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Triumph of truth over power

The obvious reaction to the report of the independent inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster is to say that it's shocking. But, in one sense, it's not shocking at all. The Independent Panel have merely confirmed what not just the families of the dead but any thinking person has long suspected about the behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police and the cover-up which followed.

What is shocking is to see the details set down in black and white. The inaction of the police as 96 people went to their deaths. The revelation that 41 people survived longer than had been stated at the original inquest, meaning they might have been saved given more prompt action by the emergency services. The evidence of a cover-up of such systematic thoroughness that over a hundred witness statements painting the police in a less-than-ideal light were altered. The fact that the lies which appeared in The Sun had been supplied by a Tory MP and police officers.

And the testing of the blood of the dead, a 10-year-old boy among them, to see if it contained alcohol. Why? Presumably someone somewhere thought the information might come in handy. But when you read about the blood of a dead ten-year-old boy being tested for alcohol or about the South Yorkshire Police frantically checking to see if any of the dead had criminal records so they might be posthumously smeared, it is clear that we are not talking about simple incompetence when it comes to the behaviour of the authorities during and after the Hillsborough deaths. We are talking about vileness, we are talking about hate, we are talking about evil.

It is impossible to understand what happened in Hillsborough without placing it in the context of the times. The Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher, in her 11th year in office, was animated by a Manichean worldview which saw politics in terms of friends and enemies. H-Block hunger strikers, the Argentinian junta, left-wing Labour councils, Arthur Scargill and the miners had all been seen off.

Just prior to the Hillsborough disaster, football fans had loomed largest in the collective demonology of the Conservatives. Sports Minister Colin Moynihan was ubiquitous in the media at the time, peddling a line on football hooliganism which slid perilously close to the en masse demonisation of the game's followers. It was proposed, for example, that all football followers should have to carry ID cards. A Sunday Times editorial of the time described football as "a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people". The Economist described the game as "irredeemably tied to the old industrial north, yobs and slum cultures of the stricken inner cities."

This climate made it likely that sooner or later disaster would strike. But a couple of extra explosive ingredients were needed to produce a disaster, and a cover-up, of the magnitude experienced at Hillsborough. The first was the identity and nature of the police force involved.

Just four years previously, after a titanic 11-month struggle, Thatcher's government had finally broken the striking National Union of Mineworkers and forced its members to return to work. The key element in the victory was the granting of unprecedented powers to the police. And no police force employed these powers with as much relish as the South Yorkshire force.

The strike's most infamous episode was the violent confrontation in June 1984 between police and miners at Orgreave Coking Works, just six miles from Sheffield. Ninety-five miners were subsequently charged with public order offences but their trials collapsed and the charges were dropped. In 1991, the South Yorkshire Police paid over half a million pounds in an out-of-court settlement to 39 of the miners. In a prophetic echo of the way in which the Hillsborough victims would be smeared, the BBC manipulated its news footage to show a charge by mounted police occurring as a reaction to violence by miners when the opposite was the case. Seven years later, it would apologise for "inadvertently reversing" the footage.

Parallels between the miners' strike and the Hillsborough disaster were drawn by Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, who commented after the publication of the report that "it's always been our argument that the cover-up was payback time, Margaret Thatcher's way of thanking South Yorkshire Police for the way they managed the miners' strike."

And former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw pointed out that, "The Thatcher government, because it needed the police to be a partisan force, particularly for the miners' strike and other industrial troubles, created a culture of impunity."

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Skilled in cover-up, high on its own perceived invincibility and fresh from waving bank notes in the faces of striking miners who were struggling to feed their families, this was the force which confronted the Liverpool fans that fatal day. It is perhaps not surprising that they felt confident of getting away with their behaviour by smearing the victims. Hadn't it worked before?

The disdain of the police for the fans can be seen in the statement by Paul Middup, secretary of the South Yorkshire Police Federation, just two days after the tragedy: "I am sick of hearing how good the fans were."

How can you explain such hatred, let alone the alacrity and apparent glee with which The Sun published its slanders of the dead? Well, you need to look at the status of Liverpool as a particular bête noire for the Tory party. This stemmed to a certain extent from the stand-off between the city's left-wing Labour Council of the early to mid-80s and the government. The Council defied government instructions to carry out spending cuts and continued to do so, under the slogan 'better to break the law than break the poor', until councillors were legally disbarred from office.

This was a source of grave embarrassment to the Thatcher administration, something graphically illustrated when the Prime Minister, on a visit to Indonesia, was greeted with chants of "Liverpool, Liverpool" by protesting students. And when the voters of Liverpool initially reacted to the stand-off by giving the Council an increased majority in the 1984 local elections, the right-wing media's attitude can be summed up by the infamous headline, "A majority of lumpens".

Colin Moynihan seemed to make a link between the government's battle with Liverpool Council and the one against football hooliganism, describing hooligans as "the effluent tendency" in apparent reference to The Militant Tendency, a left-wing group to which some of the councillors were linked. No other city drew as much ire from right-wing politicians and pundits alike.

Yet today it is the people of Liverpool who stand absolved by history and the powers that be of the time whose reputation is in tatters. And it's the tenacity of the families themselves and their determination not just to tell truth to power but to wrest truth from power which has won this victory. The very Liverpudlian qualities which the likes of Margaret Thatcher once disdained -- a distrust of authority, a powerful working-class solidarity and a bolshie refusal to take no for an answer -- helped the families to do so.

The vindication of the dead will be welcomed in Ireland because Liverpool has always had a special place in the affections of many Irish people. It can seem almost like an Irish city at times and the familiar Anfield banner, "we're not English, we're Scouse," sums up the extent to which people from Liverpool can feel at one remove from England, particularly as represented by London.

When the Liverpool players arrived in Rome for the 1977 European Cup final against Borussia Monchengladbach, they were surprised to find so few of the club's fans in the streets until they were informed that most of them had gone to visit the Vatican.

There is an unmistakable cultural linkage between Liverpool and Ireland and not just because Lennon and McCartney sound like a midfield pairing in an Ulster club championship match. Look down the list of the Hillsborough dead and you see names which attest to the long history of Irish emigration to Merseyside: Brady, Burke, Delaney, Gilhooley, Hennessy, Kelly, McBrien, McCabe, McCarthy, McGlone, McGrath, Traynor, Tyrell, Whelan.

And then you look at the ages of the victims, 70 of them were under 30, 37 were in their teens, John Paul Gilhooley was ten years old, and you can't help being filled with sorrow at the thought of them getting up that morning, filled with the excitement familiar to all of us who've gone to see our team in action in any sport, propelled towards their doom by a mentality which regarded football fans as animals fit only to be corralled, caged and crushed. After the previous year's semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, Liverpool fans had complained of dangerous overcrowding. No-one listened. They were only football fans.

I wasn't surprised to hear that the families of the Hillsborough victims had recently travelled to Derry to meet relatives of those murdered by the British Army on Bloody Sunday. Because there are similarities between Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday -- the long battles of the relatives for justice being one and the attempts by the authorities to smear the dead being another.

Just as newspapers originally ran false stories claiming that some of the Bloody Sunday victims had been armed, The Sun published a pack of lies concerning the behaviour of Liverpool fans on the day. Yet though Kelvin MacKenzie is an appalling excuse for a human being, he did not make up those stories. They were fed to the paper by a news agency which had been given the information by Tory MP Sir Irving Patnick and senior police officers, among them the previously mentioned Paul Middup. There had been an appalling loss of human life and a horrendous amount of human suffering but their first priority was to cover the arse of the police even if this meant causing further heartbreak to the families of the dead.

Perhaps Sir Irving Patnick supplied this information on his own initiative and Tory politicians further up the chain of command had nothing to do with it. Perhaps. And perhaps as Kelvin MacKenzie and his minions laid out that infamous front page they may even have murmured 'gotcha,' and thought the police were going to come well out of Hillsborough with the dead fans indicted as thugs and barbarians. Instead this was a story too vicious for even the tabloid reading public to stomach.

It's easy to make a scapegoat out of MacKenzie but the key thing is that The Sun's most vicious attacks usually served a political purpose. And that purpose was to serve the interests of the Tory party. Three years later, after a general election campaign during which the paper ran its usual quota of vitriolic propaganda against the Labour party, the Conservatives thanked the paper for its role in their victory, prompting the famous headline, "It was The Sun wot won it."

You see, nothing pointed up the moral bankruptcy of Thatcher's Britain like the behaviour of the police at Hillsborough. So it was in the interests of the Tory party that the dead be slandered and the police protected. In fact, it still is. In 2004, in The Spectator magazine, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and perhaps the next leader of the Tories, criticised "Liverpool's failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat and The Sun newspaper a whipping boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident."

So there you had Johnson, often portrayed as a lovable buffoon, not just repeating The Sun's libels but managing to sneak in a defence of both the police and the paper. Given what had emerged in the years since the disaster, this strikes me as even more appalling than the original Sun stories. The Sun didn't 'hint at' anything; it said that Liverpool fans pissed on the police and picked the pockets of the dead. And all of it a pack of lies. Imagine the mind of someone who can make up a story like that.

Johnson apologised when the report came out of course as did Kelvin MacKenzie but I think we all know what those apologies are worth. Trevor Hicks of the Hillsborough Families Support Group certainly does. He rejected MacKenzie's apology, calling him a "lowlife".

There's another way of describing those involved in the Hillsborough cover-up. You could say that they are "worse than animals. A cancer in an otherwise healthy body." That's how Colin Moynihan described football hooligans a year before the Hillsborough disaster. But that's probably erring on the side of kindness. Even the worst football hooligan might have blanched at planting lies in the newspapers while families were still grieving and continuing the cover-up for years afterwards.

May the dead of Hillsborough rest in peace. And may their families get justice.

As for the coppers who stood idly by as the fans went to their deaths and joined with the politicians and journalists to blacken the names of the Liverpool fans? I'll just quote from a song by a great Liverpudlian songwriter Elvis Costello, written about Margaret Thatcher, on whose watch the 96 lost their lives.

'When they finally put you in the ground, I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down'.


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