The Hillsborough disaster is once again in the news. It’s an episode that has uncomfortable parallels with the Grenfell Towers tragedy.
The news from Sheffield in the UK that six people, including the former police chief inspector, are to face charges of manslaughter arising from the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 evoked a sombre response from the families of those who died. It’s not the end of this appalling story, but it might be the beginning of the end.
However, there is a deep and depressing awareness in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Towers tragedy that less has been learned than might have been, and that some of the underlying factors – the tectonic plates if you like – are largely unchanged.
Ninety five people died in Hillsborough, crushed to death. The number who died in Grenfell Towers has yet to be definitively established. It may never be, but it will certainly exceed Hillsborough. It could be 150 or more.
The Hillsborough tragedy was characterised by a series of fatal factors: too few turnstiles open, errors by the police and ambulance services, increasing panic and a collapse of all crowd safety mechanisms, insofar as these were even understood in the 1980s.
Calamitous as the deaths were, their terrible impact was magnified many times over by the aftermath, in which the fans themselves were blamed and libelled by tabloid press, and the Sun in particular, fed by the police. It was a dreadful abuse heaped on top of enormous tragedy, and the people of Liverpool have never forgotten nor forgiven. When the inquest in 1991 returned a verdict of accidental death, they campaigned successfully to overturn it, aided by an independent report on what had happened. Another inquest held last year found that the fans had died because of gross negligence.
Now, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who was the police officer in charge, faces 95 charges of manslaughter. Five other senior figures will also be prosecuted, 28 years after the event…
That charges have finally been levelled is right and proper. Those in charge should be held to account; in fact they should have been years ago. The same is true of the Grenfell Towers tragedy. There are central questions that must be answered. Some refer to whether fire safety equipment had been updated. Others are about the cladding and why a cheaper and less fire-resistant version was used. And so on. Nobody should shy away from the appalling questions. (Nor should they regarding the awful fire at Carrickmines, here in Dublin.)
But there is a risk as well. Focusing on the individual and institutional issues may deflect the gaze from deeper and more challenging questions. It now seems that Britain’s Labour Party is broadening the attack to include government policy decisions taken over many years, which reflect class structures and the power of elites. They are right.
Why would corners be cut in the refurbishment of Grenfell Towers? Is it because it’s an enclave of social housing in a wealthy borough? Why were local authority budgets cut (by 40%) by the Tories? This means less firefighters in the UK (down by an astonishing 11,000 on a few years ago); less oversight and accountability; and greatly enhanced risk. The nature of social housing in the UK – pack ’em high – means that a minor issue can escalate with great speed and, in this case, unspeakable impact.
The Hillsborough tragedy occurred a generation ago. It was another time and place in so many ways. Yet there are close parallels. As it is now with ISIS, back then, Britain was battling a major terrorist threat in the IRA; and there was widespread, and often turbulent, resistance to the austerity regime of the Tories, then led by Margaret Thatcher.
The police of the day had always been a force of the middle and upper echelons. They had been at the forefront in confronting football hooligans, striking miners and demonstrations against deregulation, privatisation and the Poll Tax. Their attitudes towards crowds were shaped by these and reflected mob control attitudes rather than safety. After the tragedy, they sought to place the blame on the fans, whom they characterised to the tabs as violent hooligans.
Yes, we can point to ineptitude and negligence, but that backdrop of class war shaped much of the crowd control thinking at the time. What a strange and desperate world we live in. A single sarin attack by Assad’s forces would kill more than died in Grenfell Towers. Somewhere in the world a bomb kills comparable numbers once a month. A single boat full of migrants sinking in the Mediterranean might easily kill more.
TIME TO ACT
The world is replete with tragedy – and even as these words are typed the world lurches steadily towards more. Greater wealth rests in fewer hands than ever before. The trends initiated in Thatcher’s UK have not just been consolidated there, they have been adopted wholesale. What the tragedies underline is that we need regulation, we need standards and we must have accountability.
These are the same lessons that should have been learned from the financial crisis. But have they?
On the positive side, it’s important to acknowledge that Hillsborough prompted a complete sea-change in stadium design and safety management, in tandem with the huge income deriving from new league structures and television and cable coverage. Safety and comfort are taken for granted. So, at what point will it be possible to say the same of social housing?
Also, for all the negative things said about the UK, in the end the families of the Hillsborough dead have been able to get to the point where charges have been laid. Their doggedness was critical and deserves high praise, but in turn the system, including the courts, responded albeit belatedly. They would not have got so far in certain European countries, including some that seem more socially advanced than the UK. Liverpool and London have exceptionally strong Irish connections and these tragedies evoke an almost parochial empathy on our part. But we should also be looking in the mirror, long and hard.
We’ll have no problem listing safety aspects for box-ticking. We’re past masters at lists and procedures. It’s the bigger, deeper stuff, the underlying tectonic plates of our society, that will challenge us. It is time to act now. Dealing speedily to deral with homelessness would be a good place to start.
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