Today Parliament will be discussing the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. The results of this debate will, hopefully, play a part in providing some kind of clarity for families still suffering as a consequence of English football’s grimmest day. It may also serve as a reminder to all football supporters that the tragedy of the terrible events 22 years ago still resonates and that fans of all clubs should share a desire for the full truth to finally emerge.
The House of Commons is debating the issue as a result of an online campaign. Over 140,000 people signed an ‘e-petition’ calling for ‘full government disclosure and publication of all documents’ stemming from events that lead to the death of 96 fans. The government has indeed said there will be full disclosure, first to an independent panel set up to look at the archive, and then to the victims’ families themselves.
It is unclear exactly what will be disclosed, in cabinet papers relating to what the then Thatcher government was saying and what it was being told by the force responsible for crowd control on the day, South Yorkshire Police. It was this body that was held accountable for the ‘immediate cause’ of the disaster in the subsequent reports of Lord Justice Taylor, a conclusion not shared by the official inquest, whose procedures and findings angered so many of the bereaved.
The lingering official muddying of responsibility is one good reason why continuing debate is vital. The suspicion of some, whispered and perpetuated ever since, is that it was the supporters who were responsible. At best this takes the form of qualified sympathy: ‘No one deserved to die, but…’; at worst it results in the continuing falsehood that the blame lies entirely with Liverpool fans who were variously ‘drunk’, and/or without tickets, thus causing the horrific crush that resulted in so many needless deaths.
The latter view is part of a piece with the risible claim, peddled by Kelvin Mackenzie in an infamous report in The Sun based on information from unnamed police sources, that drunken fans attacked police, urinated on one, and picked the pockets of the dying. More than 20 years on Mackenzie still refuses to atone for a callous and vicious lie that still hurts. Yet it reflects a general view among many – too many – people that the fans were the ones to blame.
I’m still having this conversation with fellow supporters. Trying to convince them that the Liverpool fans were not responsible. That the loss of life was not a consequence of ‘hooligan’-style behaviour but corporate failure on the part of police, Sheffield Wednesday FC and the city council. That with effective management and properly-enforced safety procedures and facilities, the deaths could have been avoided.
Fans – ordinary, decent, peaceful fans – drew their last breath that day through no fault of their own. I remember how football crowds used to be treated back then and recognise that I was lucky not to suffer the same fate. Many, many times I have been involved in dangerous crushes, mostly caused by a lack of adequate crowd control. One time in particular I genuinely feared for my life, as a number of Merseyside police officers corralled hundreds of fans into a tiny space at Edge Hill railway station. Such was the weight of people being pushed and even truncheoned by officers who had lost control that a panic spread among the fans. I couldn’t breathe; a woman next to me fainted. Only the sudden opening of a gate onto the station platform relieved the pressure.
Who knows what might have happened had the gate not opened? No one can say the police deliberately wanted to cause distress, injury and even worse, but their mismanagement and loss of control nearly ended in horror. At Hillsborough in 1989, the consequences of such failures were laid bare.
And as a Spurs fan, I always bear in mind that it was supporters of my own club who nearly suffered the fate of the Liverpool supporters. In 1981, Tottenham played an FA Cup semi final at the same stadium and the same errors in crowd control were made. Packed in at the Leppings Lane end, the pressure building as more and more fans were forced into a space too small to contain them, that dreadful sense of powerlessness began to spread around the Spurs crowd. In the end, some were able to spill on to the pitchside perimeter, and disaster was averted. But only just.
That’s why when I hear criticism of Liverpool fans from other supporters I have to strongly disagree. I ask them to read the Taylor reports, the fans’ websites, or the excellent reportage of the likes of David Conn, Nick Varley and Brian Reade in their respective books that deal with the disaster. Don’t take my word for it – see what the people who were actually there experienced, and what subsequent investigations have revealed.
There’s a running joke about Liverpudlians having such an over-developed sense of victimhood that they open a book of condolence for when Liverpool lose a game. Among some fans who hold that view there is a strong element of anti-Scouser bias. But Hillsborough is no place for prejudice. People died because people in authority did not do their jobs. All fans should recognise that if they went to a match during that era, it was simply the luck of a twisted draw that they did not suffer a similar fate.
That’s why I earnestly hope that the truth about what really happened in 1989 finally comes out, and that those responsible are held to account. If only for the sake of the grieving families, and to remind all fans of whatever hue, that fellow supporters were not to blame. Rivalry has its place in football but the campaign for justice for the 96 is an issue that should unify all fans.
This blog also appears at http://www.iaindale.com/posts/its-time-for-the-truth-on-hillsborough