IT was the day Liverpool got its reputation back. For so long, the place had been sniggered at and derided, tagged “self-pity city” and supposedly populated by whingeing, conspiracy theorists.
Yesterday it turned out that Liverpool was right all along.
Attitudes had set hard in the 23 years since the Hillsborough disaster. For many people first impressions lasted longest. The smears by the South Yorkshire Police defined the event for many.
Numerous times I have been informed by people that they “know” what happened in Sheffield on April 15, 1989. On every occasion, they had been told by someone else. They repeated the slurs that were placed in the public domain with brutal, nasty insensitivity by Kelvin MacKenzie in The Sun.
My eye-witness version — with its broken and twisted limbs and young people dying in the sunshine — was discounted as Scouse revisionism. After these conversations I would often wake from gruesome nightmares and howl with rage.
I have been told repeatedly to “get over it” and “move on”. British justice can today thank the families of the 96 who died and all those who fought for the truth for not moving on. Liverpool’s trust in the Government was minimal, which made David Cameron’s unequivocal endorsement of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s findings gratifying.
Those of us who knew what really happened could not comprehend the enormity of the emergency services’ failure or that the British public were blasé that this breakdown had been covered up with the crudest propaganda.
The panel’s report does not make easy reading. We had feared — deep down we knew — that many of the dead could have been saved. Yet it is still incredibly painful to see that as many as 41 could have been kept alive with prompt medical care.
There will be difficult days ahead, too. The 3.15pm cut-off for the time of death renders the original inquest meaningless. The Attorney-General must order a new one.
The actions of the police must come under severe scrutiny. It is one thing to make mistakes but quite another to go to such lengths to deflect blame. Those responsible for the errors in the stadium should be held to account but the men who organised the smear campaign against the victims are more insidious. Senior public servants served only themselves and inflicted pain on the bereaved and ignominy on the survivors.
A lot has changed since that spring day in 1989. The death toll continues to climb but away from the spotlight. Last year Stephen Whittle jumped in front of a train after telling a doctor he had sold a ticket to a friend who died in the Leppings Lane end.
Thousands of people witnessed unspeakable sights. Even now, suicides, breakdowns and alcoholism abound as people still struggle to cope with their experiences.
Liverpool got its reputation back and a host of apologies yesterday. But the price has been high. Nothing can bring back the 96. All we can do is restore honour to their memory. The Hillsborough Independent Panel did this yesterday. Now a public inquiry must ensure nothing like the disaster ever happens again.
* This piece first appeared on the front page of The Times and is used with permission.