We were away from Liverpool, spending a couple of wet and windswept days in the Yorkshire Dales, when the remarkable 395-page report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was published, its conclusions arrived at after sifting through 450,000 documents. For me, football – sport generally – raises not a flicker of interest: there must be something missing in my DNA. But the events of that terrible afternoon in 1989 on which 96 people died at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough football ground, and the actions of the authorities afterwards, reflected something I do recognise: the fractures along lines of class and geography that lie just beneath the calm surface of the English social order, and the deep contempt of those in authority for those of working class origin – especially if they hail from northern towns.
Such attitudes formed the solid rock underpinning the social order in the Thatcher years – they informed responses to trade unions, and especially to the miners’ strike (the policing of that event, too, would merit an independent inquiry). A great deal of what happened at Hillsborough to cause the disaster, and the police’s subsequent blame-shifting, has been exposed over the last decades, some of it dramatised in Jimmy McGovern’s drama-documentary, Hillsborough, in 1996. But the depth of the cover-up – the deliberate, relentless South Yorkshire police campaign to mask its own failures and craft the false case against the supporters (given widespread credence through their conduit to the Sun), was what still had the power to shock when revealed this week.
Two reports in the last few days by David Conn in The Guardian have brought home the meaning of Hillsborough in Liverpool. In Hillsborough disaster: the truth, he described how:
In a concerted campaign begun even as the dead were lying in a temporary mortuary at Hillsborough itself – led, the panel found, by the chief constable, Peter Wright – the South Yorkshire police marshalled their story that drunken supporters or those without tickets had caused the disaster. The victims, most younger than 30, many of them teenagers, the youngest aged 10, had their blood tested for alcohol levels. This was “an exceptional decision”, the panel said, for which it found “no rationale”. One of the new revelations from this extraordinary process, in which all the organisations released to the panel their internal documents relating to Hillsborough, was that where victims had alcohol in their blood, the police then checked to find if they had criminal records.
The report, substantially authored by professor Phil Scraton of Queen’s University, Belfast, and unanimously agreed by the panel of eight experts, found there was “no evidence … to verify the serious allegations of exceptional levels of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans”.
Today, in ‘Our 14-year-old son died at Hillsborough‘ he told the story of one of the families who can never forget that day. In 1989, Phil Hammond was the manager of our local postal sorting office. On on 15 April 1989, Phil and Hilda Hammond’s 14 year old son Philip travelled to Liverpool’s semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough with a friend – the first time he had been to watch Liverpool play away from Anfield. He was one of the 96 who died that afternoon, 41 of whom, the Panel had revealed, might have been saved but for police incompetence. His father became the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, battling for truth and justice over how his son and the others died, mounting private prosecutions of the two senior South Yorkshire police officers on duty that day.
They had exhausted all legal avenues. It took until the 20th anniversary three years ago, for the process to begin that led to the panel’s conclusive report this week. Following the Guardian’s exposure of Hillsborough’s enduring injustice and changed police statements, the then Labour ministers Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle initiated the process of police and other bodies releasing all their documents. On Wednesday, the Hammonds were relieved, and regretful that it had taken so much struggle. Graeme feels that it’s sad that Phil, because of his accident and resulting disability, could not play a more active role this week, after all his work to drive the campaign on.
Hilda feels that too, but, she says: “Philip’s been in heaven all this time looking down on us. And he knows what his father did for him.”
That was the Hillsborough families. They never gave up on their loved ones, in the face of suffering nobody should have to bear.
This moving letter is from Thursday’s Guardian:
On 15 April 1989, at 8.30 in the morning, Barrie left his home to travel to a football match. In the early hours of the following morning, a different man returned home. Barrie’s friends, who had been seated elsewhere in the ground, had found him wandering the streets of Sheffield after an increasingly despairing search that lasted long into the night. Traumatised, his body covered in purple bruises that bled into each other, his arms torn from dragging adults and children from the terrible crush and passing them up to others hanging, arms stretched, to lift them to safety, Barrie came home but left part of his soul in the Hillsborough stadium.
In the 23 years that followed, time after time castigated as a cause of the tragedy; carrying the guilt of survival; knowing, as did everyone in Liverpool, “the truth” but condemned as self-pitying and told to “get over it” when any attempt to disseminate the truth was made; and taking every opportunity to show his solidarity with the families of the 96 in their search for justice.
Finally, vindication (Hillsborough: the reckoning, 13 September) but too late for many relatives and friends of those who were lost and survivors themselves. Too late also for Barrie, who died at 8.10 on Wednesday morning.
Pat Ayers, Liverpool
This week the truth about what happened at Hillsborough was confirmed. Will justice follow?
- Liverpool Echo: coverage of the Hillsborough report
- Hillsborough Independent Panel report: executive summary, plus the report in full and the original Taylor Report into the Hillsborough Disaster (Liverpool Echo).
- Carol Ann Duffy’s Hillsborough poem: Liverpool Echo