Hillsborough: Sumner’s Denial Of The Inquest Verdict Actually Proves It

May 1, 2016

by Martin Odoni

The original Coroner’s Inquest into the Hillsborough Disaster between 1989 and 1991 was the longest in English history. Since quashed, it has been superseded by the ‘rebooted’ proceedings that ended this week with a landmark verdict of ‘Unlawful killing’. The rebooted Inquest began in March 2014, and ended in the dying embers of April 2016. In other words, the process lasted rather longer than two years.

Two years.

Years. Over two of them. Twenty-five months, it took.

Keep that span of time in your mind as you read on, and imagine two years of discussions of any subject you care to think of. Just picture how much information you could convey and receive in two years of constant discussion of the same topic.

Now, simple-minded resistance to the verdict was entirely predictable from some quarters, and in the case of fans of rival football clubs wanting to reinforce their own prejudices against Liverpool supporters, it was equally predictable that it would be based on, yet again, regurgitating long-discredited myths about the disaster’s causes. As I say, I really expected no better, especially from more extreme Mancunians.

For these people, who continue insisting that rowdy behaviour, ticketlessness, forged ticketsdrunkenness, or late arrival on the part of Liverpool fans were significant factors in the disaster, and that the Inquest must therefore have seriously fouled up not to have taken them on board, I have a couple of questions; –

The first of these is, “Are you people thick or what?”

The second of these questions is, “Do you honestly imagine that, in an Inquest that lasted over two years, these rumours were never mentioned once, or fact-checked?”

I know that the desire to protect one’s own prejudices can be very seductive, but it leads to no practical advantage, so please, stop being obtuse, and apply a little critical reasoning. Of course the old myths about Liverpool fan behaviour were mentioned in the rebooted Inquest, all of them, even the truly preposterous idea about a fan ‘conspiracy’ to force the police to open the gates was given voice more than once.

Representatives of the South Yorkshire Police, past and present, made damn sure that all of these smears were re-asserted and used to drag the process of the Inquest out months longer than it should have lasted. This is one of the key complaints of Andy Burnham MP’s outstanding speech to the House of Commons this week, that the tactics of the police lawyers throughout the Inquest served only to prolong the agony and reopen old wounds of survivors and the bereaved for the umpteenth time. The first few months of the Inquest in particular were bogged down in constant, long-discredited assertions of heavy drinking. This utterly undignified show of stubbornness forced the proceedings to waste time re-examining the evidence that had long ago established that very few fans had been drinking heavily at all.

Really, how much of a deliberate fool would you have to be to imagine that these notions were ‘kept’ from an Inquest at which the very people who had originally circulated them had lawyers present?

The reason the critical Question 7 concluded that fan behaviour played no role in causing the disaster is not because fan behaviour was not analysed. It is because it was analysed, and no evidence has ever been produced to substantiate any of the old accusations of serious misconduct. None of if it stood up to scrutiny; –

  • There were hardly any ticketless fans. A count by the Health & Safety Executive of people entering the terrace established that back in 1989.
  • There was very little drunkenness at all. No blood analysis of victims, survivors or the dead, showed up abnormally high levels of alcohol, no pictures or CCTV footage showed any evidence of widescale drunken behaviour, very little litter was found of the alcohol-packaging variety.
  • Very few people arrived late. The majority arrived at the turnstiles before 2:40pm, and the print on the tickets requested arrival by 2:45pm. Most people were therefore early, not late, and what late arrivals there were simply added bodies to a crush that had already formed. (Given that the exit gate was opened at 2:52pm, any arrivals after kick-off would have had nothing to do with the disaster.)
  • Pressure on the turnstiles was not caused by constant pushing. It was caused by there simply not being enough turnstiles allocated to the Liverpool supporters, all of the ones they had being in a narrow concourse with very little room, and extremely poor guidance provided by the police.

Every last one of these old myths was checked during the Inquest, and all of them were dismissed as implausible, and/or of simply leaving no evidence where there would have been some. At best, they were guesses, at worst, they were malicious rumours.

Now, as I say, it is entirely predictable that some people would respond to the Inquest verdict in this utterly brainless way, but it actually became frightening before the weekend due to a man called David Sumner. Sumner is a retired ex-chief inspector in the South Yorkshire Police, and in an interview with ITV News, he has done exactly the same thing as the laymen mentioned above. He has rejected the findings of the Inquest, entirely on the basis of one of the discredited myths.

To quote Sumner; –

I don’t really agree… that the Liverpool supporters were completely innocent because they weren’t – there’s no doubt about it. There was a minority – and a large number in that minority – who seem to be able to think they can go when they like and do what they like… They’ve all been asked to be in the ground 15 minutes before kick-off at the very latest. Why didn’t they do that?

That would be a good question, were it not for the fact that it was answered over a quarter of a century ago. The Taylor Interim Report, published just four months after the Disaster, discovered that the Liverpool supporters could not get into the ground very quickly because there was a ‘bottleneck’ at their end of the stadium, as this diagram explains; –

A map of Hillsborough, with annotations about crowd distribution.

A map of Hillsborough, annotated with details about crowd distribution. These explain the REAL reason why Liverpool supporters took far longer to get into the stadium than the Nottingham Forest fans.

This bottleneck had caused serious problems at two previous semi-finals held there. One in 1981 when it led to a serious crush involving Tottenham Hotspur fans, thirty-eight of whom suffered injuries, the other in 1987, when the kick-off had to be delayed due to Leeds United fans being unable to get in in time.

Add to that the problem of roadworks on the M62 and on the outskirts of Sheffield slowing down the traffic, and it is hardly surprising that, by 2:50pm, there were still several thousand Liverpool supporters trying to get in. It was calculated by the HSE that it would have taken until 3:40pm, due to the slow ‘through-put’ of the turnstiles, to get everybody into the ground.

The real question therefore is not, “Why were the Liverpool supporters not all in the stadium by 2:45pm?” Instead it should be, “Why did the South Yorkshire Police not make allowances for the roadworks or the bottleneck when organising their efforts on the day?”

Why I describe Sumner’s words as ‘frightening’ though is that he was on duty at Hillsborough on the day of the tragedy, and yet, after twenty-seven years, he still appears to be blissfully unaware of the bottleneck. How can he not have cottoned onto this crucial detail after all these years? It was mentioned not only by Lord Justice Taylor, but also during the original Coroner’s Inquest, by the Stuart-Smith Scrutiny of Evidence in 1998, by the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel in 2012, and in considerable detail by the new Inquest. And not once did he notice?

This is doubly scary when one considers that, as members of the police with the responsibility for directing the crowd on the day, Sumner and his colleagues all needed to be aware of that bottleneck beforehand. That he remains ignorant of it twenty-seven years later suggests that, for a man in a role that requires detective skills, he has very poor attention-to-detail in general. But more pertinently, that he was unaware of it at the time emphasises just how appalling a job the South Yorkshire Police did on the day of the disaster, just how wretchedly ill-prepared they were, and how sketchy their knowledge of the stadium was. How can one safely direct a crowd into a stadium without knowing its shortcomings oneself?

Not having that knowledge before taking the job on can only be seen as negligence.

Therefore, paradoxically, Sumner’s words only confirm that the Inquest jury’s verdict is correct. The ninety-six victims of Hillsborough were unlawfully killed by an amateurish and lazily-prepared police force trying to direct them into a known unsafe stadium.

2 Responses to “Hillsborough: Sumner’s Denial Of The Inquest Verdict Actually Proves It”

  1. mbc1955 Says:

    Manchester United fan speaking. Whilst I don’t doubt that, like other clubs, we have dyed-in-the-wool dickheads who will say anything, I have yet to hear anyone in Manchester query the inquest result. In fact, not only does everyone accept the result, but we welcome it as far too long overdue. I agree with every word you’ve written but please, don’t allow your success to be marred by factionalism. You could have said everything you needed to without personalising any city. You have every decent person, the whole of football behind you. We are on your side.

    • Martin Odoni Says:

      I actually live in Manchester – well, Salford – and I can assure you that I have encountered quite a number of people who are angry with the verdict. A friend of mine who is a regular at Old Trafford has also told me that he’s seen a lot of anger among some of his fellows, so it seems unlikely on balance that I just had an ‘unlucky sampling’. I am certainly not suggesting that all Mancunians are being asses, or even that a majority are, but it would be naive to pretend that there isn’t a lot of overlap between Mancunians and the denialists. As a thanks for your support though, I’m changing the wording slightly to make it sound less generalised, but realistically I can’t remove all reference, as Manchester is probably where most of the denial happens. The disgusting behaviour of extremist fans of both Liverpool and Manchester United towards each other has to be highlighted if it is ever to be stopped.

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