Justice for the 96: from the eyes of a Liverpudlian
Given the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel and the actions of the Attorney General, the quashing of the initial Hillsborough coroner’s verdict was expected in some quarters but it still sends shock waves through several strands of British society.
When the Lord Chief Justice ruled that the verdict of accidental death, a judgment made in March 1991, is no longer tenable he finally gave the families of the dead some hope after 23 long years of pain but the recriminations of that ruling go far and beyond that.
Home Secretary Theresa May announced yesterday that she has ordered Jon Stoddart, formerly the Chief Constable of Durham, to investigate the role and subsequent failure of the police on 15th April 1989, under the strict proviso that he can recruit a team from police forces other than South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, West Midlands or Merseyside or, to put it bluntly, any involved at the time or suspected of a cover up.
Stoddart will certainly be investigating the numerous statements that we were changed in April 1989, changed to paint the police in a flattering light and shift blame onto the fans.
The cover-up was necessary as it conveniently protected roles that were hitherto seemingly beyond reproach. Liverpool fans HAD to be made a scapegoat and no end of media campaigns and altered witness statements were made to serve that view. The mythical 5,000 pints poured in one hour in a Sheffield pub (physically impossible without eight bar staff pouring without a break for four hours), ticketless fans and late arrivals were all dropped into mix. In fact, so far reaching was the need to taint the Liverpool fans that blood alcohol tests were made on the corpses on children as young as ten years old.
That’s how desperate the authorities were!
Sir Norman Bettison, the former Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police and latterly Merseyside Police, has already resigned but many feel that he will not escape punishment. There is clear collusion between the police and the Coroners Office as announced by Andy Burnham MP in Parliament when he stated that police officers celebrated the accidental death verdict with the coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, in a side room later that day. This points to a very dark relationship that worked to cover up the worst football disaster in the country’s history.
Dr Popper, now retired, is central to yesterday’s announcement. He decided that no evidence should be considered following 3.15pm on 15th April 1989 as the victims were dead at that point. By extension this meant that no investigations could take place into the actions of the authorities post 3.15pm. Hence, people like Kevin Williams’ death was recorded as accidental despite Kevin being alive after the cut off point and calling for his mother. Furthermore, Kevin was the most treatable of all of those who died but Popper’s ruling summarily ignored this and many other victims. It is likely that the words ‘unlawful killing’ will eventually replace ‘accidental death’ on his death certificate. That this hasn’t happened already is nothing short of shameful. Yesterday, the Lord Chief Justice deliberated for just three minutes before quashing the Popper verdict. Three minutes as opposed to 21 years of government denials. That’s how open and shut this case is.
Kevin Williams’ mother, Anne, has had calls for fresh inquiries turned down by successive Conservative and Labour governments over this period. Why then did it take just three minutes to persuade the highest court in the land that it is ‘desirable and reasonable for a fresh verdict to be heard’? The official reason is that there is fresh evidence but there is no such thing as fresh evidence. The evidence has always been there but it has been protected while blame was apportioned elsewhere. It’s not that the authorities leading up to the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s knew about what happened that day but more that they’ve known for a very long time.
So who are the people with most to fear? Well, some have died since 1989 such as Peter Wright, the ex-Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police who orchestrated the blame of the fans and Bernard Murray, his ex-Superintendent but there are still some senior names who won’t rest easy. There’s David Duckenfield who lied to his superiors about Liverpool supporters. He escaped disciplinary action for neglect of duty and retired in 1992. Duckenfield ‘froze’ on the day and covered up his failings with a litany of lies. Then there’s Paul Middup and Sir Irvine Patnick who briefed the press with misinformation so successful that their words were still sang for many years on terraces throughout the land.
An overlooked development is Theresa May’s call for an investigation of the ground itself, citing that Hillsborough wasn’t just unsafe in 1989 but was dangerous as far back as 1978. The Hillsborough Disaster nearly occurred in 1981 to Tottenham fans at the F.A. Cup semi-final when overcrowding on the Leppings Lane and was only avoided when police allowed fans to sit on the touchline. In 1989 no such actions took place despite it being obvious that overcrowding was an issue. Instead they were shoved into pens behind a fence.
Sheffield Wednesday later wrote to the FA when the Leppings Lane was temporarily closed and examined to ask for a ‘loss of earnings’ payment. Peace of mind to any League club who wanted to see their team play at Hillsborough. Sheffield Wednesday too are under investigation.
As things stand if justice is to be served on the authorities it is unlikely that the FA will be charged. There could be no Hillsborough Disaster without them as it is they who set the whole ball rolling. FA Chief Executive Graham Kelly chose the venue as he was keen to ensure that lower League clubs took some of the pot rather than the usual venues such as Villa Park and Old Trafford. Ordinarily this would be a laudable sentiment but choosing a lower league club who didn’t have a safety certificate and had already had complaints the previous year when Liverpool again played Nottingham Forest, was negligent in the extreme. Fortunately for the FA a single person cannot be prosecuted for the crimes of an entire body and there was no charge of corporate manslaughter in 1989. Unless a special case can be made the FA have got away with it and it’s terrible and incredible that a body who can charge people with bringing the game into disrepute can fine and ban people when they themselves have blood on their hands.
This ruling is fantastic for the families and petrifying to those who cheated, lied and covered up their evil, I can think of no better word, actions but this is also a victory for football. Back then football fans were treated with suspicion and often as criminals before setting foot into the ground. Hillsborough was about control first and safety second. That’s changed a good deal since then but how many of us have had a video camera shoved in our faces at grounds? How many had nearly been trampled by a police horse ridden by a barking constable for the crime of wanting to see their teams. Only three years ago while waiting for a friend I was told by an over-zealous officer to stand in an area where home fans congregated and she made no secret that I was an away fan. I won’t name the venue but will say that I wasn’t welcomed with open arms but with abuse and threats. The policewoman wasn’t interested in my safety. I was being goaded to react. I wasn’t a fan waiting patiently for my mate (and ticket) to turn up, I was a potential problem who would have been a lot less bother in a police van than at a game. Believe me, I look about as threatening as a Labrador puppy so it wasn’t my demeanor that riled her. It was that I was a fan. There are still lessons to be learned despite these better times.
Finally, for those who don’t know, Kevin Williams’ mother was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and arrived at the High Court in a wheelchair. Upon hearing the ruling she turned to her friends behind her and mouthed ‘I can’t believe it!’ I can’t believe she’s had to wait so long. What it does show is the indefatigability of a small group of people who faced closed door after closed door, who had scorn poured on their rights and were pushed from pillar to post in their search of truth then justice. They fought a corrupt police force, a series of self-serving governments and a media who blamed their children, their brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers for their own grief and they turned them all on their head. I can’t begin to find words to praise those people highly enough.
I only hope God gives Anne Williams enough time to see her great work come to fruition. She deserves nothing less.