaps even more unacceptable is that, despite varying degrees of evidence to the contrary, for 23 years governments and large segments of the press have been content to accept and peddle the story of Hillsborough as concocted by the police.

If it took the rest of us 23 years to grasp the truth of something, we’d be branded incompetent and out on ear in no time.  If it had happened in another country, we’d accuse it of being a police state and point fingers at its inept justice system and unaccountable politicians.  It is not acceptable that it happened here and we can but hope it never happens again.

Posted in: Justice system

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