Last year, an inquest jury found that David Duckenfield was guilty of “manslaughter by gross negligence” Duckenfield was the police officer in charge of policing the fateful football match at Hillsborough, the ground of Sheffield Wednesday, in 1989. 96 people were crushed to death, and 400 others injured in an overcrowded pen.
Now the Crown Prosecution Service has decided to charge Duckenfield and five other people with criminal offences. The families and friends of those who were killed will finally get to hold at least some in the establishment to account — charges have been brought against four former senior police officers, a police solicitor and the chief executive of Sheffield Wednesday. The Hillsborough families will not, unfortunately, be able to hold to account the politicians (including senior Labour, the CPS, other court officials and media who conspired directly or indirectly to make sure the truth did not come out. But the disgusting behaviour of the police is at the heart of this tragic story.
For 27 years the police lied, and covered up their actions on the day. Shortly after the disaster Duckenfield fed a lie about fans being drunk and to blame — a lie which was printed on the front page of the Sun and other newspapers just a few days after the event, in the midst of grief. The Sun newspaper then continued to blame the police for their printing of the story vilifying Liverpool fans.
South Yorkshire police not only maintained the lie through the years and this led to a 1991 inquest verdict of “accidental death”. The systematically changed 164 witness statements to distort the truth, a fact that was revealed after that inquest. When that systematic perversion of justice was revealed the then Labour government, specifically Jack Straw and Tony Blair, refused to order a new inquest.
In the last few years, Duckenfield, when he knew the truth was soon to come out, did admit some responsibility. But 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 called for dogs instead of ambulances, when it was clear that people were suffering — in fact they were being asphyxiated to death.
For 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. In 2009, a review was finally set up by Labour. It led to the results of the original inquests being quashed. But it took yet another campaign by the bereaved families for the High Court to order last year’s hearing.
Hopefully this is a the last chapter in the fight mounted by the families and friends of the people who died at Hillsborough. We salute the tremendous bravery and determination of those campaigners and we have to hope their fight will help others who will face similar battles against the powerful. In particular we hope it will give heart to those who have been bereaved in the Grenfell fire, and show that they too can find out the truth behind the fire, get justice and stop similar tragedies from happening.