United Kingdom

Justice, at last

SOCCER-ENGLAND-SWA-LIV/ General view of a tribute to the Hillsborough disaster on the Liberty Stadium pitch in Swansea, Wales | Reuters

A coroner’s inquest blows away the smokescreen UK police used to cover up the 'unlawful killing' of 96 football fans in Hillborough 27 years ago

  • The inquest jury in England last week returned verdicts that the 96 dead, and 766 wounded at Hillsborough, were crushed because of police failure to follow basic crowd safety regulations.

Under the rule of law that we share in India and Britain, you and I are meant to trust the police and the courts to prosecute the bad guys and to keep us safe in society.

That trust has probably never been under greater strain than it is right now, especially in the northern English communities around Liverpool and Sheffield. There are elections on Thursday to vote for regional Police and Crime Commissioners across England and Wales, but in one area—South Yorkshire—there is a poisoned atmosphere between the public and the police.

It stems from a coroner’s inquest that concluded a week ago that 96 football fans were unlawfully killed at a crush at an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, held at the neutral venue of Sheffield’s Hillsborough stadium 27 years ago.

Twenty seven years is an unconscionable time to wait for a just verdict on the lives of so many innocent men, women and children. The number, I am aware, is not in itself so utterly horrific. There was greater loss, more than 350 people trampled to death at Kumbh Mela in 1954. And 328 killed in Lima, Peru when police used tear gas and caused panic at a soccer game. And at least 1,426 pilgrims smothered to death at Mecca in Saudi Arabia last September.

The inability to safeguard huge gatherings is its own shocking tragedy.

Even more unacceptable, however, is when the authorities—the establishment—blame the victims for their own demise. The inquest jury in England last week returned verdicts that the 96 dead, and 766 wounded at Hillsborough, were crushed because of police failure to follow basic crowd safety regulations. The local police hierarchy, aided and abetted by lawyers, public bodies, politicians and even sections of the media, spread lies.

The cover up was worse than the negligence.

It used England’s reputation for drunken hooliganism in the 1980s to hide failings in police and emergency service responses that escalated the killing.

It invented false rumour about alleged ticketless youths forcing open a stadium gate and swarming like a mob into an already crowded stand behind one goal.

During the 27 years—twice the life-time of some of the dead—the families of the 96 never stopped fighting to clear the good names of their loved ones. The youngest victim Jon-Paul Gilhooley, 10, was the cousin of Steven Garrard who was not at Hillsborough. Jon-Paul had no adolescence, no adult life; Stevie G, a year his junior, grew to play 732 times for Liverpool, many of them as captain.

No court, and no verdict, will ever fill what the families lost. And no dignity in their fight for justice ranks higher in my estimation than Trevor and Jenni Hicks who went to that game with their two daughter, Sarah, 19, and Vicki, 15.

Jenni had a seat in the North Stand. Trevor and his girls had tickets for the Leppings Lane standing terrace behind the goal.

“It was the one thing we did together as a family,” Trevor said. “Going to watch Liverpool together.”

Going, but not all returning. The Hicks family was destroyed in the seven minutes of that crush at the start of the semi-final.

Trevor had become separated from his daughters when he went for a coffee. He found both of them, asphyxiated beyond resuscitation. His marriage dissolved under the strain, and sometime later, meeting Derek Warlock, the archbishop of Liverpool, the grieving father asked the church leader why God had taken both his daughters, and not at least left the family with one.

The archbishop had no answer. And for 27 years, the now childless and separated Trevor and Jenni Hicks used their ability to communicate to help form the Hillsborough Family Support Group.

It is this group, driven by bereavement and sense of injustice, who fought, and eventually won, the 27 year struggle for truth and justice.

There has never been a longer case in British law, and I suspect not under the law established in India under the Raj either. Parliament in Westminster was obliged, by the tireless Family Support Group and their backers, to acknowledge that the weight of evidence demanded a fresh inquest after initial verdicts of accidental death were returned.

The nine jurors who sat through more than two years of this new inquest, and heard evidence from a million different statements and witnesses, finally concluded by a majority of seven to two that each of the 96 were “unlawfully killed”. And, by unanimous verdict, that Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who was in charge of police operations at the match, was guilty of “manslaughter by gross misconduct”.

Duckenfield, now 71, admitted 25 years after the event that he made the order to open the Leppings Lane gate. It was a catastrophic error. It was compounded by years, decades, of police lies attempting, on oath in courts, to discredit the victims.

From where I sat in the Press Box adjacent to Leppings Lane, the lethal overcrowding became self evident. To me, Hillsborough has been the most chilling word in the English vocabulary since that day.

I have one son who lives in Sheffield, close to the stadium. I have another who is a volunteer policeman—that is to say he gives his spare time to help combat crime in the streets, without payment out of a sense of civic duty.

Moreover, a year or so before Hillsborough, I shared police planning meetings and briefings and stood side by side with police officers at a game between Manchester United and Leeds United. It was the era of the so-called “English Disease”, the hooliganism that spread across Europe and grew into militaristic confrontation between rival gangs, police and stewards, using the national sport as a battle ground.

Caging in fans to separate them had become a wretched, but apparently necessary, method of securing the peace.

Manchester’s policing at Old Trafford was thorough, well-drilled,and as uncompromising as it needed to be. Prevention was the priority. And the cages, treating humans like animals, were designed so that police could unlock the gates to ease overcrowding at a moment’s notice.

That was not the case at Hillsborough. The fencing, the length of the stand, was there for one purpose: To prevent spectators encroaching onto the pitch.

That abominably designed steel fencing had a single, narrow exit gate towards the left hand corner. When the extra hundreds of fans crowded in, panic and sheer weight of numbers compressed those in front, many of them children, against the metal.

People piled upon one another, but it is the image of kids suffocating at the front that never stops haunting me.

Whoever designed that fencing, and approved the safety certificate, is as culpable as the police chief who ordered the unlocking of the entrance. The narrow, 3-foot wide “escape” gate acted like a sump to desperate people seeking escape.

In the aftermath to Hillsborough, fencing has been outlawed from major English stadiums, though it still exists elsewhere. Premier League stadiums are all-seater, though in Germany, Borussia Dortmund for example, allows supporters to stand.

Hillsborough was a supposedly neutral venue in 1989. But fans, not knowing where they were rushing, entered a deathtrap. The aftermath has festered 27 years, including two full years of the coroner’s inquest leading to last week’s verdicts.

Police hierarchy, and government advisers, called some fans “tanked up yobs” who forced their way in without tickets. Those falsehoods, too readily published, are discredited now as damned lies.

Inside the stadium, we witnessed many rank and file officers, ambulance and first aid workers and fans themselves, doing their best in horrific circumstances. We know, because he finally admitted it in court that Duckenfield made the wrong call and lacked experience to be in charge of such an operation.

The biggest establishment crime was to distort the truth, from the government down. Those of us who cherish living in Britain under the rule of law we trusted are also losers.

The cover up was worse even than the neglect. Cover up generally is: Think of sportsmen and women who took drugs, then lied bare faced when caught. Think of more than 2,000 pilgrims trampled to death at Mecca last year—and the Saudis blaming the victims.

Liverpool will never walk alone in this. And for some there is a fresh start rather than an end. There will be court cases seeking to put the aging, retired, mentally scarred former chief superintendent Duckenfield back in the dock.

What the Hicks family fought for—clearing the name of the victims—is achieved. Others will press on for financial compensation, and retribution against the establishment that politicised the awful tragedy that was Hillsborough.

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