Justice finally for reputations besmirched

Thu, Sep 13, 2012, 01:00

On an emotional day, the prime minister’s apology to Liverpool was gracefully accepted, writes MARK HENNESSY,London Editor

LABOUR MP Alison McGovern was just eight years old when 96 Liverpool fans died at Hillsborough. Yesterday, in the House of Commons, she shed tears for the dead, whose reputations had been besmirched.

“No words in the English language are good enough to describe the dignity, grace and courage shown by the families of the 96 loved ones we lost at Hillsborough,” said the Wirral South MP, emotions raw.

Prime minister David Cameron has handled such occasions before, most notably the Bloody Sunday report when he was cheered by nationalists inside and outside Derry’s Guildhall.

He followed the same course as he did then. He apologised to the bereaved and the city, paid tribute to police and emergency staff for their daily contribution to British life, and expressed astonishment at the mistakes made in Sheffield and the subsequent cover-up.

Liverpool is a Labour city, so Cameron was not cheered, but the apology was accepted with grace – on condition that the report is a springboard for a new inquest to replace the one that declared nothing could have been done for the victims after 3.15pm on April 15th, 1989.

Following an examination of 450,000 pages of documents by an independent inquiry led by the Bishop of Liverpool, Rt Rev James Jones, it is now clear that more could have been, since dozens were still alive at that time, even if badly injured.

Up to yesterday, those who were bereaved had blamed the police and an antiquated football ground for the disaster, caused when the stadium’s Leppings Lane terrace was “visibly overcrowded” with some of the 50,000 fans present that day.

However, the report outlines the culpability of the emergency services also: “Not only was there delay in recognising that there were mass casualties, the major incident plan was not correctly activated and only limited parts were then put into effect.” Despite all of the investigations up to now, the emergency service’s role had never been fully examined “because of the assumption that the outcome for those who died was irretrievably fixed long before they could have been helped”.

Instead, the postmortem reports show that some could have been saved: 28 did not have obstruction of blood circulation, and 31 had evidence of heart and lungs continuing to function after the crush.

“This means that individuals in those groups could have had potentially reversible asphyxia beyond 3.15pm, in contrast to the findings of the coroner and a subsequent Judicial Review,” the report said, vindicating a 23-year campaign.

Families had gathered in Liverpool from early morning for an advance sight of the report – three people fainted as they leafed through the 400 pages, said campaigner Trevor Hicks, who lost two daughters in the tragedy.

Now, the families want justice. The Sun’s allegations that fans were drunk and that survivors had stolen from, and urinated upon the dead and dying, had not just been manufactured by a tabloid press hungry for headlines. If anything it was worse. Sheffield police, in an attempt to deflect the blame and cover up their own flawed response to the disaster, repeatedly briefed a local news agency – and passed on sworn statements from officers at the scene – that Liverpool fans were “predominantly ticketless, drunk, aggressive and determined to force entry”.

The report went on: “While these allegations were found to be unsubstantiated by the Taylor Inquiry and the reporting was criticised subsequently by the press council, the allegations persisted throughout the inquiries and investigations.”

The campaign was aided by a then-serving Conservative Sheffield MP, Irvine Patnick, who, then and later, did everything possible to protect the reputation of South Yorkshire police, including objecting to the removal of the chief constable.

The question now, as ever, is what happens next. Yesterday’s inquiry does not carry legal weight. The original inquest verdict of accidental death stands, unless it is overturned by the High Court on the application of the attorney general.

However, a second inquest could only try to rightly describe how the victims died, with coroners unable to express opinions on other matters. A new public inquiry could be set up, using yesterday’s report as its starting point.

A new police investigation would have to be held, since criminal proceedings would have to take place before a new inquest so as not to prejudice rights to a fair trial. Michael Mansfield, QC for the families, seeks manslaughter charges.

Manslaughter could be difficult, but the evidence that documents, including court witness statements, were doctored will mean that many on duty in or around Hillsborough face anxious months, if not years ahead.

In the Commons, Labour Liverpool Walton MP, Steve Rotheram, who swapped a Leppings Lane ticket for one in Hillsborough’s stand just 15 minutes before kick-off, spoke for many on Merseyside.

“Despite the criticism levelled at us of a ‘self-pity city’, we were right that there was a deliberate attempt to shift the blame and instigate a cover-up at the very highest level. It is not about retribution – it is about responsibility.” Last year, Rotheram opened a Commons debate by naming the 96 dead, one by one. “If I can go from being a brickie in Kirkby to the lord mayor, who knows what these 96 people may have achieved in their lives.” That question will be forever unanswered.

Hillsborough football disaster dead: 96; injured: 766

The Hillsborough football disaster happened in Sheffield on April 15th 1989 during an FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest

The final death toll was 96 people. Ninety four people died that day, two died later. A further 766 more were injured. All the victims were Liverpool fans. The incident remains one of the worst to have occurred in a football stadium.

The final death, in March 1993, was of 22-year-old Tony Bland. He was in a persistent vegetative state and the hospital caring for him sought, with the support of his parents, court approval for withdrawing artificial feeding and hydration.

Four days after the disaster, the Sun newspaper claimed in front page headlines that: “Some fans picked pockets of victims”, “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” and “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”. The paper is still boycotted by many Liverpudlians.

The official inquiry into the disaster, the Taylor Report (1990), blamed a “failure of police control”, findings that caused the removal of standing terraces at all big football stadiums in England, Wales and Scotland.