It is right to re-open the New Cross fire inquest

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For most of us, the New Cross fire is but a distant memory. For the families of the 14 victims, the events of January 1981 have never gone away. The inquest, conducted just three months after the fire, was unable to reach a verdict. All sorts of theories have since been bandied about, from tragic accident to racist murder. The truth is that we simply do not know.

For most of us, the New Cross fire is but a distant memory. For the families of the 14 victims, the events of January 1981 have never gone away. The inquest, conducted just three months after the fire, was unable to reach a verdict. All sorts of theories have since been bandied about, from tragic accident to racist murder. The truth is that we simply do not know.

The police continued to investigate the cause of the fire for three years after the inquest but, getting nowhere, eventually they gave up. The victims' families, however, have never ceased campaigning for the investigation to be reopened, and yesterday their efforts were rewarded when the police recommended precisely that. Such have been the developments in forensic technology that they are now confident that they know how, when and where the fire spread ­ knowledge that makes a proper investigation and a reliable attribution of blame possible.

It is not just the victims' families who deserve praise for never letting up. The police, too, deserve great credit. Other than the campaigners, few people would have blamed them if they had let the events of two decades ago drop. In part, they were never able to do that, because of the constant pressure from the families for the investigation to continue.

Apart from the personal tragedy, the continuing mystery behind the New Cross fire has always been particularly disturbing, because of the widespread and understandable belief that it was arson ­ and racially motivated. Indeed, some of the families have long felt that the case was initially not properly investigated because the victims were black. That the inquest should have been held so quickly ­ after just three months ­ proved their point, they felt.

It would be wrong to assume anything about the cause now that the inquest is to be reopened. But if it was a deliberate act, and racially motivated, it ought to cause some of those who are always ready to remark that we are becoming dominated by "political correctness" to give some thought to what racist crimes can mean. It is easy to come up with stupid examples, such as the Crown Prosecution Service's insistence last week on prosecuting a child for making an alleged racist remark in a playground. But they are trifling. Racist crime can cost lives.

Whatever the cause of the New Cross fire is eventually found to be, it is good news that the families will at last be able to rest.

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