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13 April 2018updated 04 Aug 2021 2:33pm

29 years on from the Hillsborough disaster, Grenfell shows how little we’ve learnt

Parallels exist both prior to the disasters – concerns being ignored – and now, when justice involves those who had their lives blown to pieces wrestling with the law.

By Neil Atkinson

It’s the 29th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster this weekend. There will be discussions about how it can never happen again, about us moving on as a society and about how Britain is a very different place. There always are.

It did happen again. It happened on 14 June 2017 in London at the Grenfell Tower. It continues to happen around that disaster. The parallels are everywhere, both prior to the disasters – concerns about conditions being ignored, incidents not being learnt from – and now, when justice and accountability involve far too much struggle for survivors, and families of the deceased, who are now wrestling with the law after having their lives blown to pieces.

The Hillsborough disaster wasn’t wholly about football. The Grenfell disaster isn’t wholly about housing. Both are national disasters and national disgraces.

That one took place at a football match and that the other occurred in a housing block is in some ways incidental to the core truth beneath both disasters – namely that those in authority of our nation at the time of Hillsborough caused deep distress to our own people, and that this has been repeated in the Grenfell disaster. This painful truth gets hidden by the dehumanising of unfortunate individuals – people quite literally just in the wrong place at the wrong time – before, during and after both disasters. This dehumanisation occurs against the backdrop of landscapes created over long periods of time either side of the disasters. Both events demonstrate the extent to which Britain fails to live its oft-stated values, or at least has its values very much in the wrong order.

Often in the immediate aftermath of a disaster the dehumanisation is unspoken. Then it becomes hinted at. Then it is explicit. For Hillsborough it accelerated. It was the enemy within, it was Liverpool, it was hooliganism. Then there was “The Truth”; The Sun‘s truth, a truth for the establishment to feast upon and cower behind. For Grenfell there is the question around immigrants, then careless, feckless living and anyway, who knows exactly how many of them there was in that building. “I’m not saying it was right, just that…”

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Football supporters in 1989. People in social housing in 2017. Look at the ten years of characterisations behind each group; the chipping away our governments and media managed to do; the guilt by association that only ever seems to linger on the poor. The groundwork has always been laid and we’re left to do the rest.

It’s grotesque, but it is true, and the truth of it is emphasised in the aftermath of disasters. Official statements always come first. Actual grief is so messy, so brutal, but crucially, so disorganised. A scream, not a sentence. The first voices able to get a story straight get the first go at framing the discussion; statements tinged with regrets but not taking responsibility. Organisations, police forces, councils, football associations, companies will always react quicker and more efficiently in their own interests than grieving individuals will be able to. There is no policy and procedure a family can put in place for a loved one being killed in dreadful, unlawful circumstances, no go-to plan that sits in a desk drawer of a family house. Instead there is confusion, loss and pain and all that runs head on into the face of institutions built to protect themselves first and foremost, institutions prepared to go to astonishing lengths to do so. And so often these institutions are the ones which should be protecting the public.

The other thing institutions and professional companies tend to have that the suddenly bereaved don’t is resources. Time yes, but also money. As an example, from 17 April 1989 to 31 August 1989 the Football Association spent £314,430.62 on legal costs. Of that money. £24,625.32 went on photocopying alone. The hugely instructive document here is worth looking at:

There is an immediate conflict within a disaster because so often professional organisations or institutions have been calamitously caught short in their abilities to fulfil their role. They haven’t done their jobs properly, and now people are dead. Essentially, while everyone caught up in a disaster is trying to deal with their lives being blown apart, somewhere, as per the above, documents are being copied, statements are being “perused”, advice is being given “on evidence procedure and tactics throughout”. Because this is precisely what professional organisations are capable of and what they believe they should be doing, no matter how responsible they may or may not be in the first place.

Three billboards now sit outside the Grenfell Tower.

71 people died and three billboards sit outside Grenfell Tower because no one knows what else to do or how else to do it, so instead a film is referenced just to get the attention of you and I. To draw our attention to the hundreds of survivors who are still homeless, and to the towers up and down the country still clad, still flammable, their residents potential victims on a daily basis. Three billboards against everything, against the institutions, the ignorance, the fact people are tired of you going on about it. They have a monthly silent walk to protest and remember and cope and do all the things you know they have to do because they need to put the billboards there because they have to do something; because they aren’t being helped, not properly; because they aren’t being listened to, not properly. Because they are people and this thing has happened to them and all the institutions cannot help them now. So you end up walking in silence.

There’s then something greater in this issue with the institutions. These institutions are often the only ones we have. What compounded the actions of South Yorkshire Police after Hillsborough was the actions of West Midlands Police. Where else could anyone go? Who watches the watchmen who watch the watchmen?

It isn’t always as simple as direct corruption. Institutions know how to talk to each other, how to scratch one another’s backs, how to play the game. Know the tactics. And if they don’t, as we’ve seen from the Football Association, they can buy the knowledge in. The bereaved have to be able to talk to these institutions and to others, have to be able to deal with bureaucracy on every level. They’ve undergone no training and cannot buy the knowledge in. Instead they are left dealing with some institutions protecting themselves, some unable to help and some not designed to understand. They are left banging their heads against an administrative brick wall unable and/or unwilling to help them. While their lives are blown to pieces. While they walk silently. While they put billboards up.

Why do they have to walk silently? Why do they have to put billboards up?

The final crushing blow about so many of these institutions is that we are taught to respect them from a young age. We’re taught to respect the police, respect the government, respect the ambulance service. It is, we’re told, core to the social order, to the good running of things, a core value of civilised western democracy. We have an entire cultural landscape telling us to respect business, especially successful businesses. We’ve a nation of people who want to tug forelocks and who act very offended if you won’t join them. We have a solid minority who would never think to question a police officer until they themselves are in the wrong place at the wrong time and would take the word of the police officer ahead of that of a fellow citizen no matter what evidence the latter can bring to the table.

The idea of a Hillsborough Law is often discussed in terms of helping survivors and the bereaved cope. Understandably so. Something which compels, which frees institutions from the instinct of self-preservation and instead ensures that they must tell the truth, the unvarnished truth, the non-tactical truth. They must offer equal financial support. The playing field must be levelled, must be repaired. That this should become a matter of law seems like straightforward human decency, but like so much straightforward human decency it will take arduous campaigning.

What can’t be repaired is the damage done day in, day out. A change in institutional mindset requires a change in law, but, terrifyingly, a change in law requires a change in mindset and it has perhaps been since 1989 we’ve last been this far away from a society able to demonstrate the requisite compassion. We have the levers to write laws, that’s Parliament, but minds have been chipped away at for an age.

There’s something Liverpool supporters say about Hillsborough. “We climbed the hill in our own way”. It contains much meaning. The meanings aren’t all good. Yes, Liverpool refused to bow and be beaten. Yes, Liverpool worked away at the truth and yes, the second Inquest finding was a monumental moment in Liverpool’s cultural history. But our own way was horrific in so many other ways. The toll too great – it was an assault on a city and a class that never seemed to cease. It claimed more lives, it broke more people, it has left survivors devastated and families still unable to grieve, justice still not quite delivered, 29 years on.

The people left in the aftermath of Grenfell should not have to climb any hill, let alone that one. They should receive the help the Hillsborough families and survivors should have got in 1989 and the Government could act on that now if they chose to. They have the levers, they just choose not to use them. Grenfell shouldn’t have to wait 27 years for the truth and 29 years plus for the slim notion of justice. By not acting our elected representatives make the choice that they may well have to. It’s an obscene choice.

Let the legacy of Hillsborough truly be that it, and things like it, do not happen again. That takes action. It takes legislation. It takes a change in mindset; Britain acknowledging how wrong it has gone for so long up. It takes acknowledging unpalatable truths, it takes rejecting the dehumanisation we watch our political and media establishment undertake on a daily basis. Ultimately it takes our nation having a good long look in the mirror.

You think we’re up to it?

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