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Hillsborough, accountability and the police

After more than a quarter of a century of fighting to establish the truth, on 17 March 2015 family members of the 96 people who died at the Hillsborough football disaster heard the police officer in charge on that day state that his failure to act led directly to the deaths. On 11 March 2015, he admitted that he had lied for 25 years about how some fans had entered the ground. He apologised, and agreed that his previous claim – that some Liverpool fans had forced their way into the ground through an exit gate – was untrue. In fact he had ordered that an exit gate be opened, because of concerns about a crush outside the ground.

The inquests are still ongoing but many of the details of what happened on the day are already in the public domain, with the publication of information about the disaster by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (the HIP). The HIP report also sets out what happened afterwards, describing the process of inquiries and inquests which investigated the events of the day. Four investigations were started immediately: as well as an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (which eventually resulted in criticism of the safety of the football stadium), there was the Taylor inquiry, a criminal investigation and the Coroner’s inquests. These last three all relied on the same evidence, mostly collected by officers from West Midlands Police (and as the Hillsborough Independent Panel showed, there are serious questions about this evidence, particularly in relation to statements being amended, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is currently investigating some of these concerns).

The first of those three initial investigations to be published was the Taylor report, which was fiercely critical of the actions of the police (and which famously resulted in all seater stadiums in top flight English football). However, after Taylor, the Director of Public Prosecutions found there was not enough evidence to bring any criminal charges, and the original Coroners’ inquests resulted in verdicts of accidental death. Unhappy with the outcome of these last two investigations, and also the way in which they had been conducted (with an emphasis on drunkenness and violence by Liverpool fans), the families fought for further inquiries and proceedings to be held. This fight resulted ultimately with the work of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which started work in 2010 and completed its report in 2012.

After the HIP reported, it was clear that the decision of the original Coroner that all 96 people died by 3:15pm and could not be saved was wrong. The High Court ordered new inquests be held, and in March 2014, the hearings opened.

Throughout this long story, as the Bishop of Liverpool, the Chair of the HIP states in his foreword, the families have sought justice with determination and dignity.

The inquests are likely to go on until the end of 2015 at least, and once they have concluded, there will be the IPCC investigation and Operation Resolve (the criminal investigation into the disaster) to be completed. As with all inquests, the inquest cannot make any findings which determine (or appear to determine) civil or criminal liability, but after many years, the families of the deceased are finally having an opportunity to have many of their questions answered, and to put right some of the myths which were spread about what happened that day in April 1989. Is this a form of accountability in itself? E.L. Normanton, writing in 1971, said accountability is the liability to reveal, to explain and to justify. It is the requirement to answer questions about how things were done, and why they were done. It requires exposure of contradictions and challenges to accounts of ‘the truth.’ In this sense, the Hillsborough inquests might finally be providing a form of accountability.

However, the families should also not be denied other forms of accountability, such as criminal accountability, amidst policing cutbacks. Following the Bloody Sunday report in 2010, which found that Army officers had fired the first shots at civilians in Northern Ireland in 1972, and then had lied about it (for which the Prime Minister apologised), criminal investigations into the Army officers were opened. While that criminal inquiry is still ongoing, there are serious concerns about the effect of cuts to the police service on the chance of ever seeing any prosecutions.

It is very rare for the state to admit to failures. A recent report by the Institute of Race Relations looking at the disproportionately high number of deaths of members of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in state detention found that “despite critical narrative verdicts warning of dangerous procedures and the proliferation of guidelines, lessons are not being learnt; people die in similar ways year on year; and although inquest juries have delivered verdicts of unlawful killing in at least twelve cases, no one has been convicted for their part in these deaths over the two and a half decades of the research.” Privatisation of those services is making it more difficult to get explanations or accountability.

It took nearly 40 years for the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday to get an explanation and an apology. It took over 25 years for the Hillsborough families to get an apology from the match commander on the day. The long fight by these families is a fight on behalf of every single UK citizen – a fight to hold public bodies to account, to demonstrate that the rule of law applies to the actions of each and every police officer, soldier or prison officer, and to get the truth.