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 By Mike Whalley

Alcohol central to Hillsborough inquest

Senior police officers will claim that drunken behaviour by Liverpool fans contributed to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, a pre-inquest hearing has heard in London.

New inquests into the deaths of the 96 Hillsborough victims will take place in 2014
New inquests into the deaths of the 96 Hillsborough victims will take place in 2014

The barrister representing three senior South Yorkshire officers responsible for overseeing the policing of the match at which 96 Liverpool fans died made the claim on Wednesday.

Families of those victims shouted “disgrace” at John Beggs QC as he said that he would suggest that a factor in the tragedy was fans turning up late and drunk.

Beggs is representing former Chief Superintendent David Duckinfield, who was the match commander on the day of the tragedy, as well as other senior officers who were on duty.

The 96 victims of the disaster were crushed to death on an over-crowded section of terracing at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium, where Liverpool were playing Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semifinal on Apr. 15, 1989. Campaigners have been fighting since then to bring those responsible for the tragedy to account.

Their efforts have gathered momentum since an independent report, published in Sept. 2012, exonerated fans of any blame for what happened at Hillsborough.

That report also highlighted the extent to which the police and emergency services attempted to cover up their own culpability for what remains Britain’s worst stadium-related sporting disaster.

Wednesday’s hearing, which took place at Church House, in Westminster, was the fifth in a series ahead of the start of fresh inquests into the deaths of the victims.

Those inquests, which will begin in the Cheshire town of Warrington on Mar. 31 and be conducted by Lord Justice John Goldring, are to take place after original verdicts of accidental death were quashed in Dec. 2012.

Campaigners have long maintained that those original inquest verdicts, returned in March 1991, prevented a proper investigation into the role of the police and emergency services on the day of the tragedy.

And families of the victims reacted angrily to the suggestion by Beggs that fans were once again set to be accused of drunken behaviour, despite being exonerated by the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report 17 months ago.

Trevor Hicks, whose two daughters Victoria and Sarah died in the disaster, said that some senior police officers on duty at the time were “trying to reintroduce the alcohol argument.”

He also made reference to the Taylor Report, published in 1990 by Lord Peter Taylor, which found the main reason for the disaster to be a loss of police control.

Taylor’s investigation dismissed newspaper reports published in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy that “drunk and ticketless” fans were to blame.

Hicks said: “It’s part of a dirty tactics campaign which backfired on them before and will backfire on them again. To quote Lord Justice Taylor, it would be far more seemly to face up to their responsibilities, instead of just slinging mud at the fans.”

Sheila Coleman, from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, said: "I don't think it's that clever an argument and we're quite happy to take them on. Lord Justice Taylor put that myth to bed and it was further put to bed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel report."

Earlier, Wednesday’s hearing was told jurors will make a visit to the stadium but will not be allowed to read on-site tributes to the victims.

Christina Lambert QC, counsel to the inquests, said: “The reason that we make this final observation is because the jury must remain objective and must be seen to be objective in their approach to the issues. Having visited the memorial myself, there is no doubt that the tributes that are made there are deeply moving."

Lord Justice Goldring, who has conducted all five of the pre-inquest hearings so far, has indicated that there may yet be a sixth hearing before the inquests begin.

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