I’m not a Liverpool fan and I’ve never been to Hillsborough but, like many others, I’ve found this past week incredibly painful. I was four when that dark day in April 1989 came to pass, and though I wasn’t really old enough to fully understand what had happened, I recall the harrowing reaction of the people around me as those shocking images from Sheffield were broadcast into our home. I remember the confusion of seeing the terror unfold at an event I had previously only understood as a game.
Please don’t interpret this as me trying to hijack the suffering of the families of the ninety-six individuals who so tragically lost their lives. Though David Cameron, in his eloquent speech in the House of Commons, called Hillsborough a “national tragedy” I am conscious of the deeply personal nature of the suffering of those far more closely associated with the disaster than myself. I can not begin to fathom the depths of hurt these people have endured for the last twenty-three years, and can not stress enough how inspiring their bravery and stoicism has been.
Nevertheless the Prime Minister struck a chord. Hillsborough was – is – a national tragedy. After all, such was the state of football in Britain at the time that Hillsborough could have happened more or less anywhere, to more or less anyone. Crumbling stadiums, inefficient or overlooked safety procedures and poor policing were prevailing conditions that existed up and down the land, threatening tragedy with alarming regularity. The Bradford City stadium fire in 1985 in which 56 fans lost their lives was yet another black cloud in the gloomy skyline of 1980s Britain. But Hillsborough would cut the collective consciousness of the nation like nothing before.
The revelations this week of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report into the tragedy show why. Though long suspected, the full and repulsive extent of the cover up orchestrated by South Yorkshire Police makes it, not just the biggest scandal in the history of British sport, but arguably in the history of the country.
Standing out from the report are a set of conclusions and figures so shocking they are hard to digest: 164 statements altered to push blame onto fans, the confirmation that police carried out checks on the deceased with the sole intention of “impugning their reputations”, that similar near-disaster incidents in 1981, 1987 and 1988 made the tragedy entirely foreseeable and, ultimately, that forty-one of the victims had “the the potential to be saved” beyond the 15.15 time of death originally given by the coroner. The report certainly yields sadness and anger in abundance, but must now also bring justice in equal measure.
The HIP will now be dissolved, its report complete, but it has set the wheels of justice in motion. There are those who must now answer difficult questions, chief amongst them Sir Norman Bettison, who has so far hidden behind his title and position of power, and whose comments since the Hillsborough report was made public have shown not guilt or regret, but contempt for the families of the dead. Others have analysed the panel’s findings far better than I can, but it is clear even to me that there are villains out there that must be brought to account.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, and though I don’t share in his politics, the heartfelt apology offered by Cameron greatly moved me. Although the HIP’s report found no evidence of a government effort to help conceal evidence, in creating an atmosphere in 1980s Britain in which football supporters were regarded as sub-human the Thatcher administration allowed the narrative perpetuated by the police to grow, nurtured it even. Cameron’s words seemed like an acknowledgement of that injustice too, something which the families of the ninety-six, and football supporters as a community, needed to hear.
But Hillsborough has become so much more than a footballing tragedy. In pedalling outrageous lies, in besmirching the names of the dead in a vile attempt to disguise their own failings, and in attempting to block the truth at every turn the police force have reminded us all just how easily justice can be subverted. Britain must learn from this scandal. This is why Hillsborough matters to us all.
At the heart of the of Wednesday’s proceedings were a group of fans who, in refusing to accept their persecution at the hands of the authorities and the media, have shown us all that right can still triumph over might. We all owe a gratitude to the Liverpool supporters who for twenty-three painful years have campaigned relentlessly for their cause. They’ve challenged at every turn the opinion, until Wednesday still held by many, that the Hillsborough disaster was caused by hooligans, and that their loved ones were such monsters. This is why Hillsborough matters to Liverpool and to football.
Hopefully, buried amongst the now exposed myriad of evil and deceit, there is at last some crumb of comfort, some semblance of closure that has been uncovered by the work of the HIP. If we wish for nothing else, let us all pray that the families of the ninety-six may now sleep a little easier.
But we should not rejoice in any of this, for there is nothing to celebrate. There is no light to be found, only darkness.
May the families of the ninety-six never have to walk alone through that darkness again.