Thirty years ago British football witnessed the worst sporting disaster in its history. On the 15th April 1989, 96 men, women and children died Another victim of the crush in the Leppings Lane end of Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium, Tony Bland, a Liverpool supporter who was in the fatal crush, died from injuries he sustained that day, which placed him in a persistent vegetative state, died in 1993. He became the 97th victim of the disaster, but the true toll goes way beyond that.
Survivors of the disaster, the families of those who lost their lives and countless others have suffered three decades of needless torment. Some, were unable to bear the pain, and took their own lives. Meanwhile, energy that should have been spent rebuilding lives was instead devoted to fighting against an establishment that simply wanted to sweep the disaster under the carpet and move on.
Men, women and children carrying the unbearable weight of grief and loss were forced to become campaigners, study legal texts and relive the disaster in minute detail in courtroom after courtroom. It should never have taken two public inquiries, civil and criminal proceedings, two coroners inquests, an independent panel report and over 11,000 days to right the wrong that was done to these people and their community. However, despite all of that, that wrong has still not been put right.
The ‘not guilty’ verdict, delivered in a drab courtroom in the North West of England on the 28th November 2019, meant that the only man to face criminal charges for the deaths of all those people was acquitted. It also meant that families of the deceased and survivors had sat through days of testimony and evidence, much of which dredged up traumatic memories and rehashed long discredited theories and conspiracies, and all for nothing.
The coroners verdict had exonerated the supporters. It had found that David Duckenfield’s decision making and actions on the day directly contributed to the deaths of 96 people. It concluded that those who died – many of whom could have been saved had expert help arrived sooner – were unlawfully killed.
After the verdict in Preston, families are left asking, if Duckenfield is not guilty, just who was it that unlawfully killed our loved ones? The answers to that question will now have to wait. Further proceeding are pending and all of us will have to hold our tongues, something we’ve all dutifully done throughout this whole process.
Not so the internet trolls, however. This verdict has emboldened those who would once again seek to divert culpability to people whose names have long since been cleared – the supporters. As a result, the hurt and the pain is set to continue for people who have committed no crime, and who have behaved with such dignity and strength for so long. It is a national scandal.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, a healthy State would have wrapped its arms around them all. Every service and aid would have been placed at their disposal, justice would have been swift and learning would have been profound.
In a healthy State, the survivors would have been cared for from day one. They would have been offered the comfort and support necessary to rebuild their lives. Today, they and the families would be able to have made sense of the disaster and while they would never forget, they would be able to live in peace – perhaps enjoy life once more. Instead, they fight on, in needless pain and suffering.
Because, Britain is not a healthy State. Instead it is one that is deeply pathological. A healthy state treats all of its citizens equally, from top to bottom all people are equal in the eyes of the law, and institutions are accountable and act in a way that is caring and supportive when they get things wrong. A healthy state is open, transparent and holds its hand up when it falls short of the standards expected of it.
In a healthy State, government and institutions serve the people and answer to the public. The injured and bereaved do not have to fight for truth and justice. It is seen as a minimum standard, a legitimate expectation and a human right.
None of that is too much to ask. It was achievable in 1989 and it is today. The cost of delivering care and justice promptly is far less expensive than the protraction of agony, the intolerable suffering and the lining of lawyers pockets that has occurred during thirty years of injustice. Yet, to the establishment and the system it propagates, all of that is preferable to real scrutiny and accountability.
The British State is pathological, in my view, because in the face of catastrophe, it’s first instinct is to protect itself, the powerful and institutions. The need to do that far outweighs any other consideration. There are no lengths the State won’t go to in order to avoid taking repsonsibility.
Faced with the Duckenfield verdict, I am left with the seemingly inescapable conclusion that there is no equality before the law, only a pretence of it. Ordinary working people are clearly treated differently, and often with an indifference that borders on the callous.
When an anguished relative, struggling to cope with the enormity of the not guilty verdict, yelled out in court, pleading with the judge to tell him who unlawfully killed the 96, he was ignored and the court was simply adjourned. Those who have been so terrible wronged are left to pick up the pieces without succour from the State. They’re expected to find their own way in an uncertain future.
They facd yet more hardship and struggle. Meanwhile, the judge could find no words for this distraught a being, in pain, in his courtroom.
It should be beyond comprehension that the State and its institutions can be so lacking in basic compassion – yet none of this surprises any of us. My whole life has been spent witnessing evidence of the pathological State. I only really opened my eyes to it after Hillsborough, but it has been there all the time, and it doubtlessly predates me.
The list is endless, Bloody Sunday, The Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, Orgreave, Hillsborough and more recently Grenfell. In all these cases, we see the same pattern. A lack of openness and transparency, attempts to shift blame and even falsification of evidence in order to protect institutions and powerful figures. Justice is rarely served, and if it is at all, only after decades of struggle by people who lack the resources to fight.
Sometimes they struggle in isolation, often they are vilified and every obstacle is placed in their way. Only if they have the stomach to overcome all of that, can they get close to justice. However, even then, they can have it snatched from view in the final hour.
This should concern all of us, whether we are personally affected or not. For humanitarian reasons, sure, but not just that. Because the States pathology means that it never learns, things don’t improve and the injustices continue, handed down from one generation to the other.
Anyone who has lived through the aftermath of Hillsborough will have been horrified by the eerily similar patterns that have unfolded following the Grenfell fire. A complete failure to care for the victims by the government – many have still not been rehoused – compounded by attempts in the media to blame the victims and even the rescuers for the tragedy. And, two years on, many high rise buildings in the UK remain unsafe, despite evidence that they are covered in the same dangerous cladding as Grenfell. The pathological State doesn’t learn.
Its primary motive is self-preservation, and it is too remote to care about anything else. That is true today, and frankly it has been true for as long as I can remember.
The time for peace-meal reform is long past. The State is in need of fundamental reform, if not a complete revolution, which would allow ordinary people to hold the powerful to account and usher in a compassionate State. Only then will we be able to have faith in government and its institutions.