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Justice at last for the Hillsborough victims

14 September 2012

EVERY follower of sport will bear witness to the emotional swings that it engenders. As with individuals, so with nations. This week has brought the Olympic and Paralympic victory parade, and Andy Murray's first Open championship success. In Liverpool Cathedral, on Wednesday, the Independent Panel released its report on the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at the Hillsborough Stadium on 15 April 1989. Of course, it was not sport that caused the horror on that day. The panel lists a set of individual and institutional failings that, first, put the Liverpool fans in danger in an overcrowded section of the stadium in Sheffield, and then did nothing to prevent their being crushed to death.

The families of those killed and injured on that day (besides those who died, 766 were hurt) have long struggled against the implication, perpetrated by The Sun and encouraged for a time by the police, that the fans' behaviour was the chief cause of the disaster. The first inquiry, published in 1990, attempted to dispel this smear, but since it declined to consider evidence of events after 3.15 p.m. on that Saturday, its chief concern was the cause of the overcrowding. This meant that it missed the cause of many of the deaths. In the eyes of the families, and now of the independent panel, failure to prevent death can be classified as its cause in 41 instances. The panel proved that the fans were killed not by each other - a police officer had at one point stated: "Liverpool fans were murdered by Liverpool fans" - but by police who marshalled the crowd without competence; by officials who could not countenance the removal of barriers; and by inadequate medical staff, who failed in some cases to apply even the most basic resuscitation techniques.

To have it confirmed that the death of a loved one might have been prevented is of little comfort to those who have spent the past 23 years mourning them. But the fierce sense of injustice felt by relatives as, over the years, the extent of the official cover-up has been gradually exposed will be assuaged by this official recognition of wrongdoing, and by the Prime Minister's words of apology in the Commons on Wednesday. Scanning through the reactions, we see that the anger remains, but there is now relief, too.

The Church is widely regarded as a source of comfort, and so the publication of the report in Liverpool Cathedral was fitting. But it was a lesson, too, in the nature of comfort, and the part that justice plays in coming to terms with tragedy. Remorse and the efforts to avoid any blame that followed Hillsborough do not go well together. The panel were careful not to use the term "cover-up", but it is hard to think of a better expression for the falsifying of 164 police statements and the removal from 116 of them of anything critical of the policing operation. Now that there is no longer anywhere for the police and the officials to hide, perhaps we will hear, at last, a proper expression of regret from those responsible.


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