In April 1989, South Yorkshire Police decided to give control of the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest to a man with no experience of handling an event of anywhere near such magnitude. Much has been written about the Hillsborough disaster and its subsequent cover-up; however, put in a wider context, the catastrophe was not only predictable but a long time coming. Not only that; if any lessons were learned by the “authorities” after decades of suffering by the families of the 96 people who died, those lessons are not clear to the outside world.
While the television-fed public is more than catered for by police procedural dramas such as Broadchurch and Line of Duty, the actions of the real police over the almost four decades since 1979 provide evidence of procedures of a very different kind. A catalogue of disastrous decisions and opaque motivation fly in the face of TV depictions of pressurised, sometimes wayward public servants following detailed protocols. More evident seems to be a group of organisations used by successive governments as a blunt instrument to impose a version of social order on an unsuspecting population.
Nicholas Ridley authored a report in 1977 – two years before his party were elected to power – outlining a future Conservative government’s approach to policing of large numbers of people. This approach was based entirely on an antagonistic attitude to mass public gatherings; all based on one incident during an industrial dispute during a previous Conservative administration. Ridley specifically spells out that future Tory policy will assume that large numbers of working class men gathered in one place will be seen by police as “mobs” with intent to cause public disorder.
This analysis was based on the so-called “Battle of Saltley Gate” during the successful strike by the National Union of Mineworkers in 1972 during the Conservative government headed by Edward Heath. In this incident, a fuel storage plant in Birmingham was picketed by the NUM, and the picket attracted tens of thousands of workers from other industries in the city. This action succeeded in denying access by strike-breaking drivers to stockpiles of solid solid fuel. This success in turn was seen as pivotal in Heath’s acceding to the NUM’s demands and thus victory for the industrial action as a whole.
The Ridley report takes the view that, had police tactics been different, the Saltley Gate incident would have ended differently, as would the strike. In this view, any form of democratic industrial action or spontaneous support from workers in other industries is completely overlooked; the only important factor to take away from the whole affair was the unpreparedness of the police. As the report put it:
“We must be prepared to deal with the problem of violent picketing. This again is a matter going beyond policy for nationalised industries. But it is also vital to our policy that on a future occasion we defeat violence in breach of the law on picketing. The only way to do this is to have a large, mobile squad of police who are equipped and prepared to uphold the law against the likes of the Saltley Coke-works mob.”
Less than two years later, in May 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party won the 1979 UK General Election. Within months of this victory, Ridley’s recommendations began to be implemented.
Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the first steps towards a “large, mobile squad of police who are equipped and prepared to uphold the law” were taken at an Army barracks near Ridley’s stately home.
Nicholas Ridley was the second son of the 3rd Viscount Ridley; thus missing out on the title of 4th Viscount by the law of primogeniture. Nevertheless, Ridley grew up on the family’s Blagdon Hall Estate in Northumberland, just north of Newcastle upon Tyne. Just to the west of the City is Albemarle Barracks, formerly RAF Ouston, on the Military Road less than ten miles from Blagdon. It was here in the months after the 1979 election that a Special Patrol Detail of Northumbria Police was taken for specialist training.
In a suitably-sized barracks hall, the police were trained in how to attack and break up groups of people in public places. This training was based on the Army’s experience of crowd dispersal over hundreds of years; but most recently honed in the many incidents of civil unrest in Northern Ireland. These incidents had increased dramatically since 1968, and had involved all sections of the community in the Province. Police were taught how to break up lines and groups of people by means such as attacking lower limbs with handy materials; the barracks had parquet flooring which was easily torn up and skimmed across the floor under shields to injure tender shins.
This hands-on experience was well received and later exported by Northumbria to the unsuspecting Durham Constabulary; then forces from the North East joined others from Leeds, Manchester and other Northern commands at a sports stadium in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, where larger deployments were carried out.
Proof of the Pudding
The most spectacular use of these militaristic tactics by the British police was at Orgreave coking plant in June 1984, during the NUM’s industrial action of 1984-5. Much has been written about “The Battle of Orgreave;” suffice to say here that the use of the term “Battle” is a convenient one for the tabloid press in both referring to Saltley Gate in 1972 and Orgreave 12 years later. For ease of comparison for Sun readers, the former was won by the miners; the latter by the police. The strike was unsuccessful. Ridley’s work was done.
The perception of the police and their government’s subsequent victories had many repercussions. One of these was that the police’s public profile changed profoundly. By certain sections of society and the media, the police were the thin blue line keeping order during times of chaos; to others they became Establishment bully boys. With the disappearance of large-scale industry and thus visible industrial unrest, the only identifiable mass working class culture became football supporters. One of the largest, most obviously working class, unified group of football supporters are those of Liverpool FC.
In another irony, shortly after the end of the 1984-5 Miners Strike, Liverpool supporters were involved in what became described as a watershed public order incident. In May 1985, Liverpool played Juventus in a major European cup competition. In an incident which has parallels to Hillsborough, the match was held in the dilapidated Heysel stadium, which was completely inappropriate for the size of the event. Policing was also woefully inadequate. Thirty-nine people died, and Liverpool supporters were blamed.
The consequent sanctions applied to English football clubs led to opprobrium by supporters of other teams towards Liverpool. This in turn gave the already buoyed-up police further ammunition to regard Liverpool supporters as ‘trouble’.
There were many warning signals which could have been noticed by anyone with eyes to see in the years, months, weeks and days leading up to Hillsborough, as well as during the disaster itself. Again, much has been written about the day and its aftermath; some facts are often overlooked, however.
Liverpool FC asked for more room at Hillsborough than Nottingham Forest for the match; the FA refused on advice from South Yorkshire Police. There was crushing the previous year at the exact same fixture; relations between Hillsborough’s owners Sheffield Wednesday and South Yorkshire Police had been compromised since 1981, and there was no safety certificate for the ground on April 15th 1989.
It could be argued that, without a safety certificate, a responsible police force would not have allowed the match to take place; it could certainly be argued that, having decided to let it go ahead, a semi-responsible force would certainly have put someone in charge with relevant experience. Neither was the case. It has been well documented that South Yorkshire Police were anything but a responsible force on that day.
When Geoffrey Dear was brought in to head the investigation into the disaster, South Yorkshire Chief Constable Peter Wright was no doubt relieved, if in fact it came as news to him at all. When Wright’s South Yorkshire forced wanted reinforcements for “The Battle of Orgreave” five years earlier, they thought they would be glad of the help they received from the Metropolitan Police, where Dear was Assistant Commissioner.
Unfortunately, when the Met officers turned up, some were reportedly so “up for it” that South Yorkshire wanted them sent home; not enough for them to actually be sent home, however. From the outset of the investigation, Dear was bullish about the role of South Yorkshire police. As the wheels came off the police’s actions on the day and subsequently, Dear’s attitude has been shown to be symptomatic of a wider Establishment outlook; at the time, however, his assertions were of a piece with an agenda which was well established, having been conceived in 1977.