10 Sep 2012

Should David Cameron apologise for Hillsborough?

Scotland Correspondent

Wednesday’s publication of documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy poses a dilemma for David Cameron: should he apologise and risk being seen as trying to hog the limelight?

Wednesday's publication of documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy poses a dilemma for David Cameron: should he apologise and risk being seen as trying to hog the limelight?

Each and every document relating to the Hillsborough disaster will soon be released into the public domain, writes Channel 4 News reporter Ciaran Jenkins.

Thousands of files from scores of different agencies will be laid bare, from confidential cabinet papers to secret police reports.

But families of the 96 who died are preparing for the day with some trepidation.

They’ve long accused the authorities of a cover-up and have campaigned for years for the truth to come out. For the first time, they may soon be confronted with the grim reality of what exactly happened.

Last victim

Steve Kelly’s brother Mike was the last of the victims to be named. He was 38 years old and travelled from his home in Bristol to watch every Liverpool game, home and away.

Steve still lives in Liverpool and works unpaid at the Hillsborough Justice Campaign shop, opposite the Kop.

He told me he expects the prime minister to make a formal apology in the House of Commons when the papers are published on Wednesday.

But Steve says to him it “won’t mean a thing”.

Lifeless face

On 16 April 1989, the day after the disaster, he drove to Sheffield hoping to find his brother alive after being told the dead had all been accounted for.

Even though his work means he talks about Hillsborough almost every day, just hearing the word, he says, sickens him.

He has tears in his eyes as he recalls the moment a Polaroid photo was flung at him, showing Mike’s lifeless face.

Then a curtain was thrust open and he was asked to identify the body.

He fell to his knees with grief, before heavy-handed officers prevented him from giving his brother a final kiss goodbye.

Overdue apology

You sense there are most certainly people from whom Steve would like an apology, and David Cameron isn’t one of them.

In 1989, 22 year-old Cameron was just a junior staffer in the Conservative Party research department.

It’s unlikely his brief would have extended to the sensitive discussions the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was engaged in over Hillsborough.

But while Steve doesn’t want an apology, other families feel differently.

Their fight for justice has had to contend with the suggestion the loved ones they lost were themselves to blame.

An apology is by its nature an admission of fault, which many feel is long overdue.

Cameron’s dilemma

It is a dilemma the prime minister has grappled with before.

In 2010 he apologised for the Bloody Sunday killings, accepting that some members of the armed forces were responsible and reasoning that, as they answered to the government, it was proper for him to say sorry.

David Cameron has form on Hillsborough, however.

Speaking to the Liverpool Daily Post last year, he expressed frustration at the exposure the issue had given Liverpool-born Labour MP Andy Burnham.

“It was this government that agreed to release the Hillsborough documents,” he said.

“Yet every time I hear the word Hillsborough, I see Andy Burnham on the TV.”

Burnham booed

Cameron should be mindful, however, that the very same Andy Burnham was heckled and booed by the Anfield crowd for mentioning his government’s response to the tragedy in a speech marking its 20th anniversary in 2009.

An apology could be seen as politically expedient or, worse still, an attempt to hog the limelight on a day of great significance for the families of those who died.

The publication of the Hillsborough papers may yet unearth vital new evidence of negligence and collusion for which nobody has been properly held to account.

It is unlikely one apology, even if it’s from the prime minister, will be enough.