By Mark Frankland
HOW did I feel as I watched Cameron make a speech none of us really believed we would never hear? Shock of course. I think all of us were shocked. But here’s the thing. I very much doubt if any of us who were there at Hillsborough twenty three years ago were shocked at any of the contents of the speech. Why would we be? Almost everything that was revealed was something we knew already. Fair enough, we didn’t know the precise details, but we saw what happened in real time. It was played out in front of our eyes.
One of my abiding memories of the disaster was the reaction of the Nottingham Forest fans. They were packed into the Kop, a good 120 yards from where the life was being crushed out of 96 souls on the Leppings Lane. It took them only a matter of minutes to suss out that something catastrophic was going down at the other end of the ground. What did they do? Like all the fans that day, they did the right thing and climbed the fences to rip off advertising hoardings and leg it across the grass to help out their fellow fans as volunteer stretcher bearers. So what did the cops do? They formed a line across the pitch complete with snarling dogs to stop the Forest lads getting to where help was needed. They formed a cordon.
Why? Was every one of those coppers intrinsically evil? I very much doubt it. They did it because they were told to do it. Whoever was calling the shots ordered them to form a line and hold a line. And cops like soldiers are hard wired to follow orders. It always seemed only logical that many of these cops would have had a lot to say about the orders they were given once the dust had settled and the debriefings got under way. But we never got to hear how they felt because they had obviously been gagged. All Cameron did was put a number on it – 168 – and reveal how these guys had indeed made their opinions known only for those opinions to be deleted from the official version of the day.
It was the same with the ambulance issue. I can clearly remember thinking why in the name of Christ is there only one ambulance on the pitch? There was no logic to it. Hillsborough is close to the centre of the fourth largest city in Britain. It has to be close to a hospital. It’s a Saturday afternoon so the roads will be quiet. And let’s face it, British ambulance drivers are generally pretty shit hot when it comes to getting from A to B in a hurry. So if one had made it from ambulance station to stadium, then why not more? It made no sense. What did make sense was the fact that there was a line of thirty or forty cops complete with dogs trying to contain the dying from those trying to keep them breathing.
The drunkenness thing? That was always sickeningly obvious. Football fans back then were just viewed as caricatures. Thatcher was hell bent on the idea of making it a legal requirement that we should only be allowed to travel to and from games on the condition that we carried an ID card. There were no other groups in late 80’s Britain who were deemed so bad as to deserve such special treatment. Released prisoners? Nope. Known IRA members? Nope. Those convicted of public order offenses and assault? Nope. Any Tom, Dick or Harry who was deluded enough to want to get in their car and go to watch their team? Absolutely. That is how bad the State was sure we were. We were rabid, uneducated, violent, drunken hooligans who needed to be treated differently to everyone else. That’s why we were locked into cages. That’s why we herded round town by Alsatian dogs and police horses.
So it came as no surprise when they played the stereotype drunken mob card as their trump. Of course they said we were all pissed out of our heads and hell bent on wreaking havoc. That is how we had been portrayed for years. It was an effective lie to tell because it was a lie that the country had been spun for years and years. Of course the thing was down to us. How could it not be? I mean look at who we were. We were football fans. We were by and large young and male. We were from the North. I doubt if one in twenty of us would have ever have voted for Thatcher. And we were from Liverpool, that endlessly pesky city by the sea that had been sticking two fingers up at the establishment from John Lennon to Derek Hatton to ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ We knew only too well what the press would say. We were Yosser Hughes. It was always going to be our fault. Blame it on out of control, drunken Scousers. Christ they must have been so pissed off when the autopsies failed to reveal the expected sky high levels of blood alcohol in the bodies of the victims. No wonder they covered that bit up. My experience of being a young man following Liverpool through the 1980’s has always made be feel a kinship for anyone unlucky enough to be a young Asian male in the years after 9/11
So, no. I wasn’t shocked by the revelations. I doubt if any single person who was in the ground that day was shocked by any of the detail. Except of course for the unforgivable fact that 41 may have lived if given medical care in time. That really was a shock.
What was truly and utterly shocking was the fact that the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was actually saying it. That was quiet frankly unbelievable and almost unprecedented. And to give the guy his due, he pulled no punches. He just laid it all out. The families and fans were right. The Establishment was wrong. What was done was an utter disgrace and we are truly sorry.
I can never remember that happening before.
We threw tens of millions at an Enquiry to look into Bloody Sunday and never even came close to digging out the truth. From time spent in Ireland researching various books as well as talking to a number of Ex Paras, I am pretty sure I have a decent handle on what went down that day. And I’m bloody certain that everyone in Derry knows as well, but despite everything the cover up managed to hold. There was an apology of sorts. It kind of ran ‘we might have done something wrong but we’re not really sure. If we did, then we might have crossed the line a bit, but they were difficult times.’
Many of the revelations got me to thinking about stuff from the dim and distant days of my History A level. Christ. Long, long time ago. In the various discussion forums there was a feeling that this kind of long term cover up was unprecedented in its duration and magnitude. What a load of crap. Cover up is one of the areas where Britain has always been a world leader. Look at the wall to wall hammering the Germans get for World War 2 and the Yanks get for Vietnam. You only need to take a glance at the schedule for the Documentary Channel on any given night to bear out this particular blindingly obvious truth. We managed to commit a horrendously long list of crimes against humanity during 300 years of our Empire, and yet we barely get slagged off at all. Ah but surely we weren’t as bad as the Germans and the Yanks and Al Queda. Oh no? 15 million men, women and kids chained up and shipped into slavery to be worked to death in the West Indies? The average lifespan of a slave starting work in on a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1642 was shorter than that of a Jew getting of the train at Aushwitz Birkenau in 1942. Not a well known fact. Of course it’s not. Because we’ve covered it up. It’s what we do.
My drift back to A Level History took me to the Amritsar Massacre of 1919. Those were the days of India being our ‘Jewel in the Crown’. Not for the first time, the Indians were pretty pissed off with being British subjects. Five years earlier we had proposed a deal. Tell you what guys, if you will come over to France and help us fight the Germans, then we will take a long hard look at a spot of Independence for you once we’ve seen off the Hun. So they came on board, died in their thousands in the trenches, and when the survivors went back home they took Spanish Flu with them. And 17 million died. All of which made it kind of understandable that the Indians were somewhat agitated when they asked us to hold up our end of the Independence promise only to be told that it was out of the question. Did we really say that old chap? I really don’t think so. Surely not! I think you must have got your wires crossed you dear old thing.
So was time to demonstrate. To get a few mass rallies on the go. I suppose some subconscious part of my brain must have registered the date when 15,000 of so Punjabis gathered in a garden in Amritsar on a sunny afternoon to demonstrate their hopes for Independence. It was 14th April 1919. Almost seventy years to the day before we gathered to watch an FA Cup semi final in Sheffield.
Our man in charge was Brigadier Reginald Edward Henry Dyer and he had had quite enough of the jumped up antics of the residents of the city he had control of. It was time they learned a lesson: the hard way. He made his way across town to the garden where the rally was in full swing. The garden was well enough known. It was contained by high walls with only two narrow gates allowing people to get in or out. A little like the Leppings Lane End, only easier on the eye. The narrow gates caused Dyer some frustration for they were not wide enough for him to deploy the two armoured cars he had brought along for luck. Undeterred, he lined up his fifty Ghurkas and told them to start shooting.
Later he was asked if it might have been possible to disperse the crowd without resorting to gunfire. Here’s what he said.
“I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a
fool of myself.”
Well there you go then. An officer and a gentleman cannot be making a fool of himself. At first, the Ghurkas took it as written that when Dyer gave the order to ‘fire’ he really meant ‘fire over their heads and give them a warning.’ So they started firing over the heads of a rapidly panicking throng. Well you really can’t get the staff can you? How frustrating it must have been for Reggie. How simple does an order need to be? He soon put that spot of nonsense right.
“Fire low. What have you been brought here for?”
So they fired low. They fired 1650 rounds of ammunition. In fact they fired until they had not a single bullet left. 97 years later and the cover up is still holding nicely. The official number of dead was put at 379. 1650 bullets fired at point blank range into a crowd of 15,000? 379 seems on the low side, especially when it became clear that more were crushed to death in the ensuing panic that were actually killed by gunshots. The Indians have always been adamant that the real death toll was between 1000 and 1500, but they have never been able to get hold of the paperwork to prove it.
The British authorities in Dehli were able to shove the whole event under the carpet so successfully that the British press never got a whisper until four months had passed. However, once the cat was out of the bag an enquiry was unavoidable. The equivalent rag to ‘The Sun’ back then was ‘The Morning Post’. Was it shock and horror and how could we do such a thing? Was it buggery. The Post painted Dyer as a hero of Empire and granted him the title of ‘Saviour of India’. When he retired a year later and came back home, the paper organised a whip round from its readers and raised £26,000 for the old boy to retire on. He was given one or two uncomfortable moments at the Enquiry, but he managed to pretty well play a straight bat. At one point he was asked why he was asked if he had made any efforts to help the wounded and dying.
“Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there.”
He was also quizzed on the issue of his armoured cars and those annoyingly narrow gates.
“Supposing the passage was sufficient to allow the armoured cars to go in, would you have opened fire with the machine guns?”
“I think probably, yes.”
“In that case, the casualties would have been much higher?”
Much like those who commanded the South Yorkshire Police at Hillsborough, Dyer was able to retire in peace. No doubt his £26,000 from the Post ensured he never had to worry about being able to afford the price of a stiff gin or two in the club.
The cover up was easy enough to put in place. The dead Indians were stereotyped as violent terrorists who threatened to tear down the very fabric of society. Much like football fans all those years later. They needed to be treated with a heavy hand, not kid gloves. At the enquiry Dyer confirmed that his orders had clearly demanded that he “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.”
A bit like the orders passed down to the Paras in the lead up to Bloody Sunday. And the South Yorkshire Police? No doubt they were told in no uncertain terms to stand no nonsense from 20,000 visiting Scousers, all hell bent on causing havoc.
In 1997 the Queen visited the park where Dyer had delivered his own particular version of hell on earth. Surely some sort of apology was in order. After all, things are different now. The Indians are a vital export market. Well, they did get an apology? Of sorts.
“It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past – Jallianwala Bagh, which I shall visit tomorrow, is a distressing example. But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”
No much of an apology is it?
Which is why I was so profoundly shocked when were given such a profound and absolute apology on Wednesday afternoon. And for that, every one of us who was there that afternoon needs to take our hats off to the families who have fought long and hard to make it happen. And all those who stuck by the families. And the Kop. And the Evertonians. And Kenny and Marina Dalglish. And yes, Sir Alex Fergusson. And all the journalists who refused to allow the news to become old news. And Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham. And most of all, the endlessly proud and awkward people of Liverpool.
The city that never, ever backs down.
It takes one hell of a lot to make the British Establishment back down, give up its secrets and say sorry. Properly.
Well we did it. All of us. We never forgot the 96. It took us 23 years, but we got there in the end.