The massive failure of the institutions of the state revealed by Bishop James Jones’ team must not fail again. There must be new inquests. There must be prosecutions for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. But will it happen? The Hillsborough families have no faith in judges, police, coroners, some senior politicians and some journalists.
It will take the delivery of justice, individuals being held to account to begin to rebuild trust.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s findings are a vindication of the extraordinary persistence of the families in the face of a whole range of public institutions which failed them. The list is long. The stadium without a safety certificate, failure of police control on the day, the poor medical attention, the lies about the fans, the police cover up, the inadequate Taylor and Stewart Smith reports, the disgraceful inquests, the failure of the judicial system during the private prosecutions and not least, it must be said, an often unspoken wish of some people not directly affected for Hillsborough to be forgotten as an episode from a dark time in Britain’s history.
To try and explain (but not excuse) this establishment failure and deceit on such a large scale we have to remember the political world as it was in 1989. The Thatcher government was in the process of introducing legislation to make football fans carry ID membership cards. It was a daft idea but it was in response to rampant soccer hooliganism.
Hillsborough, without a safety certificate, was not alone in being a dump. Facilities in our ageing Victorian football grounds showed contempt for the fans comfort and many responded accordingly. Most stood and you still hear nostalgic calls for “the right to stand”. Let’s hope those cries are silenced now.
Also in 1989 memories were very fresh about the Miner’s Strike and the crucial role played by the police on behalf of the Thatcher government. Since the Independent Panel reported there has been a sharp exchange about this between two former Home Office Ministers. Labour’s Jack Straw claims the police had developed a sense of immunity from criticism after the strike, while Tory David Mellor criticised the remark and pointed out that the Tories had introduced major legislation on the police.
Not only do we need prosecutions, we also need a change of culture from within the organs of the state. We like to think we have moved on from the 1980s in terms of accountability. One barrister recalled this week that back then if you suggested in court that a police officer might be lying, you’d get short shrift from the judge. But has the mindset of those in the know really changed?
Tony Blair brought in the Freedom of Information Act, but now calls it his biggest mistake. The new post of Chief Coroner to oversee the creaking coroner’s system was nearly scrapped by the Coalition Government and there are moves to increase secrecy in cases involving national security.
Some politicians have emerged with credit from this sorry business. The Home Secretary Theresa May has redeemed her promise to allow all documents to be put before the Independent Panel. Local politicians like Leigh’s Andy Burnham and Walton’s Steve Rotheram have been outstanding.
But for a long time many politicians gave the impression that they wanted Hillsborough to go away. Jack Straw asked Lord Justice Stewart Smith to reinvestigate the tragedy in 1997. The inquiry revealed little. When asked this week if Stewart Smith had access to all the documents, Straw said “he wasn’t certain”. He was only the Home Secretary for heavens sake and should have ordered the full document disclosure that has, at last, been so effective.
I really hope the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney General realise they have to be proactive now and the families don’t have to drag justice out of the institutions of the state that have failed them so badly so far.