Hillsborough, 35 years on: the pain of injustice remains raw as ever

<span>A candlelit vigil outside St George’s Hall in Liverpool, the day after an inquest delivered the verdict of unlawful killing.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
A candlelit vigil outside St George’s Hall in Liverpool, the day after an inquest delivered the verdict of unlawful killing.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

On this spring day, 15 April, the clocks move round to 35 years since that terrible afternoon in 1989, when 97 people were unlawfully killed attending a prestige football match at Sheffield Wednesday’s home ground, Hillsborough.

English football will remember its deepest shame as a different age, the appalling crush on unsafe terraces with fenced-in “pens” for supporters, at a stadium nevertheless deemed suitable to host an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. A last disaster, after which clubs were finally forced by law – and given public money – to make their grounds safe, then sold their TV rights to Sky and grew rich on supporters’ subscriptions.

Related: Hillsborough disaster: the 97 people whose lives were cut short

But the families of those who died, and people who survived that crush on the Leppings Lane terrace, say the disaster remains raw today, as these many years have been consumed by a relentless fight for the truth and justice. South Yorkshire police built a narrative of toxic lies to evade responsibility for its grotesque failures, and instead falsely blamed the people who suffered from its negligence, Liverpool supporters. The Sun’s infamous publication of the most poisonous police lies is still cited by families and survivors as an enduring source of trauma.

The present-day disgrace of opposing supporters adopting those lies and taunting Liverpool fans with Hillsborough-related chants is a shocking modern blight on the culture of football.

The legal system, including some senior judges, repeatedly indulged the victim-blaming that the police had imprinted in the public consciousness, and failed to find for the truth. They forced families to mount a 25-year campaign against the notorious procedures of the first inquest, which produced a verdict of accidental death in 1991, until finally the new inquests determined in 2016 that the 96 people who had died by then were unlawfully killed. Andrew Devine, 22 when he sustained severe brain damage owing to oxygen deprivation in the Hillsborough crush, died in 2021 and was ruled to be the 97th person unlawfully killed. Yet the luminous justice outcome of the 2016 inquests was followed by failed criminal charges, that culminated three years ago with not a single person convicted for the unlawful killing of 97 people, or the police cover-up.

“Ninety-seven people unlawfully killed, not one person held accountable, how do you think we feel?” says Margaret Aspinall, the last chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG), whose son James was one of the 97. “We had to give up 30 years of our lives to fighting, otherwise they would have got away with it. It’s the worst scandal ever. All those lives lost, then we had the police against us, the media at that time, the government, we had a hell of a fight on our hands.”

Richie Greaves, 23 when he survived the crush in “pen” three at Hillsborough, says he has constantly struggled since, and was traumatised by giving evidence at the first inquest, where he was patronised for his Liverpool accent, and ridiculed by barristers for the police, who accused him of misbehaving.

“I had been so distressed about being falsely accused of causing the disaster, and I gave evidence to try and help the bereaved families. It was a dreadful experience. I left the court in a mess.”

Over the years Greaves found solidarity in campaigning against the cover-up with families and other survivors, and regularly visiting the Anfield shop run by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. He conducts talks in schools to educate young people but, as a match-going Liverpool fan, despairs of the slurs from opposing fans.

As recently as December 2023, the government finally responded after a six-year delay to the 2017 report by James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool, aimed at preventing future cover-ups. The families have long campaigned for a “Hillsborough law” as a progressive legacy, to impose a legal duty of candour on police and public authorities, and ensure properly funded legal representation for bereaved families at inquests. The government’s rejection of it hit the families another hard blow.

“Everybody was devastated,” says Theresa Arrowsmith, whose brothers Christopher and Kevin Traynor were killed at Hillsborough. “It was as if everything we worked for had been rejected. It grates, and stays with you.”

During the cruel campaigning years, bereaved people whose loved ones were among the 97 have grown old, and many have passed away, never seeing justice. Les Jones, an HFSG founder member, father of Richard Jones, who died at Hillsborough with his partner Tracey Cox, died last year. Mary Corrigan and Brenda Fox were also campaign stalwarts, sitting together at court hearings, seeking justice for their sons Keith McGrath and Steven Fox. Fiercely determined and, despite everything, warm and funny, they also died last year.

Mary Corrigan said of Keith at the 2014-16 inquests that, when he was born, “a love I had never experienced before surged out of me for him”. She told the packed, silent courtroom that she had always been tormented by irrational guilt because she bought Keith the semi-final ticket he had so wanted for his 17th birthday.

“My mum was a force, and fighting for justice gave her a cause,” says Anne-Marie Corrigan of Mary. “The inquest was very traumatic, she lost two of her brothers while it was going on, but she was so focused on it, fighting, and she never gave up on her kids. She felt the verdict was positive, and she was happy when we were told that prosecutions would go ahead.

“But those criminal cases were a disgrace. When the last case collapsed in 2021, it was like the last kick in the stomach. Mum fell apart, and her health fell apart.”

When Brenda Fox died last year her daughter Lynne paid tribute to her as “Warrior Scouse Mam”. Brenda, she said, gave up work so she could attend the Warrington inquests every day, and she never lost her resolve.

“My mum had an unwavering commitment; she always knew that the police stories and press reports were lies.”

Lynne then researched the disaster while studying for her degree in editorial photography at the university of Brighton, and the Observer published her portraits of family members and other people affected by the disaster, with an article by the screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, in 1996.

“Working-class people are told to trust people in power. When I realised it was all lies I lost respect for the establishment, and couldn’t bear to stay in the country. I moved to Canada, to get away from it – but you can’t get away from it.

“Our parents lost the rest of their lives, and for the siblings, you became the sibling of the person who died at Hillsborough. The main goal of our family had to be justice for our Steve. I have spent my adult life educating people about the truth of Hillsborough.”

The failures of the legal system meant it took 23 years before the tide turned with the landmark 2012 report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP), its lead author Prof Phil Scraton, who had worked since 1989 to document the truth. The panel was a political intervention, set up in 2010 by the then Labour government, led by ministers Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle, which was needed to unlock a miscarriage of justice that judges had maintained for a generation.

Within weeks of the panel report, senior judges accepted the case for quashing the first inquest, which their predecessors had turned down when the families appealed in 1993.

The new inquests began in 2014 and developed into a two-year adversarial battle, at a courtroom created in a glass-fronted office block on a plain Warrington business park. Police officers and their lawyers reran the false narrative blaming supporters, but this time it was fully challenged, exposed and wholly disbelieved by the jury. Unlike the first inquest, the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law meant the new inquest was an inquiry into the contravention of Article 2, the right to life, and whether state authorities had been at fault. That meant that the families were entitled to “exceptional funding” for a full team of lawyers, who fought fiercely for every detail. The families set the tone, opening proceedings with heart-rending personal statements about the people who had died.

On 26 April 2016 the jury reached its verdict of unlawful killing, due to gross negligence manslaughter by the South Yorkshire police officer commanding the match, Ch Supt David Duckenfield. They also concluded that the behaviour of Liverpool supporters was not a contributory cause; in fact the fans had behaved well, many heroically, trying to save people. This vindication, which had taken the legal system 27 years, was memorably hailed by family members, Brenda Fox front centre, singing You’ll Never Walk Alone outside in the sunshine.

But from that landmark, the families were sunk back into the system that had serially failed them. Duckenfield was acquitted of gross negligence manslaughter after two grim trials at Preston crown court in which some of the same police evidence discredited at the inquests was paraded again to new juries. The families, supported by their lawyers, had urged the Crown Prosecution Service to charge police officers with a conspiracy to cover up. The CPS rejected that and instead two former South Yorkshire police officers and the force’s former lawyer were charged with perverting the course of public justice by amending police statements. They were acquitted in 2021 after the judge ruled that it was not a valid criminal charge, because Lord Justice Taylor’s original 1989 public inquiry, for which the police statements were produced, was not a “course of public justice”.

Just a week later, South Yorkshire police and the West Midlands force, which was brought in to investigate in 1989 but was accused by families and survivors of supporting the cover-up, agreed to settle legal claims for misfeasance in a public office. That has produced yet another unfathomable contradiction in the 35-year morass produced by the legal system: two major police forces have conceded to a claim that they mounted a cover-up, but not a single police officer has been held to account for the edifice of lies.

Louise Brookes, whose older brother Andrew was among the 97 people killed, said that like many siblings she felt she had to be her family’s voice and carry the fight after her parents died. The justice process itself, the legal ordeals that followed the HIP report, triumph though the inquest was, have taken a great toll, she says: “The inquests stretched into two years because the police lied again; it was very difficult, but we had our lawyers and we were protected. But in the criminal process there’s no legal representation for victims, and we had to fend for ourselves. The Duckenfield trials broke me, they made me ill.

“Now I feel I can’t move on because there has been no justice or accountability. I was 17 in 1989, I’m 52 now. I feel like they’ve robbed me of my future.”

Tracey Robinson, whose brother Steven died at Hillsborough, says that her mother, Rose, another original campaigner, was always stoic, and it was only after she passed away in 2019, that they understood from reading her medical records the extent of mental anguish and depression she had suffered.

“My dad’s life was also devastated, as was our whole family’s. The impact continues today – and affects the next generation.”

Theresa Arrowsmith reflects on her mother, Joan Traynor, an HFSG founder member, who died in August 2010 after the HIP had been set up, but before its transformational report.

“It was devastating. She was so excited and hopeful when the panel started its work. My dad, Jim, died in 2014, before the inquest verdict. So many people died before they could see any justice for their loved ones; it’s so sad.

“The campaigning years were very hard and we survived together with other families, pooling our strength. We were vindicated by the panel report, then the inquests had a huge emotional impact – brought everything back. The verdict in 2016 finally made the public aware of the truth, but the criminal trials were very, very difficult.”

Considering the 35 years that have now passed since that terrible afternoon, she reflects: “Sometimes I look back at the campaigning and wonder if we really did all that. I still feel like I’m back in that day itself. I know that it will never leave me. I’ll never get over it.”