Justice, finally: a Hillsborough survivor’s story
Adrian Tempany was at Hillsborough in 1989. Last week he was in Warrington to see the inquest jury deliver its verdict, and a community’s struggle against injustice finally win out
After 27 years, justice came in a few short moments. At just after 11am last Tuesday, Sir John Goldring took his seat in a specially converted courtroom in Warrington, to silence. There was no preamble from the coroner today; not even a perfunctory greeting. As the microphone sputtered to life, the most controversial inquests in British history were about to come to an end. After two years, and nearly 300 days of evidence, from almost 1,000 witnesses, everything would rest on 14 questions – and on six women and three men from Warrington. The jury had given up two years of their lives to resolve this most bitter of disputes. Now, they were restricted to uttering a few simple words in response to the coroner. “Yes,” “No,” or “It is”. But with those four words, they would rewrite history.
A few hundred yards from court, across the Birchwood industrial park, in building 401, I was one of 200 people – survivors, the bereaved, and other campaigners – who filed into an annexe to watch a stream of the verdict, broadcast live. As we waited, quietly, a member of the inquest secretariat arrived to inform us that the annexe was technically a part of the courtroom itself: we should therefore show no emotion as the jury’s determinations were announced. We ask you to be quiet and dignified, she said. A few seats along from me, Damian Kavanagh, a friend and fellow survivor, muttered: “We’ve been dignified for 27 years.”
Eventually, the camera wobbled into focus, and the face of Sir John Goldring appeared. Unseen, off camera, the forewoman confirmed that the jury had arrived at its determinations to all 14 questions. Within moments, the debate over Hillsborough would be settled, once and for all. Here it was, in front of us on a TV screen – justice, finally. Like an intravenous drip – delivered drop by drop.
I was 19 when I went to Hillsborough, to watch my team play an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. A man, but in many respects still a boy; crushed to the brink of death behind the steel-mesh fence of pen 3. Many of the 96 died within feet of me. I survived, but, unable to move any part of my body from the neck down in the crush, I could do no more for these people than watch them die. I owed it to them to witness their final moments, to bear testimony; but I never thought I would live to see this day.
I am sitting with my girlfriend, Deb, who was my girlfriend that day, and has seen me through years of anxiety, and anger. In the seats beside and in front of me are other survivors. Damian survived the crush in pen 4, aged 20. He had obtained a ticket for the game for his friend, David Rimmer, who died in the same pen. Tim Knowles was a 17-year-old A-level student, one of 10 friends from Formby who had gone to the match; only seven came back alive. Mike Bracken found himself crushed outside the ground, before entering through an exit gate. After buying a drink to recover, he was horrified to find thousands more fans converging on the tunnel to the already packed central pens. With no police officers deployed to seal the tunnel, Mike briefly tried to steer them away. But he was a 20-year-old fan in a jumper and jeans. There were no police there, the fans reasoned: so what could be the problem?
I am sitting down but my knees give way. Tears are falling either side of my nose.
Nick Braley is an Ipswich fan. In 1989, aged 19, he was a student at Sheffield Poly, excited to be going to an FA Cup semi-final, even as a neutral. He was crushed towards the front of pen 3 and survived through the luck of being turned side-on to the fence. He was traumatised for years. The West Midlands officers who took his statement, which was critical of the policing, dismissed him as “a left-wing agitator”.
Richie Greaves was 23 when he was caught in one of the worst-affected parts of pen 3. He gave evidence to the first inquests, and came back to tell the same truth in Warrington. His wife, Lou, sits beside Deb: “Don’t forget to keep breathing,” Lou says, squeezing Deb’s arm gently. She is desperate to get her husband back.
Now, the jury begin. Their answers to the first five questions – on the multiple failures in police planning and in the police operation on the day – are resolved quickly. A formality. But all hinges on questions 6 and 7.
Q6: “Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed? Answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
We sit here not just as survivors, but as some of the accused. From the moment the inquests began, in March 2014, lawyers for the former match commanders at Hillsborough, led by John Beggs QC, have thrown vicious allegations on their behalf: that we were drunk, without tickets, badly behaved, aggressive and non-compliant. We sit quietly, and wonder if the jury has seen through their bile. It will not be easy: over three decades, we have been described as “animalistic” (Chief Constable Peter Wright), “tanked-up yobs” (Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham), and – quite simply – as “mental” (Paul Middup, Police Federation rep). Much of the public held us to be the people who ********** on brave coppers, or attacked them as they gave the kiss of life to stricken victims – all this while we were busy robbing the dead.
These allegations, of course, were mostly carried in the Sun’s infamous front-page story of 19 April 1989, under the headline The Truth. It was Kelvin MacKenzie’s final choice as a banner headline; the first he had considered was: “You Scum”.
A cross-section of the scum are here today. Damian has spent his career as a pensions administrator. Tim is a newspaper sub-editor. Nick is an accountant. Richie runs his own courier firm. Mike is a digital executive and a CBE. I am an author and journalist. All of us, just your average football fans of the 1980s.
Now the coroner reads out Q6 to the forewoman, still unseen. “Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed? Is your answer yes?”
The forewoman’s voice is calm and reassuring, and wears lightly the huge responsibility. With the faintest trace of a lisp, she says: “Yes.”
People scream, and jump to their feet. Mike’s head begins to tremble in his hands. Richie turns towards me and punches the air. I turn slowly to Deb with tears in my eyes, and she smiles and rubs my back.
Then the moment is gone. For the coroner is on to Q7: “Was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles?”
This is not just a question of truth now: people’s lives are in the balance. To be unfairly blamed for killing people is an insult so grievous as to seriously disturb the mind. I know of one survivor, “Ian”, who lost a friend in pen 3. In 2007, Ian became upset about the controversy generated by the appearance of Kelvin MacKenzie on Newsnight, and a few weeks later he hanged himself. There was Stephen Whittle, who gave his match ticket to a friend, who died. In February 2011, Stephen stepped in front of an express train. Two of my mates who survived pen 3 have tried to kill themselves; both, mercifully, survived. But we know that if this next question goes against us, people will almost certainly take their own lives. The jury cannot know this, of course. I look around at Deb, at Richie, at Damian and Lou. No one looks at me.
The coroner: “Was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles? Is your answer No?”
People leap to their feet and punch the air. But again, momentary relief, for we are only halfway there. Now, having answered No, the jury are asked a supplementary question: was there any behaviour on the part of supporters that may have caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles? That “may” sets the threshold so low, we fear the jury are practically being urged to find against us. As Tim Knowles said over an anguished pint a few months ago: “What kind of question is ‘May have?’ I might be found responsible for killing my friends on the basis of a vague, theoretical possibility.”