IF you want to experience what it’s like when the population of an entire city holds its collective breath, visit Liverpool in the next 24 hours.
Look into the eyes of parents who live in hope of truth and justice and you will see a mixture of optimism and fear. Talk to people who have campaigned in the face of an establishment cover up and you will be struck by both their tension and their tenacity.
This is what almost 23 and a half years of living with the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster comes down to – an anguished, almost desperate anticipation that at least one of the painfully raw wounds caused by British football’s worst tragedy can finally be healed.
Tomorrow, in the wonderful neoclassical setting of St George’s Hall, thousands of people will gather, just as they have done when the city’s two football clubs, Liverpool and Everton, have paraded the trophies they have won at home and abroad.
This time, though, it is something much more precious than silverware that those present are hoping to see, they want to be able to celebrate the triumph of truth over lies after more than two decades of suffering a stigma of slurs that began even before those who perished on the death trap that was the Leppings Lane end had even been identified.
For that to happen, for a merciful release to be granted, something must happen which has never happened before – the state must accept full responsibility for the tragic loss of 96 lives at Hillsborough.
There can be no more diversions, no hiding behind scurrilous front page headlines derived from unattributed briefings and no authority figures abusing their positions to try and justify or, worse, explain away the chronic failings of South Yorkshire Police and other public bodies on April 15, 1989.
There must also be an acceptance that, in the words of Tony Edwards, the only ambulance worker who made it on to the Hillsborough pitch on that fateful day, the emergency services did not “give the proper care and attention that was due to the people who were dying.”
That is the hope, that the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which has scrutinised hundreds of thousands of newly released documents relating to the disaster, will usher in a new era of responsibility and perhaps even accountability.
But anyone who has been involved in the campaign for justice at any level is all too aware of the potential pitfalls of hope, they have been here before only to be kicked in the bollocks and sent packing by an establishment that after failing to show due care for those who were killed or injured at Hillsborough, then added to the suffering by shifting blame in a desperate attempt to avert attention from their own deficiencies.
From the imposition of a 3.15pm cut off point following the controversial ruling of Dr Stefan Popper, the coroner, that all of the victims had lost their fight for life by that point, to Lord Justice Stuart-Smith’s scrutiny which Andy Burnham, the MP for Leigh, admitted yesterday “had all the feeling of an establishment cover up,” a succession of official doors have been slammed in the faces of campaigners and they are all to wary of it happening again.
That is why Liverpool has the feel of a tightly coiled spring right now, the truth feels close enough to be intoxicated by it but there is still a suspicion, one built on experience, that it could yet be suppressed, that there are vested interests who will stop at nothing to prevent the world from knowing without fear of contradiction that Liverpool supporters were not the villains of the piece at Hillsborough – as they were shamefully portrayed in The Sun newspaper – they were actually the heroes.
In his report into the disaster, Lord Justice Taylor demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that ticketless fans were not a cause of the disaster, nor was the consumption of alcohol a contributory factor.
Instead, the judge laid the blame at the door of South Yorkshire Police, a verdict which failed to lead to the prosecution of a single officer who was on duty that day.
“A blunder of the highest magnitude,” was how Taylor described the decision of Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield to open an exit gate, allowing around 2,000 fans to flood into an already congested central pen of the Leppings Lane terrace. He also condemned the “sluggish reaction and response [from police] when the crush occurred.”
Still, however, more than 22 years after the report was published, the vicious falsehoods and malicious myths which were peddled by sections of the media that were compliant to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government continue almost unabated.
Taylor may have been one of the country’s most prominent and respected legal figures but his report was never going to be studied by anything like the millions of people who were startled by The Sun’s revelations that came less than 48 hours after the disaster.
Accuracy and exactitude has played forlorn second fiddle to sensationalism and slander ever since and it is this wrong, perhaps more than any other, that now needs to be put right.
An exchange on Twitter today between David Conn, The Guardian sports writer who has been at the forefront of the media campaign on Hillsborough, and a supporter summed up the imbalance. Neither the name, nor the club that the fan supports are of any significance, but his ignorance is.
“They scream justice, justice for what?” the fan asked. “Everyone knows SYP are partly to blame, but so are some LFC fans with no tickets.” All Conn could do was direct the complainant to a report he had never taken the time to read. “Very depressed you’re repeating false stories dismissed in the Taylor Report,” he said. “Try to open your mind [and heart] tomorrow.”
In just one brief debate on Twitter, the enduring tragedy of Hillsborough had been captured. The truth has been struggling to make itself heard ever since April 15, 1989 but tomorrow that could all change.
Should that happen then the people of Liverpool can collectively breathe out and the tension which currently grips them will be replaced by a palpable feeling of relief and expressions, not of victory, but of vindication.
It has been a long, painful wait but the end to their suffering finally appears to be in sight.
This article originally appeared in The Game blog on The Times website.