Hillsborough and Orgreave - Questions of state power

Hillsborough and Orgreave

The final verdict of the Hillsborough inquest jury on 26 April 2016 has now established police responsibility for the 96 deaths in 1989. It took 27 years for the victims to get justice. The striking miners who were charged with riot at Orgreave in June 1984 are still waiting for an independent inquiry into police conduct. The Hillsborough verdict has reopened the issue of Orgreave, not least because the same police force was involved. Carol Brickley argues that these events are more than a question of police incompetence and corruption. What lies behind this contemptuous treatment of working class people are questions of state power.

Hillsborough – ‘a tanked-up mob’?

The scene of the Hillsborough disaster was the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in Sheffield in April 1989. When two central pens in the Liverpool stands became overcrowded and fans were already being crushed, police opened the stadium gates, adding to the lethal pressure. Liverpool supporters were already dying, but the police delayed the opening of escape routes on to the pitch and allowed only one ambulance into the ground, telling emergency crews that there was fighting inside. The dead and the injured had to be taken to the stadium’s gym where relatives were treated with cold contempt.

The cover-up of police responsibility began immediately. Lies were spread about drunken, ticketless, violent Liverpool fans. The Sunnewspaper and other media reported that the fans had robbed the dead and urinated on the police who were helping the injured. The sources for this slander were high-ranking officers in the South Yorkshire Police and the local Tory MP. The police ran criminal record checks on the dead in order to smear them. Working class football fans were the latest section of the population to be labelled ‘undeserving’ and ‘the enemy within’, just as black British youth had been vilified by police, media and the political elite following the uprisings of the 1980s and since.

The interim report of the government’s Taylor Inquiry into the deaths, despite finding the main cause was ‘a failure of police control’, repeated the slurs about hooliganism and drunkenness. Taylor’s main recommendation was for all-seat stadiums. Unprecedented ‘mini-inquests’ were held awaiting the Director of Public Prosecutions’ (DPP) decision on criminal prosecutions. These inquests tried to associate the dead fans with drunkenness in the minds of the jury, since the coroner insisted that the blood alcohol level of each victim, including children, were read out, even though they were ‘unremarkable’.

Alongside the Taylor Inquiry, West Midlands police were asked to investigate police actions on the day. This was another cover-up. South Yorkshire Police set up a group of officers to gather and present evidence favourable to their own version. This was the green light for the manufacture of perjured evidence. It emerged in 1997, eight years later, that police were ordered to write statements on plain paper instead of in their notebooks. 164 police statements were edited to remove anything detrimental to South Yorkshire Police. South Yorkshire Police’s ‘Wain Report’ to the Inquiry concentrated on the alleged behaviour of the Liverpool fans, producing a film, shown to MPs in the House of Commons, repeating the lies.

When, after a year, the DPP failed to bring criminal charges, the main inquest resumed. The coroner announced he would not hear evidence about events after 3.15pm because ‘no one could have survived after this time’, making evidence about police actions, the emergency services’ response, and the attempts by Liverpool supporters to rescue the dead and dying, inadmissible. Many victims were, in fact, still alive at 3.15pm and 58 of the 96 victims could have been saved had they received medical aid. All the lies about drunken, ticketless fans were repeated at the inquest. The coroner advised police officers giving evidence that they need not answer anything prejudicial. When families and survivors protested against the blanket verdict of accidental death, the coroner threatened to throw them out of the court.

In 1991 disciplinary action was taken against the senior police officer in charge on the day, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who later repeatedly lied about the fans breaking down the stadium gates when in fact he had ordered them to be opened. Duckenfield quickly retired on medical grounds, claiming depression, thereby halting the disciplinary action and allowing his retirement on a full pension. Other disciplinary actions against senior officers under his command were halted on grounds of ‘fairness’.

In response the families and survivors set up the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and Hillsborough Family Support Group and began their battle to overthrow the inquest verdict and open a new inquiry. Repeated legal actions were defeated. The Labour Party promised to review the grounds for a new inquiry, but within five weeks of getting into power in 1997, and despite new evidence about the doctored police statements, Home Secretary Jack Straw ruled it ‘unnecessary’. Prime Minister Tony Blair, in answer to the possibility of a new inquiry, wrote across the civil service note of the discussion, ‘Why? What is the point?’

It was not until 2009, 20 years later, that Merseyside MPs Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle called for the publication of all the documents and as a result the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) was set up to reinvestigate the deaths. In September 2012, HIP published its report and the evidence of a police cover-up was so clear that Home Secretary Theresa May launched a criminal inquiry and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) set up an investigation into police malpractice. Both these inquiries are ongoing following the new inquest verdict.*

The findings of the HIP were a devastating critique of ruling class contempt for working class people. Sheffield Wednesday FC did not have a valid safety certificate for its ground. Duckenfield’s actions were aimed at dealing with public disorder – ‘the tanked-up mob’ as described by Bernard Ingham, Prime Minister Thatcher’s press secretary. No evidence was found to support allegations against the fans, and the report found that high-ranking police officers were responsible for concocting the lies.

In December 2012 the first inquest verdict of accidental death was finally overturned. The presiding Lord Chief Justice, Igor Judge, asked that the new inquest should not be adversarial and should be held without unnecessary delay.

This was the signal for a long queue of dignitaries, media and institutions to apologise for their failures – David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Jack Straw, Tony Blair, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield City Council, South Yorkshire Police, the FA, the Sun and Sir Norman Bettison, among others. Boris Johnson, author of a vicious editorial in The Spectator magazine in 2004, apologised for defaming all Liverpudlians. Saying ‘sorry’ means nothing; it is the fashionable way for politicians to attempt to avoid the consequences of their perfidious actions.

The new inquest began in March 2014 and was to become the longest case ever heard by a British jury. Despite the plea for non-adversarial proceedings, the legal teams representing Duckenfield, South Yorkshire Police and the Police Federation continued to argue that the fans were ‘drunk and non compliant’. It took several days in the witness box at the second inquest for Duckenfield to admit his role and apologise to the families. Right up to the day of the final jury verdict – that the dead were unlawfully killed and that Liverpool supporters were in no way responsible for the disaster or its aftermath – none of the penitent apologists joined the Hillsborough campaigners in calling for criminal charges against the perpetrators, either individuals or institutions. The verdict has been a great victory for the tireless efforts of the Hillsborough families up against the callous, united scorn and contempt of the British ruling class. It is also a prelude to the ruling class washing its hands of the consequences.

Orgreave – ‘mob rule’?

Campaigners in the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign are now calling for a public inquiry into the events surrounding the mass picket on 18 June 1984 at the Orgreave coking plant during the 1984/85 miners’ strike. Some of the factors that led to riot and unlawful assembly charges against 95 striking miners and the serious injury of many of the pickets were ‘strikingly similar’ to Hillsborough five years later. The police leadership at Orgreave was in the hands of South Yorkshire Police, under the same Chief Constable, Peter Wright. Many of his officers and legal advisers were also at Hillsborough. Police evidence was fabricated. Many police statements had identical opening paragraphs designed to create evidence of a riot. Wright had decided in advance to bring riot charges if he could justify it. Author of the internal police review of the Orgreave events in 1984 was senior officer Walter Jackson. He was also assistant chief constable for operations at Hillsborough, for which he is now subject to IPCC investigation. All the resources of government and media were devoted to discrediting the miners. The BBC transmitted film footage of the events in the wrong order so that it appeared that police were responding to disorder; Mrs Thatcher called it ‘mob rule’ with the entire political establishment, including the Labour Party and TUC, backing her up. Striking miners were ‘the enemy within’.

Caught out by conflicting, unconvincing police evidence at the Orgreave riot trial, prosecutors were forced to halt the trial on the 48th day. Not before it had become clear that the police had issued no warning that they were about to launch a violent cavalry charge against the miners who were peacefully assembled in a field. Gareth Peirce, one of the lawyers who acted for the pickets, wrote in The Guardian:

‘No body of sane persons, after reading that account [transcript of the trial], could contemplate providing more powers to any cross section of police officers such as gave evidence at that trial, but instead would be alarmed as to how to deal with the terrifying aggregation of power to the police that has happened without attracting any real public notice.

‘Orgreave on June 18, 1984, revealed that in this country we now have a standing army available to be deployed against gatherings of civilians whose congregation is disliked by senior police officers. It is answerable to no one; it is trained in tactics which have been released to no one, but which include the deliberate maiming and injuring of innocent persons to disperse them, in complete violation of the law.’ (12 August 1985)

Thirty years later, in June 2015, the IPCC decided not to continue its investigation into criminal actions by police at Orgreave, despite evidence of assault and perverting the course of justice. The evidence, they said, ‘raises doubts about the ethical standards of senior officers at South Yorkshire Police at the time’, but ‘too much time has elapsed’.

Crocodile tears

Some would like to conclude that South Yorkshire Police represents a few very bad apples at the bottom of an otherwise healthy barrel of British policing. Some, like Andy Burnham MP, have argued that events such as Hillsborough could not happen again or that an investigation into Orgreave will begin to solve the problem of police violence and corruption. They are all mistaken.

The ruling class is reluctant but, in the end, content to sacrifice the reputation of a police force, to ditch its ‘heroes’, to apologise ‘sincerely’ for its failures, as long as, ultimately, state power can be wielded against any challenge to its rule. Opposition will be dealt with by force, lethal if necessary. The Bloody Sunday murders and framing of Irish prisoners were all ‘unjustifiable’ according to David Cameron. British involvement in ‘extraordinary rendition for interrogation and torture’ in the ‘War on Terror’ were ‘unfortunate’ according to Gordon Brown. But no one has any doubt that the ruling class under threat would, without hesitation, do it all again. In 1985 Gareth Peirce summed it up:

‘… Orgreave was never to do with the niceties of police powers, it was to do with power, absolute power, exercised at will ... By our silence, we have endorsed the existence of a militia.’

* Despite the inquest verdict, there is no certainty that prosecutions will take place. Between 1990 and 2015, there were 995 deaths in police custody or following police contact in England and Wales and 55 fatal shootings by police officers. In no case has any police officer been convicted of a criminal offence.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 251 June/July 2016


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