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Column: The full story of the Hillsborough disaster is still to come

A report published last week shed light on an establishment cover-up but the full story of the 1989 stadium disaster is still to come, writes the Hillsborough Justice Campaign’s Sheila Coleman.

Sheila Coleman

THE HILLSBOROUGH INDEPENDENT PANEL Report, which was published last week, contained many facts which had been known to some of us for years.

The report was quite rightly welcomed by so many. However, now that the extent of the cover up has been absorbed, maybe a more critical analysis is needed.

Although the report is highly critical of the police and other agencies, nevertheless, it is yet another establishment version of events. As barrister Daniel Bennett – himself a Hillsborough survivor – has stated: “The Hillsborough panel has reported the version of events as originally told by the establishment witnesses.”

Those of us close to the facts of the disaster were aware, for example, that police had changed statements and some victims could have been saved. Not only had we known those facts, but also so had some of the most senior judges in the land.

That evidence had been put before the High Court in London in 1993 when six families sought a judicial review of the inquest verdict of accidental death. It was later also presented to Lord Justice Stuart-Smith when he oversaw the scrutiny of evidence ordered by the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw.

The panel had the advantage of access to all documentation of the relevant authorities. We gathered information piecemeal in a climate of resistance and cover up. Still, the enormity of it taking twenty-three years to publicly acknowledge what so many have known for so many years is truly staggering.

The crucial evidence of fans is once again excluded. Their ‘truth’ remains untold and untested in the legal arena.  Their only value within the history of Hillsborough has been as a negative reference point for establishment cover-up.

Right to the top?

Of great disappointment also was the lack of criticism for the government of the day under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. It has long been a common held view that the cover-up came from the top. Yet the panel, when questioned, stated that there is little written evidence to support the argument.

There is evidence however; that she did not want to accept the findings of the initial inquiry held under Lord Justice Taylor i.e. that the South Yorkshire Police were responsible for the disaster. She would accept his inquiry and his recommendations (for example: all seated stadia). However, to condemn the police force that had acted as her army in her war against the South Yorkshire miners was a step too far for the ‘Iron Lady’ it would seem.

As well as this, the police force brought in to investigate all aspects of the disaster was the West Midlands Police who were notorious at the time for their then recently disbanded serious crime squad. Nevertheless they were deemed to be suitable for this mammoth task. Indeed some of the former members of the serious crime squad took on active roles in the investigation.

A former head of the squad, Stanley Beechey, acted as the coroner’s right hand man throughout the course of the inquests. Yet in February 1989, Clare Short MP had named this man in the House of Commons as being instrumental in the fitting-up and framing of an individual on an armed robbery charge.

What a reference for overseeing a cover up. Only bettered perhaps by the fact that this same police force was instrumental in the case of the ‘Birmingham Six’. Disappointingly, the report published last week does not place emphasis on the role of this investigating force.

Also avoiding real criticism in the Report is the Hillsborough Steering Committee of Solicitors. This group was established in the early days following the Disaster and represented families throughout early legal proceedings.

Denial of truth and justice

As someone who saw these people in action in court, I have long been critical of their poor representation, which led me to question for whom they were really working.  Solicitor Doug Fraser who represented the families, is worthy of note in this respect.

The coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, has longed been criticised for imposing a 3.15 cut off at the inquests i.e. that only evidence up to 3.15pm on the day of the disaster would be heard. This ruled out all evidence relating to the lack of emergency response and undoubtedly impacted on the verdict. It is one of the most contentious issues of Hillsborough. However, we now know through evidence in the report that Fraser recommended a cut off time of 3.06pm.

He also said that the inquests should be early starts (even though they were held in Sheffield) as some of the families would be ‘swelling the coffers of the local hostelries.

In his opinion some families would want “their 15 minutes of fame” at the inquests.  It should be noted that Hillsborough families were paying a substantial amount of money to be represented by this man. Not only was he out of his depth, he was clearly failing to act in the best interests of his clients. Following on from his role at the inquests, he went on to become a deputy coroner in Liverpool. A position he still holds.

The aforementioned Jack Straw also needs singling out for criticism for his role in delaying and denying truth and justice. When the Labour Party was in opposition, he promised that if a Labour government was elected then there would be a new inquiry ordered. When this came to pass, an under pressure Straw ordered a ‘scrutiny’ not an ‘inquiry’.  He went on to appoint Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, considered to be one of the most right wing judges in the country, to oversee the scrutiny.

I do not believe that this choice was random. Rather it was a considered choice based on Straw’s pre-conceived view on the matter. As former Prime Minister Tony Blair commented when told of the scrutiny: “What’s the point?” Indeed. Following interviews with Stuart-Smith, families were also asking the same question.

In Liverpool there is good reason for it being commonly known as the ‘Stuart-Smith Stitch-Up’ as opposed to ‘Scrutiny’. Stuart-Smith was presented with facts he chose to ignore and Jack Straw sanctioned his findings. Last week Straw criticised Margaret Thatcher’s role in the cover-up. It was a convenient diversion from his own role.

What now?

The original inquest verdicts of ‘accidental death’ should be quashed immediately and fresh inquests ordered. The Attorney General has the power to do this and we have called on him to act swiftly.

The Director of Public Prosecutions needs to order a public inquiry on the basis of evidence of police corruption and cover-up. Statements have been altered. Police have lied. There is clear evidence of conspiracy and misfeasance in public office. These are just some of the reasons for an inquiry but are by no means exclusive.

Clearly there has been criminal activity and there is the possibility of criminal charges including manslaughter and corporate manslaughter.

The best possibility of legal action rests with the bereaved families.

But what of the fans? The 40,000 plus people including rescuers, survivors and witnesses who experienced the disaster? It would seem there is little chance of legal recourse for them, in spite of the orchestrated smear campaign against them by the police and media.

In spite of 23 years of being implicated – if not blamed outright – for the deaths of the 96.  Once again they appear to be the forgotten victims of Hillsborough.

Well, the establishment might forget them but they are not forgotten by each other. They have been and will continue to be the driving force of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.  They know the truth, they witnessed and experienced it. It is through their testimonies that the full truth of Hillsborough will be established.

As the aforementioned survivor Daniel Bennett wrote: “There is still some way to go before the true story of Hillsborough becomes a common and accepted narrative. But there are too many witnesses for it not to happen in time.”

Sheila Coleman is spokesperson and researcher for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.

Read: Senior officer referred to police watchdog over Hillsborough report

In full: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel

Videos, pics: A day of truth and revelations for Hillsborough families

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