Thursday 18 January 2018

Demolishing the tower of lies to build an immovable monument to the truth

Family members of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster on the pitch ahead of yesterday's Barclays Premier League match between Everton and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Goodison Park. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Family members of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster on the pitch ahead of yesterday's Barclays Premier League match between Everton and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Goodison Park. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images


Their loved ones were crushed against the caged fencing that fatally hemmed them in, the families were almost crushed by the monolithic power of a British establishment that had closed the gates of justice for 27 years.

Almost, but never totally. Last Tuesday their epic vigil ended. Last Tuesday they were finally liberated. It was the day the families had the honour of their 96 dead enshrined forever on the official record.

When all the flowers have withered, the scarves unravelled, the memorial services faded, this is the legacy that will endure. It is not a memorial cast in bronze, but a monument to the truth that will remain permanent and immovable.

It is a profound achievement, built on a magnificent act of love.

In an ad hoc courtroom, within an office block on a Warrington business park, the longest inquest in British legal history came to an end. It had sat for 308 days over two years. The jury heard from 620 witnesses.

The task of the inquest was to establish the facts surrounding the events of April 15, 1989, when 96 Liverpool FC supporters lost their lives at the Sheffield Wednesday football ground, Hillsborough. They had come to watch their team play Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semi-final.

Ronnie Whelan was Liverpool captain that season. After six minutes he was approached by the match referee, Ray Lewis. "Mr Lewis had a concerned look on his face," writes Whelan in his 2011 autobiography. "'Ronnie, take the players off, there's trouble at the back of the goal.' I looked up and saw a supporter had come on to the grass at the Leppings Lane end."

By then, some people in the Leppings Lane terrace were already dead; many more were dying. All of the fatalities occurred in two 'pens' directly behind the goal. Compressed by the crowd from behind, trapped against an iron perimeter fence at the front, ribs were cracked, bones broken, lungs collapsed.

One policeman who tried to rescue the stricken said that "everybody had urinated themselves"; people had involuntarily vomited and defecated. At the front were two piles of bodies. PC Eddison said a hand at the bottom of one was pulling at his trouser leg; it turned out to be the hand of a child.

The youngest to die was 10, the oldest 67; 37 were teenagers; 58 children lost a parent.

The tragedy was still unfolding when members of the South Yorkshire police force began building the tower of lies that would stand for 27 years. The foundation stone in this malevolent edifice was the assertion that Liverpool fans outside the ground had rushed a large exit gate, breaking it down and flooding into the pens, thereby causing the fatal crushing at the front.

In fact the opening of Gate C had been ordered by chief superintendent David Duckenfield at 2.52pm. But this was the truth that dared not speak its name.

The official narrative, propagated by the police, endorsed by the Government of Margaret Thatcher and disseminated in sections of the press, was that drunken and belligerent Liverpool fans had instigated the tragedy.

One of the survivors that day was Adrian Tempany. "It's a terrible thing to be nearly crushed to death," Tempany said on Tuesday, "and then face the allegation that you've been responsible for killing people."

In the long propaganda war that ensued, the living were smeared, and even the dead were smeared. Police statements were altered on an industrial scale. At every turn, the incompetence and negligence of police on the day, the ambulance services, the FA, Sheffield Wednesday FC and Sheffield City Council, were deflected and camouflaged beneath a sustained cover-up of quite stunning proportions.

It was against this implacable establishment garrison that the bereaved families hurled their pain and outrage for those 27 agonising years.

And it was no wonder, then, that the verdicts of the inquest jury last week were greeted with such a dam burst of emotion.

To a whole series of questions posed by Lord Justice Goldring, asking if the police, ambulance service and Sheffield Wednesday FC had been guilty of errors and omissions, the jury replied 'Yes'. "Are you satisfied," he further asked, "so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed?" The jury, this time by a 7-2 majority verdict, also said 'Yes'.

A day or two after the disaster, the Liverpool players travelled back to Sheffield to visit the hospitals. They were taken from ward to ward. "Every bed was surrounded by loved ones in terrible distress," recalled Whelan. "There were people in comas, on life-support machines. At one bed somebody said, 'They're turning the machine off today'."

The players took it in turns to attend the funerals in the weeks that followed. Anfield became a vast shrine of flowers and a sanctuary for a city in mourning. Kenny Dalglish led the club in those dreadful days with dignified forbearance. The institution that was Liverpool FC opened its arms and gathered in its people.

Inevitably, and unavoidably, normal life resumed. But for the families of the 96, a harrowing road of unimaginable length lay ahead. It came to some sort of a happy closure last week.

But as the Liverpool MP Andy Burnham said in the House of Commons: "It took too long in coming and the struggle for it took too great a toll on too many."

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