Wednesday 20 November 2019

James Lawton: Truth sets families free from the horrors of Hillsborough

There was a time when you thought it would never go away, none of it -- the raw anger that was locked into the families of the victims of Hillsborough and made it impossible for them to grieve in any natural way. The terrible lies and evasions and smearing of 96 innocent people. And that appalling belief that there would always be a condescending message from some defender of the establishment that it was time to move on.

But how do you move on when you know you will never be able to calm the rage inside you? Where is there to go to escape a daily sense of your betrayal of those loved ones who died so needlessly?

That was the enduring horror of Hillsborough that was so profoundly relieved yesterday when the unvarnished report of an independent panel was handed to the families and British Prime Minister David Cameron made the unstinting apology for which they had worked, so often at the point of despair, for 23 years.

It wasn't closure because that cannot happen until the guilty are arraigned according to the law. Not a single life that might have been rescued that pitiless day can be restored but what happened yesterday was something that for so long had seemed almost as unattainable.

When Mr Cameron told the House of Commons that a terrible wrong had been exposed, you didn't have to be a relative to feel a great weight lift from your shoulders.

You had only to understand that the fabrication that for all these years defiled the trust in those responsible for the safety of ordinary people had come crashing down.

The celebration of this would have been even more intensely felt if circumstances had taken you, as they had me, to the Leppings Lane entrance of Hillsborough roughly half an hour before the kick-off of the semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

There are two abiding memories of those moments. One is of shock. The other is of powerlessness.

It was not necessary to have any professional knowledge of public safety to know that something was terribly amiss. A mounted policeman was quite unable to relieve the pressure of a crowd building in front of the locked gates, yet a few yards away a group of police officers talked among themselves.

There was, it was immediately apparent, a vacuum of leadership -- one that would eventually be confirmed by the Taylor Report.

The details of those steps to disaster would become grimly familiar soon enough, along with the smear that the problem was created by drunken, late-coming fans.

Even before a life was lost there was an unshakeable foreboding. When the gate was unlocked, when the fans were funnelled into the end of the ground that lacked a safety certificate, it was no less than a death sentence for 96 men, women and children.

The anger that would never leave you was rooted in the random nature of their fate.

At the other end of the ground housing Nottingham Forest fans, where you had been directed by police who admitted the situation was hopeless at Leppings Lane, it was another world of light and space.

So you took your place in the stand and you pointed your finger at Leppings Lane and said to a colleague you worried that people might well die.

Around about then, the Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaar began signalling frantically to officials: he knew beyond any doubt that a nightmare was unfolding.

Then you walked down on the field among the dead and the dying, some of whom we are told might have been brought back but for the catastrophic failure of the ambulance service, and you saw the fans who the South Yorkshire Constabulary would brief against, making their desperate, unpractised attempts to save life on a day on which they had come to watch football in the spring sunshine.

Of course, you carried such horror with you and it could only be magnified by the stories of all those relatives whose new lives of anguish started with heartbreaking attempts to identify their dead.

Every family had such stories, but one that lingers in the mind hauntingly and with a particular force is the one of the Joynes family, who lost their graduate son Nicholas. On an afternoon and early evening of harrowing tension their ordeal was, apparently, over when a friend called to say that he had seen Nicholas and he was safe. Nicholas's father Peter took out a bottle of wine to celebrate but then the phone rang again. The friend had been mistaken.

The battle of the Hillsborough families has always been driven by the need for absolute truth as well as justice -- and it was this that was most emphatically recognised by Mr Cameron yesterday.

The fury that drove them was fuelled by the appalling sense that their relatives' lives had been brushed aside by an establishment willing to sacrifice everything but the reputation of those most responsible.

When a civil prosecution of the police failed at Leeds Crown Court there was the draining belief, at least in this witness, that the harshest reality would always be obscured.

That was a feeling that seemed to run deep in almost everybody but the families, for whom all that was left was a grief that could never be truly eased, never allowed to take its own course.

Yesterday when Mr Cameron spoke, you were inevitably taken back to those scenes of confusion and desperate pain. You remembered the worst of sights, the awful draining of hope, the inevitable mounting of anger, and of course none of it became less raw or forgettable.

But there was, you could be confident, a revived strength in those who had fought so long to restore the good name of the loved ones from whom they had been so shockingly separated.

It was a rupture that could never be truly repaired but there had always been something that needed to be done: a straightening of accounts, a proper rendition of all that passed, and when it came from the House of Commons yesterday the success could hardly have been more resounding.

Also provoked was the memory of a distraught man at Hillsborough who cried, to no one in particular: "The truth about this day must be told."

It took a little time, but now it has been done and the air is that much clearer -- and easier to breathe. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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