Ninety-six Liverpool football supporters died at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on April 15, 1989.
Twenty-three years later their families finally had an authoritative report of what happened, not only on that fateful day but over the course of inquests, an inquiry, civil litigation, a criminal investigation and a judicial review of new evidence.
Yesterday, after two years of combing through documents and video footage, the Hillsborough independent panel revealed the full, shameful extent of a concerted cover-up and failure to investigate.
Loss of life resulting from a catastrophic accident would have been traumatic enough, as relatives of the 66 people who died in the 1971 Ibrox disaster understand. But it was made worse at Hillsborough where recommendations to improve turnstiles and access had been ignored. That was compounded by operational failures of the police and ambulance services. Then insult was heaped, unforgivably, onto injury by the police who blamed drunken, ticketless fans for the disaster. This disgraceful self-protection extended to carrying out database checks in an attempt "to impugn the reputations of the deceased".
The independent panel found that 116 police statements were amended to remove or alter comments unfavourable to South Yorkshire Police. It is clear that the whole culture of the force was to defend their own actions, whatever the truth; fans who turned advertising hoardings into makeshift stretchers, for example, were accused of rioting.
Much has changed in police training over the last 20 years but accountability in the most difficult circumstances is the measure of professionalism and the lessons of this disgraceful episode must be absorbed by all UK forces.
As a result of what Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard aptly called "the shameful slandering of their actions by people who abused their position and power," the Liverpool families' loss has been an open wound for over two decades. Yesterday they received a wholehearted apology from the Prime Minister for what he admitted was the double injustice of the failure to prevent the deaths followed by the denigration of their loved ones. But the real prize is the statement that the Liverpool fans were not the cause of the disaster.
Now that has been established, it would be additionally negligent if it were the end of the matter. Publication of the entire report online is a significant move in providing the transparency that is necessary if those who fail in public duty are to be held to account. The weight of material in the report, especially the most disturbing finding that many more lives could have been saved, will reinforce calls for a new inquest by those who believe the verdict should not have been accidental death but unlawful killing.
There would also appear to be a case for criminal charges for manslaughter. There are technical difficulties but the possibilities should be seriously investigated. Thanks to their tenacity, the Hillsborough families have at last been presented with the truth. But they await justice and the legal system must strive to ensure they receive it.
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