Who's to Blame?
Hillsborough means different things to different people. To many in Northern Ireland it represents the seat of British power in the 6 counties: Hillsborough Castle... the site of a number of significant agreements and declarations between the British and Irish governments over the past 30 years... But to Liverpool fans such as myself it is a football stadium that is etched on their hearts and minds.
I grew up following Liverpool through the glory days of the 70's and 80's - The latter years of the 80's however, were overshadowed by 2 huge disasters... In the 1985 European Cup Final at the Heysel Stadium where 39 of the opposition Juventus fans were killed, and the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium Disaster where 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.
In the former case the blame initially fell exclusively (and understandably) on Liverpool fans, but later investigations also blamed UEFA for failing to heed warnings re the poor repair of Heysel, and the police for poor crowd control. Investigations of the latter also pointed the finger at the unsuitability of the Hillsborough Stadium at the time of the disaster and poor crowd control by the police, but it has always been suspected that the South Yorkshire police were, from the start, putting the blame on "drunken Liverpool fans." Many accused them of being the "source" of the Sun's infamous front page "Truth" and suspected that they were briefing then PM Margaret Thatcher along similar lines... However yesterday's leak of government papers suggests that it was actually senior police officers from Merseyside who were suggesting this at an early stage, and conneting it with the Heysel disaster.
The desire for truth to be disclosed is always important in any death, be it the death of an individual even from natural causes, where I have often had to respond pastorally to someone who feels that they or someone else could have done more to prevent the death of their loved one, or with more headline-grabbing events, be it disasters such as these or terrorist attacks. This can sometimes get confused with attribution of blame, indeed the fear that someone may be blamed for a death or disaster should the truth get out will often lead to them trying to shift the blame and obfuscate the truth. This happens in hospitals, in sports disasters such as the above and in trying to recover the truth of what happened in the troubles. Some times there are specific people who deserve the blame and should shoulder the responsibility alone... But more often, the story is much, much more complicated.
It is not popular to say among Liverpool fans that drunken supporters turning up late with, or without tickets probably contributed to the Hillsborough disaster - but there seems to be some truth in it, and does not let the South Yorkshire Police off the hook for the appalling way that they handled the event and its aftermath... Any more than the culpability of UEFA in using Heysel for the 1985 European Cup Final lets the drunken Liverpool fans involved in rioting off the hook for their part in the deaths of 39 Juventus fans.
And as we look at the past here in Northern Ireland, the admission of institutional bigotry in the Northern Irish state prior to 1969, and culpability and (perhaps) collusion by British (and Irish) governments/forces in terrorist activities, does not let off the hook those in paramilitary organisations and individuals who took the lives of over 3000 people in the troubles here.
But if it is important to know the truth behind footballing disasters in order to prevent them happening in the future and to help the bereaved rebuild their lives, how much more important should it be to know the truth about the past in the rolling disaster that was Northern Ireland? It is too easy to blame the "men and women of violence" who have generally grown up in areas of poverty, conflict and contested space, with low educational achievement and poor employment prospects. What we also need disclosed is what was discussed in the corridors of power in Hillsborough Castle, Downing Street and elsewhere...