Landmark day as jury rules Hillsborough victims were unlawfully killed

Paul Hyland 26 April 2016

Kevin Williams was pronounced dead at 15:15 on April 15, 1989. He had travelled to Sheffield to watch his team take on Nottingham Forest in the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, a day which would claim his life. His late mother, Anne Williams, suddenly became one of the chief protagonists in a fight for justice that has lasted 27 years too many. Anne’s face will be a familiar one to anyone who has visited Anfield since, thanks to a Kop banner immortalising her as ‘The Iron Lady’.  

The connotations of that borrowed nickname are more than obvious. But in so many ways, it’s an image that sums up what this fight meant to so many of the Hillsborough families – a working class, grassroots movement pitting their collective might against the establishment, and winning.

At 16:00 that day, and contrary to the coroner’s report, Kevin Williams was alive, discovered in the arms of a policewoman and asking for his mum. He died shortly after. Determined that her son could have been saved, Anne dedicated her life to overturning a 1991 verdict that her son had died accidentally 45 minutes before he was seen still alive.  The decision prevented any investigation into the failure of the emergency services in the aftermath of the disaster. What followed was a battle for the truth that took her from the European Court of Justice to the High Court.  Today, the campaign reached its conclusion in a stopgap courtroom in Cheshire.  It’s the contribution of people like Anne that has finally set the record straight, as a jury of six women and three men today ruled that 96 people present that day were unlawfully killed.

As it happened, the policing of Liverpool’s Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest that day was disastrous in the most tragic sense of that term.  The longest inquest of its type in British history, which finished today after two years of evidence detailed how 10,100 Liverpool fans with standing tickets for the Leppings Lane end were fed through just seven turnstiles, and herded into the two pens directly behind the goal, with limited access to pens further along the stand that would have relieved the crush.  It heard how chief superintendent David Duckenfield, in charge of his first ever match at the ground, opted against delaying the start of the match to allow people more time to get in.  Instead, Duckenfield ordered the opening of an exit gate next to the stand to usher thousands more supporters into the Leppings Lane tunnel, into pens three and four which were already dangerously full.  At 14:59 the game kicked off.  Seven minutes later, as barriers collapsed and fans escaping the crush by climbing over fences and into stands above, the game was stopped.  

The South Yorkshire Police quickly settled on its narrative – the Liverpool fans had turned up drunk, ticketless and determined to see the game at any cost.  The fans rushing through the Leppings Lane exit gate had gained unauthorised access that the police could do little about.  Police reports that day were written on the watch of the higher-ups to ensure an across-the-force consistency in the South Yorkshire Police’s defence of its own practices, a defence which relied on dehumanising the victims of their own incompetence.  This was a disaster caused by the animalistic behaviour of a ‘tanked-up mob’, chief constable Peter Wright informed Margaret Thatcher and her press secretary, Bernard Ingham on April 16th.  That same day the Prime Minister was seen to assure one of the bereaved, in no uncertain terms, that there would not be a cover up.

Yet none of the evidence spoke in favour of the police’s chosen narrative.  BBC cameras captured images of Liverpool fans who had escaped helping to pull people out of the crowd, tearing up advertising hoardings to make emergency stretchers and administering CPR.  

Yet the story endured.  On April 19th, Kelvin Mackenzie’s The Sun newspaper printed a front page story headlined, “The Truth”, with three subheadings.

Some fans picked pockets of victims 

Some fans urinated on the brave cops 

Some fans beat up PCs giving the kiss of life.

The Sun’s smear campaign falsely accused Liverpool fans of attacking rescue workers administering emergency treatment, of ‘rifling the pockets’ of injured fans, and even shouting ‘Throw her up here and we’ll **** her’ to a police officer giving a young woman the kiss of life.

It fed an atmosphere in which the victims were to blame for their own deaths.  Relatives who arrived in the Hillsborough gymnasium-turned-mortuary to identify their loved ones were interrogated on how much the deceased had had to drink.  A coroner ordered the taking of blood from many of the victims, including John-Paul Gilhooley, who was just ten years old.  The vicious untruth that drunken fans had caused the atrocity fed from Peter Wright, down through the police force, into the media, Thatcher’s government and the judiciary.  A 90 day inquest in 1991 – then also the longest of its kind in British history – returned a verdict of accidental death.  Five years later, Bernard Ingham wrote a letter to Liverpool fan Graham Skinner, whose friend had died in the tragedy, asking ‘Who if not the tanked up yobs who turned up late determined to get into the ground caused the disaster?’ In a 2004 article in The Spectator, Boris Johnson caused outrage by accusing the city of Liverpool of wallowing in its own victim status in light of the disaster.

In the face of an apparently institutionalised prejudice against their cause, the Hillsborough Family Support Group’s sheer persistence and single-mindedness saw that version of events quashed in 2012, and a new police investigation called for as the Hillsborough Independent Panel determined that the fans could not have been to blame for the tragedy.  

Suddenly, everything changed.  A conservative Prime Minister issued an official apology in Parliament.  Boris Johnson was forced to retract his statements from eight years prior.  The Sun newspaper ran the headline: “The Real Truth”, describing itself as “profoundly sorry” for its reports on fans’ conduct – though despite that publication’s best efforts, it still finds itself widely boycotted on Merseyside.  Liverpool’s local rivals, Everton, paid tribute to the victims in a game against Manchester United the same month, with a rendition of he Hollies’ 1969 “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” played pre-match.  That Christmas a group of artists from Paul McCartney to Robbie Williams collected to record the song in aid of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, hitting the number one spot in the process.  A city united in grief was beginning to sense that the end was not so far away.

Amid a turning tide of public perception, victory was in sight in March last year, when Duckenfield admitted that his inaction was directly responsible for the tragedy.  

And now the finger of blame has shifted.  A jury has finally exonerated the fans from any culpability for the disaster.  The Crown Prosecution Service has since released a statement, pledging to “formally consider whether any criminal charges should be brought against any individual or corporate body based upon all the available evidence, in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors.”

It’s the end of a long road for so many of those who lost loved ones that day.  The Chair of Hillsborough Family Support Group Margaret Aspinall, exemplifies the indomitable spirit of a 27-year campaign.  She told the press outside the Warrington courtroom, “Our city always gets brought down but yet again it’s the tough people of Liverpool who have had to fight a cause that was so unjust, so unfair. We’ve done it and we’ve won it and I’m proud of every single one of them.

She continued, “We’ve been on some very bumpy roads, we’ve been climbing up mountains and never reached the top. We’ve got to the peak now lads! Every one of us has got to the peak of that mountain and got what we rightfully deserved. I knew in the end we will overcome them, they will not rule us.”