Hillsborough: Fan power unleashed to release papers

Margaret Thatcher tours the terraces of Hillsborough Image copyright bbc
Image caption Margaret Thatcher tours the terraces of Hillsborough after the 1989 disaster

For 22 years the deaths of 96 fans at Sheffield's Hillsborough stadium have never been allowed to be out of the news.

First there was the judicial inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster which resulted in the Taylor Report in 1990 which blamed poor policing and recommended all-seater stadiums.

The Director of Public Prosecutions ruled there was insufficient evidence to bring charges.

In 1996 an ITV dramatised documentary raised questions on whether the police told the whole truth to Lord Justice Taylor and the inquests.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith reviewed the new evidence and reported back to the then Home Secretary Jack Straw that police statements had been edited, but it was an "error of judgement" adding nothing to the understanding of the disaster.

In 1998 an unsuccessful private manslaughter prosecution was brought against two senior police officers by the Hillsborough Family Support Group.

Two years ago an independent panel was appointed to take another look at the tragedy.

A BBC attempt to see the papers under the Freedom of Information Act was resisted by the government.

Fan power

In all that time Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet papers recording what she knew about the disaster have been sealed under the 30 year disclosure rules.

She had visited the terraces the day after that tragic FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, and was known to have taken a personal interest in finding out how it happened.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Tributes laid at Anfield following the Hillsborough tragedy

Few could have anticipated that the government's attempts to get closer to public opinion by setting up a website where anybody could launch an e-petition on any subject would provide the key to unlocking those Cabinet papers.

But "fan power" has flexed its political muscle.

Within 24 hours of the Hillsborough Disaster e-petition being launched calling for the release of all government papers relating to the tragedy, 13,500 had signed up.

As the victims were largely Liverpool fans the club's current manager Kenny Dalglish sent out a message on Twitter urging fans to sign. Other Liverpool footballing legends did the same.

Within a week the petition had hit 50,000 signatures.

A week later it passed the 100,000 mark. Almost 40,000 more have since signed up.

First Commons debate

Their online muscle means that the Hillsborough disaster becomes one of the first of two petitions to trigger a House of Commons debate.

"I was one of the lucky ones. I made it back," says Steve Rotheram, now the Labour MP for Liverpool Walton who backed the petition.

Astonishingly, it is the first time MPs have debated the tragedy.

"I am not expecting any smoking gun. For all we know this may not shed any further light on what went wrong at Hillsborough but it will reassure families who have always wondered what Margaret Thatcher knew."

Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield South East, was also at the match. He was leader of the city council at the time and was a VIP guest at the semi-final.

"I intend releasing all my papers on Hillsborough from my time as council leader," he told the Politics Show for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

"We owe it to the fans to show them that every aspect of this tragedy is available for them to see."

Hillsborough panel

The government appears to have taken account of the e-petition.

It has already said it will release all the papers to the independent panel which was appointed two years ago by the previous Labour government which is already looking into the tragedy.

The Cabinet papers will be released through the panel which hopes to report next spring.

So political history is made as 'fan power' nudges the politicians towards addressing the 22-year-old questions on exactly what happened at Hillsborough.