Thursday, 25 August 2011

Why we Need to Know the Truth about Hillsborough

The e-petitions initiative is something that has clearly caught on. Our recent lively debate on the death penalty was of course as a result of it supporters seeking a parliamentary debate on the subject by this mechanism. On the whole, anything which enables ordinary people to put their own issues and concerns on the radar must be a change for the better, since it removes the monopoly that our representatives previously had on political discourse. As you will have gathered, this bunny is wholeheartedly against the death penalty, but if 100,000 individuals take the time to sign a petition expressing sentiments in its favour, then a serious discussion of the issue where it counts is the least they deserve.

There has been another petition doing the rounds this month calling for the full disclosure of all documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster, including minutes of cabinet meetings that took place in the aftermath of the tragedy. It can be found here for anyone who wishes to add their name as this bunny has done. More than two decades on, blind spots remain for relatives and friends of the 96 people who lost their lives on that dreadful day of April 15th 1989. Missing pieces in the puzzle of truth are natural barriers to closure, a sense of finality at least in terms of what occurred and how the events that followed were played out in powerful circles.

Of course, everyone who was touched by the disaster in some way deserves a whole lot better than to see potentially vital information in its narrative buried away under the guise of the Official Secrets Act. There is no national security question at work here, the complete absence of any danger that we may come under nuclear attack as a result of these documents being made available for public digestion. Of the thousands of laws and Acts of Parliament that have been passed in the last 200 years, this is perhaps the single one that has received the most abusive, underhand and politically expedient methods of application. One simply hopes that the government's pledge to release this information into a wider domain is followed through - hopefully it will give us the answer to two questions which this bunny feels to be rather pertinent.

It is an open secret that the Thatch liked neither football nor those that followed it on a weekly basis. Following the riots at Kenilworth Road, Luton in 1985 -, her grand scheme to rid society of the cancer of football hooliganism was a requirement for all football supporters to carry identity cards when attending matches. Later that year came Heysel, where a minority of Liverpool supporters were indeed responsible for the death of 39 fans before their European Cup Final against Juventus.

It was Thatch herself who first floated the suggestion that not just Liverpool, but all English clubs should withdraw or be withdrawn from European competition. The FA and UEFA took the bait, and the rest is history. Banning Liverpool for a period of time was probably the right decision, but dragging Wimbledon, Oxford United and Luton Town (all of whom would have qualified for Europe in the 'banned years') into the equation made no sense whatsoever. This context is important, since while her antipathy for football and its supporters was obvious to anyone with a functioning brain, the police could be seen as an organisation that had served her well, particularly during the miners' strike.

So those two questions. that may or may not be answered by disclosure of cabinet minutes and Thatch's discussions with senior police officers, are as follows:-

1. Did the government seek to approach the immediate aftermath of Hillsborough from a starting position that was sympathetic to the police?

There are of course two versions of the Hillsborough story. One, peddled by the police and repeated to disgusting effect by the Sun and its notorious slimeball of an editor Kelvin McKenzie - goes like this:- drunk football fans, many of whom did not possess match tickets, impatiently attempted to access the Leppings Lane end of the ground and forced the police to open a gate that had no turnstiles. This then caused the fatal crush, after which those same alcohol-fuelled scousers decided to pick-pocket the dead, urinate on ambulance crews and essentially exaccerbate the scale of what was unfolding.

Alternatively:- Chief Superintendent David Duckinfield and his right hand man Bernard Murray could see at around 15:05 from the control room that the Leppings Lane end of the ground had become dangerously overcrowded. The perimeter fences that had caged supporters in stadia like animals at a zoo did not help, but they were basically caught in the headlights and failed to do their job. The tragedy could have been avoided, or the scale of it at least reduced, had effective police action taken place earlier. Both Duckinfield and Murray are mightily fortunate to have later been cleared of manslaughter.

The first Taylor report (not the one that recommended all-seater stadia, but back to that very shortly) appeared to find much more credence in the latter theory than in the former. But were the government determined to see the police exonerated and Liverpool supporters at least partially blamed for the tragedy, regardless of the facts?

The second question to which this bunny would not mind an answer is somewhat more leftfield and, I appreciate, potentially controversial.

2. Was the idea suggested at an early stage that terraces would be blamed for the disaster, with all-seater stadia pushed as the solution?

I ask this because many have attempted to make a connection between football terraces and all manner of problems, from hooliganism to the tragic events that occurred at Hillsborough, Ibrox and other grounds. All of this is, when one thinks about it, deeply irrational and on some levels quite offensive. Many football fans, myself included, have stood up at matches and never once thought of starting a fight, invading the pitch during the game or joining the English Defence League. Moreover, despite what some might tell you, terracing is not inherently dangerous, as the Germans have proved by offering safe, modern standing capacity to their supporters - Kudos on the soundtrack by the way...

Possibly the best analogy is with the crackdown on handguns after Dunblane. Such was the nature of the emotive response to the tragedy that the extreme solution suddenly made some sort of rational sense, while those who perhaps saw what was being proposed as the step too far that it was were cowed into guilty silence. Here's something that many readers may not know - at the time of the tragedy, Hillsborough was one of many stadia in the top two divisions not in possession of a current and valid safety certificate.

The legislation to cover ground standards, namely the Safety at Sports Grounds Act, was in place and had been updated as recently as 1986 in the wake of the horrendous Valley Parade fire of the previous year - It simply was not being enforced or adhered to, with terraces oversubscribed, the fences at grounds remaining a potential hazard and many stadia falling into disrepair having not seen a penny spent on them by their clubs in several years. Perhaps this is one area in which supporters, more keen to see the signing of a new midfielder than watch the game in an arena that did not represent a death-trap, may be as culpable as the directors and chairmen who pursued on-field glory above all else.

All-seater stadia are of course the norm now in both the Premier League and Championship, so one suspects that a return to some form of safe standing at matches is little more than a wild fantasy. The changing dynamics and character of football to include the middle classes, women and families owe a lot to the reccommendations of the second Taylor report in particular, and in many respects these shifts have been more good than bad for the game as a whole (jokes about prawn sandwiches aside). However, attracting a new clientele to matchday appears to have involved both pricing out the one that made it a spectacle in the first place, while depriving them of the opportunity to not just spectate, but participate, as those who inhabited the Kop, the Kippax and the Stretford End undeniably did.

This bunny's thoughts on the subject are that, at least hypothetically, the options of both seating and terracing should be available at football grounds to all those who wish to take them. Such a reasonable compromise driven by common sense appears to have been taken away from both the clubs themselves and their supporters, which is a great shame. Among the many questions surrounding the way in which the establishment handled the Hillsborough disaster, one blind spot may be whether the government themselves decided to steer the conversation in the direction of all-seater stadia, conveniently apportioning blame in the direction of concrete steps that could not answer back. Take care and I'll catch you soon.

1 comment:

  1. Really good piece that Daz; the Hillsborough incident remains an open wound for many Liverpool people, even those not interested in football. The slurs made by the Sun were never substantiated or corrobated by any genuine evidence or any genuine person coming forward to give them credence; the Sun has refused to aopologise all these years, adding insult to injury; the onus of proof as ever is on them, and to my knowledge they have no proof; most people just wondered why they said what they did; whatever the case may be, they caused enormous hurt to those who were killed or involved in some way, and hurt for many Liverpool people who are just ordinary decent people.

    The reality of the Hillsborough tragedy was that the blame was shifted onto the victims; like blaming poverty on poor people; it's the way power justifies itself; not all powerful people of course, but some certrainly. Keep up the good work.