- Interview by
- Karl Hansen
Today marks the 34th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, the greatest loss of life at a sporting event in British history. The death of Andrew Devine in 2021 meant that 97 people in total had died as a result of the events that day, with a further 766 injured.
In the wake of the tragedy, an orchestrated cover-up by establishment figures attempted to blame fans for the loss of life. Liverpool’s ongoing boycott of the Sun newspaper is a reminder of the city’s revulsion over that effort—but it has been far from the only campaign for justice waged by the families of those killed and injured.
In 2016, an inquest dismissed allegations that fans had caused the crush at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, ruling instead that Liverpool fans had been ‘unlawfully killed’ as a result of failures of those in charge of their safety, particularly in South Yorkshire police. In response, the Hillsborough Law Now campaign was established to pursue legislative change.
The proposed Hillsborough Law would aim to better protect bereaved families after disasters, providing them with a Public Advocate, financial assistance for legal cases, and putting in place a ‘duty of candour’ for police officers and responsible officials in an attempt to prevent future cover-ups.
On the anniversary of the disaster, Tribune speaks to that law’s most vocal supporter in parliament—Liverpool MP and Spirit of Shankly executive member Ian Byrne—about Hillsborough, the need for legislative change and how the justice campaign has built a movement of solidarity across football.
Thirty-four years after the disaster in Hillsborough, can you tell us what justice campaigners are fighting for?
What we’re fighting for is a legacy. We’re doing that with everything we’re involved in, from ‘The Real Truth’ Legacy Project to the Hillsborough Law Now campaign. It’s about achieving a legacy, because we got the truth about Hillsborough but we never got the justice. From educating people to campaigning for legal changes, we want to ensure that survivors of disasters and victims’ families never again have to face the state with a blindfold on and their hands tied behind their back.
What does the Hillsborough disaster tell us about the British establishment?
It teaches us that the state and the establishment ruthlessly covers up their responsibility for disasters. Just look at the contaminated blood scandal. I’m chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Public Accountability. Time and time again, we see the same playbook rolled out by the state and establishment. It is the Hillsborough playbook to a tee: cover-up, shutting down organised protest, demonising people, and ensuring their voices aren’t heard. Their ability to win the argument is amazing.
Why do you feel it is important to educate people about Hillsborough?
We are campaigning for Hillsborough to be on the national curriculum and to educate people about it because it resonates. The same playbook for state cover-ups has been used time and time again. Look at Grenfell; the victims of that disaster would have expected the state to be on their side, as we did at Hillsborough, and that it would seek truth and justice and ensure nothing like that could happen again. But it didn’t. There are so many instances like that.
Looking forward, the Covid-19 inquiry will be the biggest public inquiry the country has ever seen. If there is a cover-up in that case, people will be denied justice and the nation won’t learn from the mistakes made by the government and the authorities. We’ve got to learn the lessons from Hillsborough and balance the scales of justice. Time after time, the establishment covers things up and the people responsible get away scot-free. We can’t let that happen again.
Opposing football fans chanting about Hillsborough continues to be a problem at Liverpool games. How do you think that can be tackled?
For me, it’s all about education. We’ve been working with the Premier League to formulate a working group with supporter clubs to address the chanting. It’s a problem for many clubs, not just Liverpool. The Premier League has 1.3 million children under the Premier League Stars initiative. We can teach kids about how futile these chants are in supporting your team and how they just cause harm.
The Hillsborough chants are so hurtful, particularly to survivors and family members. The trauma of the event is serious. Two Hillsborough survivors took their own life following the near-disaster in Paris. It is appalling to go to the match, which should be an escape, and face chants of ‘Always the victims’ and ‘The Sun was right’. It’s a really hostile thing.
When we played Manchester City a few weeks ago, practically half the ground was chanting about Hillsborough. At the other end of things, at the Arsenal game last week, you could have heard a pin drop during the minute’s silence. All their fans did was support their team, and it was a brilliant game. It’s a fantastic example of what can be achieved. We need to capture that working-class ethos and utilise it. Working-class people can direct energy to better things.
The Hillsborough disaster and the fight for justice has also inspired a wider movement of working-class solidarity across football. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The Fans Supporting Foodbanks network was born from Liverpool and Everton fans working together. That solidarity has its roots in working together over Hillsborough. The idea of two clubs coming together in times of strife and grief is something we as a city did with Rhys Jones and Hillsborough. Fans Supporting Foodbanks is a natural offshoot of that.
Working-class fan groups took on the Premier League over the £20 tickets to watch games on television during the pandemic and over the affordability of away tickets—and we forced change. The boycott of television tickets during the Covid season was a success and so was the campaign against the European Super League. These are down to fans putting aside their differences and focusing on the bigger picture.
With Fans Supporting Foodbanks, we’ve had Millwall and West Ham fans, Manchester United and Manchester City fans, and Rangers and Celtic fans working together to collect food for those in need. We’re trying to build on that ethos. What unites us as working-class football fans is far greater than what divides us.
At last year’s Champions League final in Paris, there was a near-crush and the authorities responded by blaming the Liverpool fans once again. What does that tell us about the lack of accountability in football, 34 years on?
In terms of the authorities, nothing has changed. That’s what was shocking. The French police based their strategy on the lies and smears of Hillsborough 34 years ago. That shows how long-lasting and far-reaching the legacy is. The narrative sewn by the South Yorkshire police, the FA, Thatcher’s government and the media could have led to an even bigger disaster than Hillsborough.
That’s why it’s so important to educate people about what the state is capable of. We, as Liverpool fans, knew as soon as we entered the arena and saw the complete chaos what they would do, which is to try and blame the fans. When we saw the signs around the stadium about ticketless fans, we knew we’d have to challenge their narrative.
We never did that in 1989 because we weren’t prepared for what the state was about to unleash on us, but this time we knew what we had to do. Everyone connected to the fightback against the narrative of the French authorities deserves a huge amount of credit. The experience and knowledge of Liverpool fans probably saved lives. In the face of the use of tear gas and the most hostile policing I have ever seen, the fans knew to stay calm.
We knew they were going to throw every failure of UEFA and the French authorities at Liverpool supporters—and that’s what happened. To go from the French government blaming us without any hesitation, claiming there were thousands of ticketless fans, to eight months later getting a report from UEFA completely exonerating Liverpool supporters and laying the blame on the authorities themselves was huge. That was because we knew what to expect. We fought and won that battle.
Of course, having mobile phones helped and the British media wasn’t working on behalf of the French establishment, but it was the experience of Hillsborough that allowed us to stay safe and reject the official narrative. Any other team in the Champions League might have responded to the provocations of the French police. When there is a disaster, the state might work against you. Every community needs to understand this—and know how to fight back. We learned that the hard way, but it shows why education is so important.
You’ve mentioned Grenfell previously. What similarities do you see in that tragedy?
It’s the state doing what they do: demonising and blaming victims. You saw that with Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting that Grenfell fire victims lacked “common sense” and with the legal battles about accountability for the lives lost. It’s the same playbook. That’s why the campaign for a Hillsborough Law is so important: we need a duty of candour and resources for those seeking justice against the state.
You are involved in the Hillsborough Law Now campaign. It is inspiring to see the survivors and their families channel their grief into a wider campaign for the victims of state injustice. Can you say a little more about the campaign?
The campaign was started by Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham, which followed the recommendations made in Reverend James Jones’ report on the experiences of Hillsborough victims’ families, which still haven’t been enacted. In a nutshell, it’s a campaign to balance the scales of justice so we don’t have what we’ve had in the past.
In the Hillsborough legal battles, we were crowdfunding our legal fees while the state was backed by a phalanx of lawyers paid from the public purse. The people at the sharp end of disasters who are trying to fight for truth and justice don’t have access. That has to change.
What we need to do is ensure that the lessons learned from Hillsborough can be applied to anyone who suffers from a disaster. The scales of justice are hugely weighted in favour of the establishment against people who are fighting for truth and justice. That needs to end. It would make the country a far better and fairer place. After Hillsborough, we never had that chance.