Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Will anyone ever apologise for Hillsborough disaster?

It is not a tidal wave because what is provoking it happened 22 years ago and, however monstrous an outrage, the business of day-by-day living inevitably dissipates even the hardest of pain and anger.

Yet if all those from Prime Minister-level down who have been seeking to cover up the true cause of disaster all these years, who have bombarded the grieving with evasions and bromides and – as in the case of a letter from the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire to this newspaper yesterday – non sequiturs, haven't known it before, surely they do now.

Hillsborough is not going to go away. It is not destined to subside beneath the weight of government stalling or still another round of police doubletalk.

More than the required 100,000 have now petitioned for a parliamentary debate and who can say it is not the least that is due to the 96 innocent people who died in April 1989?

Probably not Meredydd Hughes, head of the police force in which not one member has been required to atone in any way other than vapid, non-incriminating regret, for the command inexperience and incompetence which turned a football ground into a killing field. He urges us to wait patiently for the outcome of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.

He also explains that his decision two years ago to release police archives containing their version of affairs was provoked by the kind of issues raised by two other items of reader correspondence in The Independent over the last few days.

One was from the father of a victim who was sent from the temporary mortuary, where his dead son lay, on a search of neighbouring hospitals. The other was from someone who, having experienced with his alarmed wife and her friend unruly scenes outside the ground, and some rocking of the bus in which they sat, wondered whether "it is time the mob outside the ground took at least some of the blame for subsequent events."

If you happened to be at Hillsborough that evil day, if you saw how inevitable the tragedy became, if you saw groups of unengaged police officers talking among themselves as behind them a fearful crush built at the gates of the Leppings Lane entrance, if you had been told, as matter of unremarkable fact, that the only safe way to enter the ground was to walk around to the other end, and if you eventually sat down overwhelmed by the powerless conviction that people were certain to die, this last distortion of reality is a freshly revived horror.

This is especially so if you were able to walk on to the field and see the desperate, untutored rescue attempts of those who would later be accused of stealing from and urinating on the dead.

No one has ever said that there wasn't some rough behaviour by some Liverpool fans – but then no one who was there, and had eyes unveiled by vested interest, has ever begun to believe that the tragedy would not have been averted if those entrusted with the care of the people had done their jobs properly.

That, when you get right down to it, is the central conclusion of the Taylor report, which also noted that the end of Hillsborough where the tragedy occurred did not carry a safety certificate for the very good reason that it was so evidently a death trap waiting to be sprung.

One of the phrases you hear most often is that, with the enforcement of safety recommendations made by Lord Taylor, "no useful purpose" would be served by the most probing of inquiries.

A similar argument is advanced for the Cabinet Office appeal against public revelation of reports presented to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, correspondence between her office and that of Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and the minutes of the meetings she attended.

There is, though, a useful purpose. It is one of a proper accounting of an affair that goes to the very heart of social responsibility. Certainly, it was guaranteed to shatter a belief in decency not only in the relatives and friends of the victims but anyone who was there to witness it and who consequently did not have to rely on the poisonously confected versions that should still shame all those who inspired them and bought them and prosecuted them as if they held any semblance of the truth.

Mrs Thatcher arrived at Hillsborough the following morning, bearing flowers and platitudes and, yes, it is right that we know, the reality that may or not have been the basis of her public pronouncements.

The chief constable also said: "I strongly urge commentators to await the work of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Under the leadership of Bishop James of Liverpool, I am confident it will set the documents in a perspective that is helpful to understanding events, and in a manner that respects the victims."

This is not a matter of commentary but witness. If it is evident enough, you do not interpret what is truth and what is a lie. You see it and you know it, in your mind and in your guts, and if the consequences were as grave as they were at Hillsborough it is going to take a lot longer than 22 years to forget.

If you want someone to explain a scripture or an aspect of moral or canon law, no doubt the Bishop of Liverpool is the man. But not on Hillsborough, not if you were there, not if you saw how many people were so carelessly sent to their deaths – and especially not if you still have to wonder if anyone will ever have either the nerve or the conscience to say sorry.

Belfast Telegraph


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