David Bartlett speaks to MARIA EAGLE MP, who first revealed the Hillsborough cover-up
MARIA Eagle had conclusive proof in 1998 of the systematic police cover-up after Hillsborough.
South Yorkshire Police were forced by then Home Secretary Jack Straw to deposit statements in the House of Commons library.The 12 boxes of previously unseen material contained amended police statements that were exposed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel.
The MP for Garston and Halewood spent three days going through the documents, and delivered her findings of a “black propaganda unit” in a damning speech in parliament.
It was hardly picked up at the time.
“That speech is probably the best speech I have ever made,” said the Garston and Halewood MP. It would take a further 14 years for the Hillsborough families to be publicly told the full truth about the reasons for the disaster that claimed 96 lives.
In 2009, after the 20th anniversary of the Sheffield disaster, she was instrumental with Andy Burnham MP in persuading the previous Labour cabinet to set up the Hillsborough Independent Panel.
“It is a tremendous relief that the panel confirmed what the families have been saying for so long,” said Ms Eagle.
“When the Prime Minister stood up in parliament and detailed the findings, my reaction was different to most people in there.
“There were gasps and people were shocked. I sat there counting off thinking to myself ‘we knew that, we knew that’.”
The revelation that 41 lives might have been saved had the emergency services done their job properly was still a huge revelation for everyone though.
While Mr Straw has faced criticism for the now discredited Stuart Smith inquiry, Ms Eagle believes he set it up in good faith.
“I personally think it was set up in good faith and it failed, I think Stuart Smith was the wrong person to do it.”
The judge had seen the changed statements but did not believe they were important.
“I just can’t believe how he could think that.”
Ms Eagle believes, and said in 1998, that the police never had time to finish altering statements after the 1989 disaster because the Taylor inquiry was up and running so quickly.
“Had they had a couple of more months they might had succeeded, but Taylor saw through it.”
The judge was highly critical of South Yorkshire Police in his interim report.
In the speech in 1998 she also named Norman Bettison as having been part of the black propaganda unit.
Mr Bettison went on to become the chief constable of Merseyside just months later. He is currently chief constable of West Yorkshire Police and is under investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission for his role in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster.
Mr Bettison was thrown back into the spotlight last week after saying that fans’ behaviour had made the policing operation harder on the day.
This view is not supported by the findings of the independent panel and Mr Bettison was forced to apologise..
The shadow transport secretary maintains Mr Bettison has an “intimate knowledge” of the aftermath of the disaster and still has questions to answer.
Last week she called on the Prime Minister to intervene.
The quest for justice now enters a legal phase with the first step being to overturn the discredited inquests that returned a verdict of accidental death.
“My job as an MP is not over. I have constituents who are affected and I have still got a job to help them however I can.”
The Hillsborough campaign is the second long-running cover-up that this younger (just) half of the famous Eagle twins has been involved in exposing.
Upon election in 1997 she took over the case work of predecessor Eddie Loyden who had been fighting for justice for the seaman who lost their lives when the MV Derbyshire sank in the South China Sea in 1980.
A 20-year campaign to establish the truth of what happened, and to clear the crew members of any blame, followed.
Seventeen of the crew members who died were from Liverpool and the surrounding region.
She said the establishment cover-up had echoes of Hillsborough.
“After I took over from Eddie Loyden I felt like I should take it up, and we ended up winning. I have always been motivated by helping people out, whether it is in parliament or when I was a solicitor.”
It is clear the 51-year-old still draws much inspiration from her mother Shirley who died at the same age from cancer.
“My mother was not able to get a decent education because her family did not understand the value of education and they would have had to spend money on her uniform.
“She always regretted that and always encouraged Angela and I.
“I always thought it was wrong that someone who was clever enough didn’t get the chance.”
Ms Eagle went to St Peter's Church of England School and Formby High School before attending Pembroke College, Oxford.
After studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics she went on to become a lawyer, and was involved in fighting for compensation for Hillsborough families.
“The idea of helping people is a key part of what gets me up in the morning.”
Having delivered the Labour government’s disability discrimination laws as a minister in the Blair government in the early 2000s, she is now the shadow transport secretary.
Sorting out the country’s trains and buses is her main priority, not least the current row over West Coast.
As she readily admits it’s harder to help people when your party is in opposition. “That’s why I want to be back in power. It’s up to us to do our utmost [to win the 2015 General Election]. I have always been quite optimistic about that and I still am.”