Another step has been taken in the 20-year battle for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said in a statement: “The Government is committed to helping those who lost loved ones in the Hillsborough tragedy. That is why I will be working with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Attorney General’s Office to put out any information that exists that could shed light on the disaster and its aftermath in the public domain as soon as possible.”
Normally those documents would become public after 30 years had passed, but following renewed pressure on Andy Burnham – Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport – the paperwork is to be made available ten years early.
Ninety-six Liverpool fans died on April 15th 1989 – or as a result of injuries sustained on that day – after police opened an exit gate to let thousands of fans into the ground, failing to prevent those thousands of fans from entering two already overcrowded central pens when side pens were relatively empty.
It was an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, held in a stadium in Sheffield that didn’t even have a valid safety certificate. Hundreds more fans were injured; hundreds more were severely traumatised psychologically after witnessing and experiencing horrors that could so easily have been prevented.
Not only were grave errors were made in the lead-up to the disaster, but within minutes of the first people losing their lives efforts were already being made by the authorities to cover up the true cause.
Twenty years on there is still evidence that has never been seen by the families of the victims.
Twenty years on and individuals who worked for South Yorkshire police that day still try to deflect the blame.
When Andy Burnham stood at Anfield to make a speech at the 20th memorial service, he got a little taste of just how deep the feelings are amongst Liverpool supporters – and for that matter, supporters of many other clubs – that it was time justice was done, that it was time the truth came out.
Around 30,000 people had assembled at Anfield – and his speech was interrupted as the vast majority of those 30,000 chanted “Justice for the 96”. And this was at a memorial service, not a football match – it’s safe to say this response might have been even louder had it been at an actual game.
When he appeared at the service on Wednesday the first thought in the minds of many there was that he was about to announce something important to help in the fight for justice. He didn’t make such an announcement – but by the time he left it seems he’d made his mind up that he was going to try and do something.
Perhaps he’d remembered what it was that had driven him to make a career as a politician, and how poorly the people of the North of England had been treated under a Thatcher government that had been in power since he’d been at primary school.
The ninety-six weren’t the only victims of mass injustice during that Thatcher era – and when Labour got into power it was fully expected they would start to right some of the wrongs. The Hillsborough wrongs wouldn’t even require massive amounts of money to be put right – but for reasons never explained the wrongs were left alone, never put right.
This move sees the police open up their documents ten years earlier. Hughes had already hinted at doing this even before the service. And it remains only one part of what must be a mountain of paperwork that has been kept hidden for twenty years. It’s important that all the paperwork is released, not just that from the police.
One survivor, Andy McGrath, spoke to Sky News about the announcement: “I’m cautious about it because we have seen these chinks of light before but this time there does seem to be a different attitude among many people.
“I was in the crowd when Andy Burnham was heckled on Wednesday. That was just because people are so passionate about it, if something comes from what he has done then he should get full credit.”
The twenty years of seemingly open doors slammed in faces has hardened people to news like this. But there has been a feeling that eyes have been opened for the first time this year, and perhaps there will finally be an honest effort made to arm the families with the evidence they need to get the answers they’ve never had.
Andy Burnham will get the benefit of the doubt from most fans; he’ll get the chance to show that his intentions are genuine and not just there to get some positive headlines as an election looms. It’s up to him and his colleagues now.
Some of the evidence never seen includes statements taken from ambulance drivers and attendants that day. All but one ambulance was prevented from tending to the dying and injured because of police orders keeping them off the pitch. One ambulance, with its one driver and its one attendant. There is a strong belief that many of the dead would have lived, or would at least have had a chance to live, had the many ambulances stuck outside been allowed in.
The driver and attendant of the ambulance were massively traumatised by the events of that day, the sense of helplessness they felt being the single ambulance expected to somehow deal with hundreds of casualties by themselves. The driver died a broken man, the attendant still feels blame he has no need at all to feel. Both were heroes and Liverpool fans will be eternally grateful to them for all that they did.
The police files should also contain original statements and accounts of staff working for Sheffield Wednesday, the club whose ground Hillsborough is.
There is one particular document that those seeking justice feel is key to their needs. The minutes from a meeting between Margaret Thatcher and senior police officers the morning after the disaster would be expected to contain some important evidence of any efforts made to cover up the causes of the disaster. It is believed that a decision was made during that meeting to ensure the police were not blamed for the tragedy.
And as if to caution everyone that there is still much to be done in the pursuit of honesty, Sky News reported that a meeting had taken place between the home secretary Smith and the current chief constable of South Yorkshire police, Meredydd Hughes, whilst the BBC reported South Yorkshire Police had denied any such meeting had taken place.
A South Yorkshire Police spokeswoman was quoted elsewhere as saying: “The chief constable, prior to the anniversary, independently offered to review all material held by South Yorkshire Police to establish what could lawfully be released given that the force has already made public so much of its archive information.”
It seems the SYP statement refers to a review of documents to see if any that could have been released already have been released. The documents the families are referring to are those that would normally only be released in another ten years, when all documentation has to be released as a matter of course.
It’s important to be wary of such subtle differences in what is said.
Trevor Hicks, of the HFSG, told the BBC: “I am pleased; it’s better late than never. This will enable us to see the full picture of events in a way that we have been denied for 20 years. It is vital that these files are released in full and not sanitised in anyway.”
He had one further request, to allow the families some time to see the documents first before they are released to the wider public: “Some of the documents are bound to contain information about the manner in which our loved ones died, their medical conditions and so on. I think it’s best if we learn of that ourselves and not through other parties.”
If that wish is granted, it’s important that all the families are given the chance to see the documents ahead of the public, not just those who are members of the HFSG.
One of the other Hillsborough groups is the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. Chairman Kevin Robinson also spoke to the BBC: “The memorial service on Wednesday, I think had an effect on Andy Burnham, the culture secretary. He saw how the pain was still there and he heard the chants for justice, it is high time the government realised that something should be done.”
The leader of the city council in Sheffield at the time, Clive Betts, is now an MP. He said he thought the council, “was upfront at the time in terms of officers explaining precisely what they had done in terms of inspecting and licensing of the ground before the disaster.”
One question that is often asked is: If there is nothing to hide, why was so much hidden?
If there is nothing to hide, the release of all the documents – with no gaps and nothing scrubbed out – will at least allow the families and survivors to make up their own minds.
The time for half-measures is over now, everything has to be released, everything has to be studied, and then, finally, we can find out just what “The Truth” really was.