History,  Sports,  UK Politics

Hillsborough 1989: Why does it matter?

Guest post by Cipriano

Monday evening the Commons held a debate on the public release of the papers relating to the handling of the Hillsborough disaster on April 15th, 1989, in which mishandling of a football crowd caused the deaths of 96 people, most of them young.

There were two essential reasons why this remains a live issue in 2011: the suspicion that the police engaged in a coverup and a disinformation exercise which has remained secret until this day; and the fact that the incident has passed into the powerful folklore of Liverpool Football Club. (Declaration of interest: I, like the 96 dead, am a die-hard LFC supporter.) It has taken a very long time to convince successive governments that the truth needs to be unearthed.

Frank Field MP, who used his highly respected status to make a telling contribution, said it was one of the best debates he had ever participated in. Nonsense, of course, though well meant. There was no debate, though there were many moving speeches and Mr Field was right in the sense that it showed the House at its best. To her credit, Home Secretary Theresa May stated clearly that all documents would be released, and many other Tories spoke in support.

Perhaps fortunately, nothing was seen of Mr Christopher Chope, Tory MP for Christchurch, who had attempted to block the debate and replace it with a discussion of MPs’ pensions. Mr Chope, a prodigal expenses warrior who has spoken for the death penalty and against the minimum wage, and who blocked a motion (supported by his own party) to curb the activities of so-called “vulture funds” speculating in the debt of poor countries to fleece them mercilessly, is clearly trying to position himself as Mr Scrooge. He knew Monday would not be his night. (Coincidentally, no doubt, the man in charge of the Hillsborough police on 15th April 1989 is now one of Mr Chope’s constituents.)

But given this was a debate which no one dared oppose, did we really need it? Yes, we did. The need is to establish why the police felt they had to provide false information about fans’ behaviour (they were all drunk, they robbed and urinated on the dead) to The Sun and others, while the Taylor inquiry has already established that police mishandling of the situation was mainly at fault.

Now we all know that the police in such situations are under great pressure, and that they may well make mistakes. No one would wish to crucify police officers who may have made unwise decisions under the pressure of events. That is one thing; covering it up for 22 years is another. The problem is that some policemen behave as if they were in the People’s Republic of China. There it is the government’s job to cover up for the police and trample firmly on any criticism. That might have been our government’s view in 1989. Thank goodness it isn’t now. But even after the papers have been released, some of us will want to know the background to the extended coverup.

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