For the Hillsborough families, the survivors and the city of Liverpool, this has been a week of miracles. Thursday’s front pages and thousands of words online, including some incredibly moving testimony from survivors and witnesses, spoke to the truly astonishing nature of this turnaround in public perception and opinion.
Behind it all is a story of remarkable courage and commitment, summed up, for me, by the small, determined figure of Margaret Aspinall, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, who spoke so movingly at Wednesday night’s vigil for the 96 men, women and children who died so needlessly 23 years ago. Margaret spoke directly to the survivors of the tragedy. It was time, she said, for the survivors to forgive themselves, to be proud not ashamed; time for them to move on, knowing that they were not villains but heroes – and knowing that people now knew the truth about that.
A sense of guilt is common among those who have survived traumatic events while others did not. In this case, it was compounded horribly by the cover-up that followed and by the media’s attacks on the characters of the supporters, most notably, of course, in the Sun, which presented wholly unfounded allegations of almost unbelievable acts of cruelty and disregard for life among fans as ‘The Truth’. To make up such stories about people and to go to such lengths to pin the blame on the dead suggests a level of callousness that is hard to imagine. That we could go 23 years without anyone in the police breaking ranks and telling the truth about it suggests that the culture that maintained the lie is still deeply ingrained.
Jack Straw suggested there was something close to a ‘culture of impugnity’ within sections of the police at the time. This was compounded by the divisive politics practised by the Thatcher government, which was all too happy to cast working people as the enemies of the state and to employ the police as its main weapon against them. To be a young, working-class Liverpudlian in the eighties felt, at times, like being an unwanted alien in your own country. The rhetoric used by ministers and echoed in the press felt very personal and certainly helped foment a feeling of resentment against the people of Liverpool – something which has never fully gone away.
I was one of the lucky ones. My Dad and I arrived at Hillsborough early and were safely in our seats in the Leppings Lane stand before the tragedy began to unfold. It was difficult to know what had happened. People were lying on the pitch, some with their faces covered. We saw supporters tear off advertising hoardings and use them as makeshift stretchers, ferrying the injured to ambulances at the other end of the pitch. We watched, incredulous, as the police formed a cordon across the half-way line, seemingly the only people unaware that something tragic was taking place. Some police tried to help the injured and dying but my impression at the time was that the fans were left to fend for themselves. Afterwards, I remember the queues of supporters desperate to phone home outside house after terraced house in the streets near the ground. I’ll never forget the sight of grown men holding one another and weeping.
For a long time afterwards, it felt as though Hillsborough was the only thing I thought about. I still think about it every day. When the Sun published its notorious front page – denying everything I had seen with my own eyes and putting in its place appalling allegations which I knew to be untrue – I felt anger but also impotence in the face of this sort of power and the willingness to exercise it so cold-bloodedly. This must have been so much worse for the families of those killed and for the survivors, many of whom had shown huge courage and decency on the day.
This week everything changed. The Prime Minister’s full acceptance of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report, and his unreserved apology, was a watershed moment, and he deserves credit for it. It was a significant moment, not only for the families and survivors but for democracy. But, momentous though it is, it is only the start. For the journey to be complete there must be full accountability. Those responsible for the tragedy must bear their weight of blame, and so must those whose dissembling caused so much pain for so many for so long. But the first historic step has been taken and there is now clear, unmistakable light at the end of the tunnel.
The great adult educator Raymond Williams said that to be truly radical was ‘to make hope possible rather than despair convincing’. That is what Margaret Aspinall, Sue Roberts, Sheila Coleman, Trevor and Jenni Hicks, Anne Williams and the other campaigners have done. They have made hope possible. Hopefully now, while never forgetting what took place that day, people can rebuild and move on, knowing that, finally, the truth has come out and they, emphatically, were not to blame. Justice now must follow and with it, I hope, reconciliation and, in time, the restoration of trust in the public bodies which fell so short.