After 27 years of slander, lies and deceit, what many had known all along to be true has now become official. On 26 April 2016, an inquest jury sitting in Warrington found that the 96 men, women and children, fans of Liverpool Football Club, who died in the appalling tragedy at the Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield back in April 1989 had been unlawfully killed and that the fans’ behaviour had not contributed to their deaths.
For all these years, the official version of events had blamed the Liverpool fans attending the FA Cup semi-final that day, demonising them, and the working class people of Liverpool in general, as drunken thugs, for whom no type of behaviour was apparently too low.
Of the 96 killed, 38 were teenagers and the youngest was John-Paul Gilhooley, aged only 10. He was the older cousin of later Liverpool icon and captain Steven Gerrard. Included in the dead were a number of girls and young women, including a single mother and a pensioner. This was, in fact, a diverse crowd, highlighting the absurdity of the stereotype of drunken football hooligans causing trouble. (See Hillsborough disaster: deadly mistakes and lies that lasted decades by David Conn, The Guardian, 26 April 2016)
A powerful conspiracy
Powerful forces colluded to turn the attention away from where it should have been placed. Four days after the disaster, the Sun newspaper ran with the headline ‘The Truth’. The entirely fabricated story that followed said that fans had pickpocketed from the dead and urinated on the police. This served to back up the lies of the police by feeding their narrative.
Unsurprisingly, the BBC was the first media outlet to support the police propaganda. The game kicked off at 3.00pm, and, by 3:13pm, the TV match commentator had announced that fans without tickets had forced the gates. At 3:40pm on Radio 2, commentator Alan Green reported a broken down door. At 4:30pm, he said that “a gate was forced”. State police and propaganda were working in harmony.
This would mirror the police account given by the match’s police commander, David Duckenfield. He told then FA secretary Graham Kelly that fans had caused the deaths by gaining unauthorised entry through an exit gate. In fact, it was Duckenfield himself who had ordered the opening of the gate. The Liverpool fans only did as instructed by police in going through it.
But, for 27 years, the myth prevailed. At the inquest, Duckenfield finally broke and told the truth. He had ordered the gate be opened. Not only did he order the gate opened, but he turned up on the day as match commander with little-to-no knowledge of Hillsborough. He did not bother to familiarise himself with access, turnstiles or the capacity of certain sections of the ground. The police had caused the deaths.
The evidence built into a stunning indictment of South Yorkshire police, their chain of command and their conduct – a relentlessly detailed evisceration of a British police force. Responsible for a large English county, by the end of the 1980s, the force had recently brutally policed the miners’ strike, and was described by some of its own former officers as “regimented”. With morning parade and the saluting of officers as standard, it was said to be ruled by “an iron fist” and was institutionally incapable of admitting mistakes.
The dominant figure of Chief Constable Peter Wright, a decorated career police officer who died in 2011, loomed over the catastrophe. He was depicted as a frighteningly authoritarian figure who treated the force “like his own personal territory” and whose orders nobody – tragically – dared question.
As a result, South Yorkshire police were a particularly ruthless force. Officers did as they were told and never questioned authority. A culture of fear predominated.
But the buck does not stop with Wright or his lackeys on the day. The present-day South Yorkshire police force itself and the Police Federation also argued that Liverpool supporters outside the Leppings Lane end of the stadium could be found to have contributed to the disaster because “a significant minority” were alleged to have been drunk and were “non-compliant” with police orders to move back.
Yet survivors gave evidence of chaos at the Leppings Lane approach, where there was no atmosphere of drunkenness or misbehaviour, and no meaningful police activity to make orderly queuing possible in that confined and unsuitable space.
Many officers who made such allegations against supporters in their original 1989 accounts, which the force notoriously vetted and altered, maintained that stance under scathing challenge by the families’ barristers.
The deaths of 96 innocent people was to be only the first part of this horrific tragedy. The aftermath was nothing but a display of callous cruelty by the authorities.
Inhumanity of state forces towards the victims
First, the bodies of the dead were tested for alcohol, as the first attempts at a stitch-up were made. Even the dead children were tested in this way. Then the families of the deceased not only had to fight for 27 years to clear their loved ones’ names, but even the process of identifying the bodies was even more brutal than it ever had to be.
After the blood was extracted for alcohol testing, bodies were moved back to Hillsborough. The families were made to come to a mass identification, whereby they had to see all of the deceased. The parents of dead children were forbidden from holding or kissing them goodbye, as they were now “property of the coroner”. And they were questioned as if they and their families were criminals.
As the bodies lay lifeless inside the stadium, police constable Gordon Sykes sent a photographer outside to find evidence of alcohol in the surrounding bins. But his photographs showed mostly soft drink cans like Vimto, Sprite and Coca-Cola.
In an example of galling hypocrisy, Sykes confirmed that he had seen a local Conservative MP, Irvine Patnick, in the Niagara drinking club and asked him if he wanted to know “the truth”. He then took Patnick to several officers who told him that some supporters were “pissed out of their minds”, and that they were “pissing on us” and kicking and punching police during the rescue operation. “It was booze that did it,” Patnick recorded Sykes telling him in a note. “You speak up for us to tell them in parliament what happened.”
The astounding hypocrisy of this became plain as Sykes admitted it in court that this was all said in a bar. Even with the deaths of so many people, who were supposed to have been in their care, and with their distraught relatives and friends still scattered across Sheffield desperate for news, many police officers went for a drink when their shifts officially ended.
Those at the Niagara club included Duckenfield, Murray and other senior officers. Sykes confirmed, almost casually, that the police were “upset, shocked, and having a drink, and talking about their experiences”.
Throughout the inquest, a picture emerged of a drinking culture in the South Yorkshire police, with most stations at the time having their own bars. In the midst of a hard-faced culture in which officers rarely talked about their feelings, some drank heavily after the disaster. Police Federation minutes noted that officers “got considerably drunk” that night while bereaved relatives were queuing outside to enter the hell of the gymnasium – where police would interrogate them as to their drinking habits!
Duckenfield was one of several officers who developed a drink problem afterwards, describing himself sinking “half tumblers of whisky” in the mornings to enable him to read documentation for the Taylor inquiry, an interim investigation that published its supposed findings on 1 July 1989.
The extent to which the authorities and ruling class went on to lie, slander and attack working class football fans should serve as a lesson. The extent of the conspiracy, the numbers involved, the lengths taken and the duration over more than two-and-a-half decades is very telling.
If the state and its agencies would go to such lengths to blame working class football fans for their own failings in an instance of this kind, then to what lengths they would go to demonise and clandestinely organise against organised labour and those representing the political interests of the working class?
Parallels with the Battle of Orgreave
Some insight to the lengths taken by the ruling class and its state had been on display only five years earlier, and had involved the very same South Yorkshire police force.
At the height of the miners’ strike, some 5,000 members of that same force were deployed by the Thatcher government to attack the working class in what became known as the Battle of Orgreave.
Many things link the Battle of Orgreave and the Hillsborough tragedy:
- After Orgreave, the police were represented by solicitor Peter Metcalf against charges of wrongful arrest. Post-Hillsborough, Metcalf would again advise the South Yorkshire police.
- Deputy Chief Constable Peter Hayes and Assistant Chief Constable Walter Jackson are connected to both cases. Hayes ordered a review of the way evidence had been gathered about Orgreave and was later involved in coordinating the force’s evidence after Hillsborough.
- Jackson was given the job of reviewing the Orgreave evidence and was at Hillsborough to watch the FA Cup semi-final after signing off the policing plan. (See South Yorkshire Police: Same officers linked to Hillsborough and Orgreave, BBC News, 16 May 2016)
However, more important than the individuals involved were the wider forces at play. Both events occurred in a period of acute class struggle in Britain. The ruling class was particularly cocky and brash, and some of its most extreme elements were in office.
The US had Reagan; we had Thatcher. The USSR and the countries of eastern and central Europe were in the process of collapse and disintegration. Imperialism was advancing internationally, and at home the domestic working class took a kicking.
The Thatcher government used the police in militaristic fashion against different sections of the working class, miners, football fans, dispossessed youth, the black, Asian and Irish communities, and so on, with regularity.
David Conn, writing in the Guardian, summed up the links and similarities between Hillsborough and Orgreave as follows:
“The force, which needlessly devastated so many people’s lives, was described by its own former officers in evidence at the inquests in semi-military terms: as ‘regimented’, ‘rigidly hierarchical’, ‘an iron fist’, ruled by a fearsome, dictatorial chief constable, Peter Wright. To fully understand how a modern police force and its leadership in the late 1980s came to be so brutally, disastrously detached from the people it was responsible for serving and protecting, Orgreave is not only linked to Hillsborough, it is intrinsic.
“The central elements of both disgraces are chillingly similar. First – contrary to media coverage which demonised the victims, cheer-led in both cases by the Sun – the police were at fault.
“At Orgreave, a coking plant near Rotherham, on 18 June 1984, a mass picket by the National Union of Mineworkers was met with a 5,000-strong military-style force, whose violent attack strongly appears to have been pre-planned by South Yorkshire police. Miners and their communities, a generation on, still bitterly resent the brutality with which they were attacked by an orchestrated cavalry charge, followed by officers wielding truncheons to their heads …
“Second, as they did in 1989 after the Hillsborough semi-final descended into horror, the South Yorkshire police created their own narrative about the Orgreave ‘battle’, blaming the miners in an apparently concerted campaign of vilification. Their briefings in both cases were aimed at a sympathetic hearing from favourable media and the government, up to the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, herself.
“Told the partial account of what happened at Orgreave, with the police alleging that miners violently attacked first, she supported the police absolutely, and denounced the miners as ‘mob rule’. After the deaths at Hillsborough, following a briefing from Wright, Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, has always used the very same word, saying he ‘learned on the day’ that Liverpool supporters had been a ‘tanked-up mob’.
“Third is the allegation that both South Yorkshire police operations were followed by a concerted falsification of evidence, and a cover-up. After Orgreave, South Yorkshire police prosecuted 95 miners for riot, but the case collapsed after defence barristers alleged in court that police officers were lying and had fabricated evidence.
“After the Hillsborough disaster, South Yorkshire police officers were given an unprecedented instruction not to write in their official pocket notebooks; then 164 officers’ accounts, written instead on plain paper, were amended. The same solicitor who advised the force on that process also acted for it on the settling of miners’ civil claims after Orgreave, and he can now be named: Peter Metcalf …
“The new detail, though, only adds ballast to the central, overriding truth: the same force, with the same chief constable and many of the same senior officers, was responsible for both outrages.” (Op cit)
The extent of police wrongdoing and brutality at Orgreave has been further illustrated by the words of former policeman Sir David Fahy. He alludes to the fact that the issue goes beyond the police alone, whilst stopping short of identifying the true cause: namely, capitalism and the nature of the bourgeois state as an instrument for the minority to repress the majority.
As the Guardian reported: “Sir Peter Fahy said the police attitudes that caused public outrage last week, following the Hillsborough inquest verdicts, were fostered by events such as the government using officers to crush one of Britain’s bitterest industrial disputes.
“Fahy retired in 2015 as chief constable of Greater Manchester police, one of Britain’s biggest forces. He said the use of police to serve a political agenda in the 1980s created a ‘them and us’ culture, evident in the police response at Hillsborough. The legacy was still causing damage to the reputation of the police today as well as grief to families on the receiving end, he said.”
Fahy continued: “It’s time for a public inquiry into the policing of the miners’ strike, not just Orgreave and the role of the police, but also the role of politicians. We need to look at the wider context of the way the police were used and the agenda set for them by government. Clearly it was about, in effect, national control of the police, in pursuit of a political agenda at the time.
“We need to look at the way police in those communities were used as an army of occupation, created a culture of them and us – which people are concerned about at Hillsborough. The way the police force was used at that time helped to create a damaging culture.
“The concern about Hillsborough is that the police saw it as an enforcement role and not public safety. If you are wondering how that came about, it’s about the culture created in the 1980s, from the inner city riots, to the policing of the miners’ strike, where the police then saw it as about enforcement and controlling role rather than a public safety role. Where did those attitudes [at Orgreave] come from? If you want to look at Orgreave you need to look at the wider context.” (Former chief constable calls for public inquiry into Orgreave clashes and beyond by Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, 4 May 2016)
For our part, we congratulate the Hillsborough families for their heroic and tenacious fight for justice in the face of the conspiracy against them and their loved ones. Their dedication and sacrifice is a worthy example for emulation. They must be applauded.
We are delighted that their names have finally been cleared, although their names were always cleared in the mind of right thinking workers, even as the ruling class and its institutions desperately clung to their lies and distorted history. Finally, the myth is shattered. But the battle should now move to the criminal court, so that at least some of the guilty parties might pay for their role in the deaths of 96 innocent people.
Similarly, whilst the cases against the miners following Orgreave collapsed, it is charges against the police that should have been brought forward. This has yet to happen.
The battle for justice for Hillsborough and justice for Orgreave are two fronts in the same war with a single enemy. That enemy is not simply South Yorkshire police, who are but one thuggish detachment of the wider enemy, but British imperialism itself and its violently anti-worker state.