| 20.8°C Dublin

James Downey: They'll never walk alone in long search for justice

LIVERPOOL is a city accustomed to hard times and misfortune, but seldom have its people been more deeply afflicted than by the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and the aftermath.

Following the 96 deaths in the Hillsborough football stadium came the effects of the pall that has darkened the city ever since: suicides, psychiatric illnesses, broken marriages, drug addiction. And something worse than any of these. Injustice, deeply felt by an entire city.

For the last 23 years, the Liverpool fans in Sheffield on that fatal day have been widely blamed for the calamity. They have been accused of misconduct on an extraordinary scale, of responsibility for the crush that caused the deaths, and of far more appalling behaviour, robbing the dead and dying, obstructing the police and the emergency services, urinating on dead bodies.

All lies. The independent review chaired by Bishop James Jones tells us in forthright language that the South Yorkshire police were to blame, and not just for mismanagement. Some of the details are horrifying. They prevented ambulances from entering the stadium. They turned back people who were trying to carry out injured fans.

The review also reveals a cover-up of astonishing proportions, reaching all the way to the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and involving the falsification of masses of documents.

It concludes that because of the failure of police control, up to 41 lives were lost that could have been saved.

So for all those years, the families of those who died, and all of Liverpool, have suffered under what David Cameron called a double injustice: the needless loss of life and the shifting of the fault on to the innocent instead of the guilty.

In this cruel onslaught, the 'Sun' newspaper, under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie, led the charge. Four days after the calamity, it carried a headline proclaiming, outrageously, THE TRUTH. It laid the blame on the Liverpool supporters.

There was a subtext, too. What can you expect from Liverpudlians? The real question is, what can you expect from the 'Sun' owners, News International? The recent Leveson inquiry has uncovered a litany of appalling practices by that organisation, from hacking of phones, including that of a murdered teenager, to bribery of police.

Next question: where did the paper's information, or rather misinformation, come from? It came from a Sheffield news agency whose sources were a senior police officer and a local Conservative member of parliament called Irvine Patnick.

That does not absolve either the newspaper or the news agency. The policeman and the politician were not independent sources. But evidently the paper followed a cynical saying sometimes heard on the wilder shores of journalism, that "some stories are too good to check".

Far worse were the official cover-up and the long-term refusal of the authorities to acknowledge the truth. To the eternal credit of the victims' families and the citizens of Liverpool, they did not lose courage. They kept up the pressure until an independent inquiry was conceded. Now it has vindicated them.

But they still have not had their full measure of justice. Will the verdict of the inquests on the victims, "death by misadventure", be overturned? Will those responsible for the calamitous police failures be prosecuted?

And will the British government institute a review of the security and emergency services to discover, and if necessary repair, any problems of training, indoctrination and leadership? This question may be more relevant in Ireland than in Britain.

A minor factor in the Hillsborough calamity was the condition of the stadium. Since then, massive improvements have been made to British sports venues. Here, we have enjoyed the construction of magnificent edifices in Jones's Road and Lansdowne Road. But are we sure about all our sports grounds?

A much more fundamental question is that of justice for victims. Some in Ireland have waited longer than the Liverpool families for "closure".

Families of the 34 people killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974 are still campaigning. Nobody was ever prosecuted in connection with the Stardust disaster of 1981, in which 48 people died. Almost certainly we will never know the precise details of the Betelgeuse explosion, which killed 50 people in 1979.

Mistakes and tragedies there will always be. But many can be prevented if security services enforce the law strictly and also adroitly, if they are well trained and led, if they have adequate information and, vitally, public support.

Last July, serious trouble broke out at the Swedish House Mafia concert in the Phoenix Park. Presumably the gardai did not observe, much less restrain, the anti-social behaviour that preceded it. Afterwards, we witnessed an unseemly public dispute about responsibility for the trouble between the gardai and the concert promoters.

A more threatening incident has since occurred, the open paramilitary display at the funeral of Alan Ryan. In this newspaper on Thursday, a distinguished retired officer, Chief Superintendent Michael Carty, gave his opinion of the police tactics on that occasion. It was far from favourable.

Justice has many facets. It is welcome if it comes belatedly, as in Liverpool. Much better if it comes quickly. Either way, the citizens have to believe in the maintenance of order that makes it possible. It would be tragic if they began to think the police had "lost the streets".

Irish Independent