Justice for the 96

Posted by Kristian Walsh

When you kiss goodbye to those close to you tomorrow morning, imagine it is the last kiss you share. Imagine those close to you taking part in their ordinary routine - work, shopping, school – but never coming home. Ninety-six people did an ordinary thing on April 15 1989. An ordinary thing is all football is and all it was ever meant to be. Those 96 people went to a football match, never to return. No one should ever have to suffer that. Many have for 23 years.

A lot can happen in 23 years. Twenty-three birthdays, 23 Christmas Days. Countless football matches. Jon-Paul Gilhooley, the youngest victim of the tragedy, would now be 33. But a lot hasn’t happened in 23 years for those involved with Hillsborough. The families of the victims still wait for justice; the survivors of the tragedy still wait for answers. For 23 years, the full extent of what happened and how the authorities failed them have been withheld. It is 23 years too long.

On Wednesday, the overdue next step is taken. An independent panel of experts, chaired by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, will attempt to deliver the narrative to events at Hillsborough. 450,000 internal documents have been perused for nearly two years. A number of unanswered questions will hopefully be answered; the shadow that looms over the truth of that day, cast by those in authority that day, will finally be lifted.

The Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG) submitted 42 questions to the panel, every one as pertinent as the other.

Some questions related to the cause: Why was a venue without a safety certificate used for such a high-profile match? Why did just one ambulance of 42 make it on to the pitch? Why were only 14 of the victims taken to hospital?

Some related to the consequences: Who misled or encouraged Bernard Ingham, then Thatcher's press secretary, into erroneously thinking "drunken ticketless fans" were to blame? Why were police statements edited? Why the inference of alcohol, including accusing one victim of vomiting beer when there was no alcohol in his blood alcohol sample?

Yet more questions, not included in the HFSG’s list. Why, during the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, was it wrongly said that fans had pushed down the exit gate, even though Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield ordered it to be opened? Why was it said the cut-off point for time of deaths was at 3.15pm, when one of the victims, 15-year-old Kevin Williams, was reported to have been alive after that time by both an off-duty police officer and special constable?

But the biggest question of all is why the families and friends of the deceased have had to ask these questions for so long; why the survivors of the disaster have never been given answers. It has not been due to a lack of effort or commitment. The Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) are bereaved families, survivors and supporters who have worked tirelessly to find justice; to see those who should truly be held to blame be outed.

Their quest has not been helped by the actions of the Sun newspaper days after the disaster. The headline “THE TRUTH”, concocted by then-editor Kelvin Mackenzie, was a crass attempt to sensationalise the deaths of 96 people. What’s worse, it accused the Liverpool supporters of vile acts, every single accusation untrue. It claimed fans stole from and urinated on the dead, deeds perpetrated because of drunkenness. Not one single person has ever come forward to back up those stories, because those acts were never committed. Lord Justice Taylor, in his report on the disaster, said fans were not drunk, nor worse for drink. But some in this country care little for facts. It is because of those lies that people don’t support the fight for justice.

It is because of those lies that some people regard Liverpool as a "self-pity city". Either through ignorance or bigotry, some people still believe it. But the city has risen above it and the boycott of the Sun is still, rightfully, adhered to by most on Merseyside.

But beyond the despicable behaviour of journalist Harry Arnold and his editor Mackenzie lies something more crucial. The story was undoubtedly an attempt to shock; furthermore, it was a missile fired at supporters, a large stroke of the brush in a smear campaign launched by the authorities in an attempt to cover their own incompetence. There are a lot of people to blame for the Hillsborough disaster – Liverpool fans were not among them. That has already been proven. What is now hoped for is that the report reveals who truly is, on the record, for everyone to know.

It is the least those who have fought for 23 years deserve for their dignity and perseverance throughout. In January 2007, Anfield staged a ‘Truth Day’, a protest against the lies printed by The Sun in 1989. It was as poignant as it was visceral. For six minutes, the Kop held up red and white cards to form a mosaic which spelt out ‘THE TRUTH’ and chanted ‘Justice for the 96’, each repetition becoming louder, more intense, more emotional; so loud, intense and emotional, no one could ignore it. Not even the government. It was time they listened. They didn’t in 1989. Hopefully, they do now.

The people who died at Hillsborough would still be on the Kop today following their football team. A hug at Istanbul or a sing song at Wembley, lost forever. No matter where you are in Anfield, it's hard not to spot the eternal flame. It rests upon the club’s shirt. It rests upon pin badges and stickers. It flickers, never-ending, inside the Hillsborough memorial. It is a reminder to us all that no one should have to suffer what those who knew the 96 suffered; a reminder that no one should never return home from a game of football.

“All the families have ever wanted is the full truth, and an acknowledgement by those responsible,” said Margaret Aspinall at the 20th anniversary memorial service at Anfield. Margaret is the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, whose 18-year-old son James died in the disaster. Three years on from that memorial, and 23 years after losing her son, the full truth may be imminent. It might not give her, or the other families, the justice they want, nor the closure they will probably never have. But the eternal flame still flickers, never to be extinguished. It will burn brighter still on Wednesday.

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