A memorial to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster (Picture: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Hillsborough justice campaigners have slammed an apology from the police over three decades after the disaster as “too little, too late”.

Sheila Coleman, Hillsborough Justice Campaign founder, told Socialist Worker, “It’s very disappointing—I’m underwhelmed. An apology 34 years on has no teeth. Apologies are devalued when no action is taken on the back of it. And they’re apologising at an institutional level—it’s not about rooting out a few bad apples. It’s a rotten institution.”

Some 97 Liverpool football fans died as a result of a crush in April 1989 at Sheffield’s Hillsborough ground. The resulting decades have been filled with lies, scapegoating, cover-ups and avoidance of accountability from the top.

The National Police Chiefs Council and the College of Policing’s joint apology this week was in response to a 2017 report into the failings at Hillsborough. 

“It’s hardly the most radical document—it was commissioned by Theresa May when she was home secretary. Yet it’s taken them into a sixth year to apologise,” Sheila added.

Chief Constable Andy Marsh, executive officer of the college, said, “For what happened, as a senior policing leader, I profoundly apologise. Policing got it badly wrong.” On behalf of all 43 police forces, Marsh promised “cultural change” and apologised for “profound failings” that have “continued to blight” relatives of those who died.

Sheila said that the fact the apology didn’t extend to survivors “shows the ignorance” of those at the top. “The role of the survivors has been long documented—they saved people’s lives and their evidence was crucial to the inquiries,” she said. “They’ve been left traumatised, some have even died by suicide since. And there’s not even a nod to their experience.”

A public inquiry in 1990 found that South Yorkshire Police (SYP) allowed thousands to enter the stadium through a single tunnel with no plan in place. And stories of ticketless and drunk fans had been fabricated to shift blame.

But the following year the coroner ruled “accidental death” in all cases. This was overturned in 2012 after 20 years of campaigning when a panel found that full blame for the disaster lay with SYP. 

And in 2016 a new inquest found the victims had been unlawfully killed due to gross negligence. But not a single officer has been charged with the deaths or suffering they caused.

“There’s no consequences and accountability with this apology,” Sheila explained. “There’s no ongoing cases. They’re not risking liability. Why apologise now? It’s because of the bad press the police have had.

“It’s them saying, ‘Yeah we get things wrong but at least we’re acknowledging it.’ It’s not enough—it’s just so they can kick us into the long grass.”

Sheila thinks the police have a “lack of regard for individuals suffering”. “I look around and see the pain caused. I know that survivors and friends see this as just another kick in the teeth,” she said. “The damage that’s been done is heartbreaking. The apology makes me angry, but it doesn’t surprise me. 

“But we have to see it in the wider context of the state we live in. It’s a class issue we’re fighting, and it always has been.”

The apology promises to learn from Hillsborough, with “cultural shifts” , new “codes of conducts” and “guidelines”. “We already know there needs to be a cultural shift,” Sheila explained. “Just look at the Met police the last few weeks and the number of women abused by serving officers. They’ve got nothing in place to make these changes happen,” she said. 

Bereaved, survivors and campaigners have been pushing for a Hillsborough law. It would protect victims of state-related deaths and create a new duty for public authorities to compromise with investigations.

“The apology could’ve urged the government to push on with this,” Sheila added. “Maybe with legislation a culture shift would be quicker. But within the political context we’re not going to get much when our rights are being eroded.”

The Public Advocate (No 2) Bill, which would set up an independent representative for bereaved and survivors of public disasters, was denied a second reading on Friday. It was just days after the apology.

From Hillsborough to Grenfell and deaths in custody, Sheila says, “We can’t see these things in isolation.” “These disasters didn’t just happen years ago—they’re still happening now and new things are happening all the time,” she said. 

Sheila says that over 34 years she’s “learnt from other campaigns and we’ll be there for others”. “It’s been hard when nothing seems to be happening,” she said. “I’d look at the Bloody Sunday campaign and think how long they’d been going to draw support and comfort. 

“That’s so important. What the state hates more than anything is people relating to a whole range of disasters. It’s powerful when we find the commonality.”

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