by Hugh O’Connell
IT has been just over a month since the Hillsborough Independent Panel reported its devastating and lie-detonating revelations which have changed the way the disaster is now viewed by the wider British public.
There is now widespread acknowledgement that 23 years ago there was a stadium disaster that could have been avoided, that was poorly handled when it did happen and was the subject of a widespread and systematic cover-up in its aftermath.
The country acknowledged this and the apologies flowed. Two decades later, apologies do not heal wounds and do not make up for what happened to the victims, their families and the survivors of Hillsborough. However, they are a good thing and the news last week of the largest investigation into police misconduct in British history is also a welcome development.
But this article is about those who have not apologised and who have not acknowledged their culpability in the wake of the report’s publication. Their intransigence, be it intentional or otherwise, should not be ignored. In fact, it must be highlighted.
I am thinking of course of Sir Norman Bettison who, in his initial statement, sought to apportion blame on the fans, a despicable remark that was totally out of sync with the national mood of sorrow and sympathy for what happened at Hillsborough.
“Fans’ behaviour, to the extent that it was relevant at all, made the job of the police, in the crush outside Leppings Lane turnstiles, harder than it needed to be,” Bettison said in the third sentence of the first paragraph of his statement.
Days later there was a second statement issued, apologising for the first statement. But the prominence of his initial comments gave away everything one needed to know about the soon-to-be-retired chief constable of West Yorkshire Police and his thoughts on the disaster, even after the report’s findings.
The revelations about him, not just in the report but also in the supporting documents underline his significant involvement with Hillsborough and South Yorkshire Police’s response. Yet he has continually played down his role and at the same time claimed he has “nothing to hide” about it. Then why retire, Sir Norman?
But it’s not just Bettison.
What about Jack Straw? The Independent on Sunday’s examination of the 450,000 Hillsborough documents has exposed the former Home Secretary’s belief in 1997 that his promised scrutiny of evidence would not uncover anything that hadn’t already been uncovered. It was scepticism shared by Tony Blair and, astonishing, relayed to the judge that Straw appointed to head the scrutiny – Lord Justice Stuart-Smith – before the process even got underway.
Straw had conveyed his belief to the judge he had appointed that there was “not sufficient evidence to justify a new inquiry”. This made the scrutiny by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith merely perfunctory, barring the uncovering of new evidence. Ironically, evidence of a cover-up was heard but ignored by the judge in his findings.
Straw’s comments to Lord Justice Stuart-Smith were not only inappropriate, they were arguably prejudicial to the outcome, as prejudicial as Stuart-Smith’s infamous remarks about ‘turning up at the last minute’ to victims’ families.
Yet Straw’s only response to these revelations is to lay the blame at the feet of the judge he appointed for not doing a proper job. Sure enough he didn’t. But how could he have done when the government’s mind was, as the documents show, already made up? Straw needs to explain this. Arguably he needs to apologise for this. But he hasn’t. It is shameful behaviour.
Then there is Carol Gustafson, the chairwoman of Merseyside Police Authority when Bettison was appointed chief constable of Merseyside Police. She has some explaining to do but when contacted about the matter by the Liverpool Echo’s David Bartlett last week had only this to say: “I don’t want to talk about Norman Bettison at all, it was a period of my life that was hell. I really don’t want to talk about him.”
So from Councillor Gustafson there is no acknowledgement of the now highly questionable decision to appoint and later defend Bettison, no acknowledgement of the damning findings of the report and no responsibility taken for her decisions. Instead, we get a quote about how hellish it all was. It is shameful behaviour.
Then there is the current deputy coroner of Liverpool, Doug Fraser, whose comments about the Hillsborough families, whom he represented, wanting their “15 minutes of fame” among many other disgraceful remarks were highlighted by the Liverpool Post recently. Yet he has decided not to comment on that. In fact his only public comment to date appears to be him making clear that he has no intention of resigning his position.
Fraser sees fit to outline his employment status, yet not acknowledge in any way that his comments about the families were not appropriate, not right and not sensible. It is shameful behaviour.
Next there is Dr Stefan Popper, the coroner whose inquest verdict is now discredited and who has made no comment since the report’s publication, slamming the door on reporters who called to his house.
He was only too happy to defend his conduct and the inquest verdict in a revealing interview with the BBC three years ago in which he stated that those who died “suffered irretrievable damage that could not be remedied” before the 3.15pm cut-off point. An independent report blows that contention to pieces and says as many as 41 people had the potential to survive and yet Dr Popper has nothing to say about that. It is shameful behaviour.
Of course these people could argue that they are keeping quiet because of the potential for legal proceedings. But potential legal proceedings have not stopped a plethora of statements of remorse and apology from a host of organisations and people who could be in a lot of trouble when the examination of the panel’s report is completed by the relevant authorities.
Not commenting or worse still ignoring the findings of the Hillsborough report is not only wrong, it’s contemptuous and it is happening.
As long as it continues it needs to be highlighted because the lies of Hillsborough lasted too long and ignoring the facts now cannot be allowed to continue.