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Saturday 22 July 2017

Hillsborough was not a football problem or Liverpool issue...it was much more than that

Criminal charges have finally been handed down to those who oversaw the Hillsborough disaster and subsequent cover-up
Criminal charges have finally been handed down to those who oversaw the Hillsborough disaster and subsequent cover-up

Tony Evans

One day, this will all be over.

The Hillsborough disaster will simply be a piece of ugly history, a barely-believable tale that seems completely at odds with the British sense of fair play and decency. That day is still a long way away.

Six people will face charges over criminal offences relating to the tragedy that occurred on April 15, 1989, at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in Sheffield. An afternoon that should have been memorable for fun and football would eventually lead to 96 deaths. They are the fatalities we know about. Thousands more lives were blighted, some terminally.

The biggest misunderstanding about Hillsborough is that it was a football problem or a Liverpool issue.

What happened at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, where the victims were crushed to death, had wider ramifications. There was a complete breakdown of civic services. The people charged with protecting the public failed in a catastrophic manner. The blame was deflected onto the victims. For more than two decades it was the accepted narrative that Liverpool supporters caused the situation and behaved dreadfully in the immediate aftermath.

The reality was different.

Liverpool fans desperately try to escape the crush at Hillsborough on April 15, 1989. Photo: PA
Liverpool fans desperately try to escape the crush at Hillsborough on April 15, 1989. Photo: PA

Despite the scurrilous, irrational allegations that were given credence by Kelvin MacKenzie in The Sun, fans did not cause the disaster.

The real reasons were clear from very early on. The families of the dead and their supporters were regarded as cranks and fantasists by the general public but much of the evidence that was laid bare with forensic brilliance by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) in 2012 was a matter of public record in the early 1990s. Few people wanted to listen, though.

A decade ago, Hillsborough felt like a lost cause. There was little political backing – the Labour government had no interest – and the families and their supporters seemed to be fighting a quixotic cause. Back then, the prospect of seeing six individuals on the stand facing criminal charges was almost unimaginable. The fight for justice felt like an end in itself. It was not sustained by any hope of success. It was driven by a refusal to be beaten down. The power and principles of the families are awe-inspiring.

After 20 years of scant movement, the 2010s have been a whirlwind of activity. Andy Burnham, now the Mayor of Greater Manchester, instigated the HIP at the beginning of the decade and the exhaustive research that was produced led to new inquests. The accidental death verdicts from 1991 were overturned and replaced by unlawful killing.

Calls for reform of police force at heart of Hillsborough cover-up

Public and political perceptions changed.

Balloons make the number '96' during a memorial service at Anfield in Liverpool, north west England on April 15, 2016, on the 27th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster.
96 Liverpool supporters died at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough football ground in Sheffield, northern England. 2016 will be the final year a memorial service is held at Anfield. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL ELLISPAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images
Balloons make the number '96' during a memorial service at Anfield in Liverpool, north west England on April 15, 2016, on the 27th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster. 96 Liverpool supporters died at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough football ground in Sheffield, northern England. 2016 will be the final year a memorial service is held at Anfield. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL ELLISPAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Many people who had fallen for the propaganda of the late 1980s and early 1990s began to realise that the fault did not lie with supporters.

At the highest levels of power there was a recognition that Hillsborough needed to be addressed. David Cameron was the first Prime Minister since the disaster to understand its importance; Theresa May, as Home Secretary, was also keen to see justice done. 

There is some way to go before this happens. The prosecutions open in August and the courtroom battles will be bitterly fought. Six men in the dock is disappointing in some ways given that 23 individuals and organisations were being investigated but the probe into a possible cover-up continues. There may still be other people charged.

For the first time a form of closure is on the horizon. For the relatives of those who were killed this is important. Sadly, too many parents and loved ones of the 96 have died themselves. The same is true of the survivors and witnesses of that fateful day in 1989. The process has taken too long and that has exacerbated the agony. It is sobering to think that if the occupants of Grenfell Tower had to suffer a similar timeline, they would still be fighting for truth and transparency in 2045.

That would be completely unacceptable.

Hillsborough will never be over for the families of the dead and anyone who experienced the carnage on the Leppings Lane terraces. The pain and the nightmares will persist, regardless of whether any of the six men in the dock are convicted. Yet it is crucial that this stain on British justice is finally cleared.

When public servants charged with protecting us fail, they must be called to account. That has not happened for 28 years. It needs to happen now. Or one day a similar nightmare will occur again.

Read John Aldridge's powerful and moving piece on the Hillsborough disaster in Thursday's Herald.

The full list of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster (Hillsborough Inquests/PA)
The full list of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster (Hillsborough Inquests/PA)

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