Friday 23 February 2018

Hillsborough tragedy: Former police chief denies 'drunk fans' plot

Former Merseyside Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison leaves after giving evidence at the Hillsborough inquest in Warrington. Photo credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Former Merseyside Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison leaves after giving evidence at the Hillsborough inquest in Warrington. Photo credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

By Kim Pilling

A former Merseyside Chief Constable has denied telling two men in separate pub conversations that he was part of a South Yorkshire based internal team seeking to blame "drunken" Liverpool supporters for the Hillsborough tragedy.

Sir Norman Bettison was said to have made the comments during bar-room chats in the weeks after the disaster in April 1989 which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans.

Witness John Barry told the inquests into the deaths that Sir Norman told him: "I have been asked by my senior officers to pull together this South Yorkshire Police evidence for the (Taylor) inquiry and we are going to try to concoct a story that all of the Liverpool fans were drunk, and that we were afraid they were going to break down the gates so we decided to open them."

A second witness, Mark Ellaby, told the jury: "I remember Mr Bettison saying that he had just been seconded to an internal team in South Yorkshire Police who were tasked with making sure that South Yorkshire Police bore no blame for the Hillsborough disaster and it was all the fault of drunken Liverpool supporters.

"I don't recall the exact words but I certainly recall those words were the close approximation of what he said.

"I remember him going to lengths to say that South Yorkshire Police held no sort of responsibility for what happened."

Both conversations were said to have taken place in the Fleur de Lys pub in Sheffield, where the group of Master's business students at Sheffield School of Business would go after their weekly Monday evening classes.

But Sir Norman told the jury that he did not attend the class from April 24 onwards until he returned to the part-time three-year course in July that year.

Civil servant Mr Barry claims his conversation with the then Chief Inspector of South Yorkshire Police took place in mid to late May.

Mr Ellaby recalled his alleged conversation took place "a couple of weeks" after the disaster.

The local government officer with Sheffield City Council recalled a chat in the main body of the bar with a number of people.

He told the jury: "I got the impression that he saw it as a positive career advancement. I talked to him around his role in South Yorkshire Police generally and it was clear he was being groomed for some sort of senior leadership."

He said he found on reflection that Sir Norman's comment to him was "shocking".

Paul Greaney QC, representing the Police Federation, put it to Mr Ellaby that Sir Norman accepted on April 17 1989 that he "may have" mentioned at the class the suggestions of drunkenness, ticketlessness and late arrivals but "he is clear in his recollection that there was no suggestion by him or anyone that the fans were going to be blamed as part of a plan".

Mr Ellaby replled: "That is not my recollection. I recall him distinctly making reference to the fact that he was involved in the internal South Yorkshire Police team that was charged with this piece of work."

The witness told the jury he came forward with his recollection in November 2012 after he felt "very angry" when he heard Sir Norman deny in a BBC Radio 4 interview that he had a similar conversation with Mr Barry.

Counsel for the inquest Jonathan Hough QC asked Sir Norman: "You have heard that Mr Barry has said now in court, and previously in public, that you told him that your work was to pull together evidence and concoct a story that Liverpool fans were drunk and said 'We were afraid they were going to break down the gates so we decided to open them'. Did you say anything like that to Mr Barry or anyone else?"

Sir Norman replied: "I did not say anything like that."

He repeated the same denial to Mr Ellaby's allegation.

Sir Norman said he did recall having a discussion about Hillsborough with fellow students two days after the disaster.

He said: "I can recall two or three things in conversation. The first is that there were an awful lot of people in the conversation who did not know the correction to the lie about the opening of the gate and I can recall that I talked about that being definitely under police direction.

"The second thing I recall is that I learned, but I don't think it had reached the public consciousness, that West Midlands Police were going to undertake an independent investigation. So I shared that with the group around the table."

Sir Norman told the jury he did not express any personal views about the cause of the disaster.

He said: "I did offer the view that there may be a reason why the gate needed to be opened but that was as far as it went."

Mr Hough asked him if he had said anything to anyone that could be interpreted as "adverse" about the Liverpool fans.

Sir Norman replied: "Some of the comments ascribed to me I would not make in a private or public situation."

The former chief constable of the Merseyside and West Yorkshire police forces will continue to give evidence tomorrow when the inquests resume.

The jury has previously heard evidence from a former South Yorkshire Police colleague of Sir Norman that they both attended a briefing the Monday after the tragedy and were told to put the blame on Liverpool fans.

Last week, former detective chief superintendent Terry Wain denied he held any such briefing.

Mr Wain compiled a report for Lord Justice Taylor on behalf of South Yorkshire Police, which was later edited, and included a section on the events of the day which was written by Sir Norman.

Press Association

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