On Tuesday 26 April, the jury returned their verdicts in the inquest into the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster in which 96 football spectators, all except one Liverpool fans, were killed.
Among other things the jury found that the police officer in charge of policing the event in which fans were crushed to death, and 400 others were injured in an overcrowded pen — Chief Superintendant David Duckenfield — was guilty of “manslaughter by gross negligence”. This is a tremendous victory for justice, but it has been, for the families and friends of the people who died on 15 April just over 27 years ago, at a huge cost.
For 27 years the police lied, and covered up their actions on the day. They continued to lie and cover up during this latest inquest. Shortly after the day Duckenfield fed a lie about fans being drunk and to blame, a lie that would make its way to the front page of the Sun and other newspapers a few days after the event. Today, the Sun newspaper continues to blame the police for their printing of a story vilifying Liverpool fans.
South Yorkshire police not only maintained the lie through the years, and systematically changed witness statements to distort the truth. For 27 years MPs and governments obstructed debates in Parliament, and then the demand for a further inquest to reverse the failings of the first inquest, in which the coroner decided not to look at the emergency response to the disaster. For over 20 years David Duckenfield lied. Then, in the last few years, possibly since he knew the truth was soon to come out, admitted some responsibility. Still he continued to maintain fans were drunk, despite this being something he knew nothing about, being for all of the match inside a control room.
Duckenfield was put in charge of Hillsborough despite having no experience. He took the decision to open an exit gate so that people rushed into an already overcrowded pen. It was a mistake, but he behaved like a cop. He sought to enforce order at all costs. He chose to treat the fans as “hooligans”. He calling for dogs instead of ambulances, when it was clear that people were suffering — in fact being asphyxiated to death.
In 2009, a review was set up by Labour. It led to the original inquests being quashed. But it took yet another campaign by the bereaved families for the High Court to order a new hearing. More of the truth must now come out and there may be criminal prosecutions. Good.
It must, at times have seemed for the families that they were never going to get there. That they did not give up is something of a miracle. Julie Connor, whose brother Andrew Sefton died at Hillsborough, expressed what today means and why it is an inspiration for anyone who has to fight the system in smaller and larger ways: “We have paved the way for other ordinary, decent people in this country, who also find themselves in extraordinary circumstances of someone else’s making, to tread the path to truth and justice. We have swept the road before you, heaved boulders, checked for mines, swallowed dust, buried our dead at the roadside and, at times, crawled on our hands and knees, so that the path is now a little easier for you to walk on.”