AFTER 23 years of banging their heads against a succession of brick walls put in front of them by an establishment that didn’t seem to care, the Hillsborough families and their supporters have spent the past three months pinching themselves.
From David Cameron standing up in the House of Commons and apologising for the cover-up that followed the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough on April 15, 1989 to Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, applying for fresh inquests, the past 99 days have been as remarkable as the 281 months were soul destroying.
The stream of small but significant breakthroughs that led up to the Hillsborough Independent Panel producing its history changing report on September 12 has now become a tidal wave, one that threatens to wash away the lies which allowed a tragedy to be tainted by an orchestrated police smear campaign.
Today there were two more major breakthroughs, ones that seemed impossible as recently as last year but which in the light of recent events have taken on an air of almost normality. The announcement of a new police investigation into Hillsborough was unexpected, in its timing at least, but the quashing of the original accidental death inquest verdicts on the 96 had been widely anticipated.
Within this new normality, such advances seem almost routine but they need to be viewed as the seismic shifts that they are. All of a sudden, the justice which had been so cruelly denied to the victims and their families for more than two decades is starting to be seen to be done. How such an incredible turnaround came about is a story of people power in its purest and most inspiring sense, of families, loved ones, friends and strangers coming together to give the truth a chance of emerging from a litany of lies.
The scandalous, unforgivable attempts to shift the blame for Hillsborough on to the victims is now seen for what it always was – a disgraceful cover-up that Michael Mansfield QC believes was the biggest in British legal history.
Vindication is now coming on almost a daily basis but even that does not take away from the fact that the families have been forced to wait for more than 23 years to get to this stage. That is unforgivable and it was put into its proper context by Barry Devonside, a father whose 18-year-old son Christopher perished on the death trap that was the Leppings Lane end. Although so much is changing, Mr Devonside said, one thing never does: “Those we lost still won’t be coming home.”
Still, as Andy Burnham, one of a number of MPs who have campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the Hillsborough families, pointed out outside the High Court, today’s events are “the most significant so far”. The accidental death verdicts were always one of the biggest thorns in the side of the families because they meant that no one was responsible for Hillsborough, it was just an unfortunate consequence of events rather than the act of criminal negligence that they believed it to be.
So inappropriate was the original verdict that the families refused to accept it, with many of them refusing to collect their loved one’s death certificate in protest. As one of the mothers told Brian Reade, the Daily Mirror journalist who has been at the forefront of the media campaign, back in 1990: “While I have breath I’ll fight that wicked verdict because when you bring a child into this world the words on the birth certificate are accurate. When they leave the least they deserve is the right ones on their death certificate.”
There is now, finally, belatedly and thankfully, a chance that those mothers and fathers will at last get the death certificates that reflect how their sons and daughters were killed, rather than the meaningless pieces of paper which claimed they were the victims of an accident.
As the Hillsborough Independent Panel proved in its remarkable report, Hillsborough was no accident, especially as it was proven that as many as 58 of its victims could have been saved had they received proper medical attention. This was negligence on an unimaginable scale and justice will be served only if that is recorded officially and reflected in new and accurate death certificates.
But even if that does happen no one should be grateful, instead we should be angry as a nation and as a society that it has taken so long and that so many institutions of the state worked against the Hillsborough families and their battle for justice when they should have been coming to their aid. That is a stain that can never be wiped clean and with every new breakthrough that is made, the scale of the cover-up and the callousness of those perpetrated it heaps even more shame on the establishment.
A grievous wrong began to be righted at the High Court today and its significance should not be understated but it has taken 23 years too long for justice just to begin to reveal itself and had it not been for the unstinting determination of the Hillsborough families and their supporters it might never have done so.
* This article first appeared in The Times on December 19th 2012.