Before examining the latest twists in the painfully arduous trek towards truth and justice for those who died at Hillsborough twenty four years ago, it is important to remind ourselves of why this is relevant to everyone. I recently got to know a man my own age who still lives with the trauma of what happened that day. The haunting poetry he wrote, eloquently describing his memories of the tragedy, is some of the most profound and moving writing I've ever read.
After the recent BBC Panorama documentary exposing the police corruption at the heart of the tragedy, he expressed surprise when I said I hoped that people would finally wake up to what had really happened. He could not believe that people were still indifferent and uninformed. So many are. The shock and surprise expressed in the aftermath of that documentary was at once heartening and crushing. It is wonderful that people are slowly becoming aware but why only now?
Ninety six innocent people lost their lives whilst attending what should have been a joyous and celebratory occasion. Their deaths occurred due to inadequate planning and safety provision but the horror was massively compounded by the way in which the blame was cynically and systematically shifted onto those who had died. An extensive cover-up and smear campaign was set in train and for over two decades, the families of the ninety six, the survivors and the entire city of Liverpool were subject to cruel indifference, malicious slander and ignorant contempt.
At the second preliminary hearing in London yesterday, the families and campaigners in attendance will have been heartened to hear Lord Justice Goldring announce the thirty first of March as the date on which fresh inquests into the deaths will provisionally begin. There has been some dispute over the venue for those hearings and, as a result, no specific place has been chosen but the likelihood is they will take place in the North West.
If, however, the recent magnificent steps forward had encouraged people to believe that a conclusion would be swift and uncomplicated, they were disabused of that theory very quickly yesterday. In a clear indicator of the ferocity of the fight still remaining, John Beggs QC, on behalf of the Police Superintendents Association and representing Hillsborough match commander, Sir David Duckenfield and his senior colleagues, implied that the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel were unreliable, as the panel, he insisted, had "an agenda."
"We don't regard that report as independent. Their terms of reference inferred that it would not be," said Beggs of the HIP report. Needless to say, the reaction in court was one of bewildered and resigned head-shaking and afterwards many of the campaigners expressed various levels of outrage and disgust at the defensive attitude the police had adopted. For a moment, it seemed as if nothing had changed.
Beggs' claims were dismissed utterly by most. Speaking outside the court, Sheila Coleman of the HJC, took an eminently reasonable view. She acknowledged that from a strictly legal point of view, Beggs' assertion might have some validity but reminded the assembled media of the reality behind the claim.
"I would say that if the panel had an agenda, it was finding the truth," insisted Coleman. "The panel's work is widely accepted and much of the material it presented was found by families down the years and is simply a statement of facts."
Barry Devonside, whose son Christopher died at Hillsborough aged just eighteen, was definitive in his assertion that the fight ahead would be difficult. His words were a stark reminder of the weight of opposition the families have faced and continue to battle.
"We have to be aware," said Devonside, "that when the inquests start, the South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and the Football Association will come out fighting and if anybody thinks differently to that, they are deluded. These people are going to go down with a tremendous fight."
There is little merit to further speculation as to what will happen next. Suffice it to say that all right-minded people are four-square behind the campaign for truth and justice to finally be brought to those who need it most -- the families of the departed. Let us hope that soon we will have justice for the Ninety Six.