Getting justice for the Hillsborough families

A fan pays tribute at the Hillsborough Memorial outside Anfield. (2510BM40)
A fan pays tribute at the Hillsborough Memorial outside Anfield. (2510BM40)

Sorry isn’t the hardest word to extract from a government minister anymore. Not in selected cases. Not if you fight doggedly for decades.

In the Commons last week, Home Secretary Theresa May apologised to the Hillsborough families for the time it has taken to release documents relating to the 1989 football disaster. The material will now be public, she promised, with only “select details” such as the medical records of victims held back.

The parliamentary debate had been prompted by a 140,000-signature petition from Merseyside demanding disclosure.

Many of the families are particularly anxious to see the transcripts of Cabinet discussions. They believe that the main focus of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the time was not on the grievous loss of life but on the “reforms” the Tory Government wanted to impose on football and more generally on British society.

Ninety-six Liverpool fans who had travelled to Sheffield for a Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest on April 15th 1989 were crushed to death inside the stadium. Infamously, the Sun accused the victims of being responsible for their own deaths by drunkenly rushing the gates. Some on Merseyside suspect that the newspaper was merely reflecting a Thatcherite attitude to football fans, Scousers and the working class as a whole.

In this perspective, the slandering of the dead was in line with the immediate response of the authorities to Bloody Sunday. There is another parallel in the fact that it took 22 years to penetrate the fog of propaganda and reveal that what had happened wasn’t a tragedy or merely a misfortunate event but a crime and a scandalous miscarriage of justice.

The Hillsborough ground didn’t have a valid safety certificate. Blame the FA. Close on 25,000 fans were funnelled into the Leppings Lane enclosure, built to accommodate 11,000. Blame the police. The senior officer on duty ordered the opening of a gate so that thousands poured in, or were carried along by the momentum, and directly into an already packed enclosure. Blame Chief Superintendant David Duckfield. Police chiefs then instructed junior officers to falsify accounts. Blame the rest of the South Yorkshire top brass.

Thatcher was briefed the following morning. Her endorsement of a fraudulent account may have been a key factor solidifying an official consensus shifting the blame onto fans. The material now due for release will throw light on this aspect of the matter.

Thatcher appointed an ally, Lord Taylor, to investigate and report. His main recommendation was the abolition of terracing and the introduction of all-seater stadia. Watching the game was to become a more passive experience. The sense of community, the feeling of visceral shared involvement, was diluted. Ticket prices shot up. The lifelong followers of local clubs began to give way to transient followers of fashion. Football was repackaged as light entertainment for sale on the global market. Fans became customers. The gentrification of a game created by and for working class communities was under way.

It is worth recalling that another of Taylor’s recommendations was for compulsory identification cards at turnstiles. At the time, Thatcher was trying to force through a measure making identification cards mandatory for the general population. The scheme failed to get off the ground because, predictably, it proved impracticable. This didn’t dissuade Thatcher’s heir, Tony Blair, from trying it on again a decade later. And no doubt the Blatcherites will make another effort whenever they reckon we are distracted again.

Ordinary people everywhere saw Hillsborough as a dreadful event full of unspeakable sadness that cried out for the truth to be told and justice done. But the Tories, the Murdoch press, New Labour and the like took it as a hell-sent opportunity to stick the boot into the plain people of Merseyside and the working class everywhere.

Read more from Eamonn McCann in the Journal every Tuesday