Twenty five years. A quarter of a century. If, like me, you have vibrant memories from before 1989, then you will feel the heavy import of that phrase. It is a tangible era in time. A significant milestone. A quarter of a century. By the time this writer was 25, I was a father to my beautiful daughter and doing a passable impression of a settled family man. A lot can happen in a quarter of a century and yet for the families of the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy, the vast majority of those years were spent in the most crushingly bleak of pursuits -- fighting a police cover-up and a scandalous miscarriage of justice which followed the tragic deaths of their own daughters and sons, spouses, family and friends.
Think of that. Think of the frustratingly long years when no major media outlet would countenance presenting their story justly. Try to imagine the mental fortitude required to retain hope in the face of governmental indifference and disdain. Ponder the strength of will needed to face down powerful media peddlers of damned abhorrent lies like those printed in The Sun. Contemplate what you would do if, for over two decades, senior figures in the police and the government propagated myths that suited their own agenda and tarred your loved ones as hooligans whilst casting aspersions on the city's people as a whole.
25 years ago today, 96 Liverpool fans set out for an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. It should have been just another day of joyous celebration in the lives of the people of a city that Margaret Thatcher's crass policies had marginalised and starved of funding. Through football, and the success of both Merseyside clubs, the city could thumb its nose at Tory disdain. Nottingham Forest would provide the opposition and although Brian Clough's team were a formidable outfit, those 96 fans and their companions would have harboured dreams of a second Double in four seasons. Tragically, as a result of the arrogant negligence, incompetence and contempt of those entrusted with the safety of the supporters, all football-related issues were rendered utterly insignificant, as those 96 men, women and children were lost to their families forever. It was the darkest day in the history of Liverpool.
It is almost incomprehensible to anyone with a heart and a rudimentary grasp of the concept of justice, that it has taken 25 years for the families of the 96 to finally see the truth emerge -- a truth that all right-thinking people have always known -- about the events that led to the deaths of their loved ones and the gross injustices that occurred in the aftermath of the tragedy. To compound the massive loss of the families at the time, the reputations of the dead, along with those of the survivors, the club they supported and the city most of them hailed from, were smeared by cynical self-serving authorities. On March 28th, 1991 the original inquests, the longest running in British legal history, concluded with the jury returning a verdict of accidental death. It was not until December 19th, 2012 that the verdicts of those inquests were quashed.
The findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel offered, after more than two decades of suffering and frustration, a modicum of comfort to the grieving families, as the lack of adequate safety provisions and the inadequate response of the emergency services were found to have been the root causes of the disaster. Distressingly, according to the panel's report, up to 41 of the victims might have survived had the the response of the emergency services been more efficient. Of the 164 police statements taken in the aftermath, 116 were proven to have been changed in order to show the police in a more positive light. Similarly, statements made by members of the South Yorkshire ambulance service were also altered. Verdicts of accidental death were quashed, a new inquest was ordered and an inquiry into police culpability and malpractice was initiated by The Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Those new inquests have been heard of late in Warrington by Court of Appeal judge Lord Justice Goldring, as due respect is finally given to each of the victims of the tragedy, with relatives and friends presenting moving portraits of the lives that had been lived by their deceased loved ones. The long overdue official acknowledgement of the 96 is yet another step in what is surely now an inexorable march towards justice but for much of the last 25 years the families and those who have campaigned on their behalf were unheeded voices crying in the wilderness. A combination of barely-concealed hatred and inexcusable apathy was persistently thrown up like a roadblock barring any progress to resolution.
Speaking to campaigners like Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and Tony Evans of The Times, I was struck more by their stories of those bleak and dark years than by anything else. I marvel at the sheer will of the families and the massive courage they drew from the knowledge that what they were saying was simply the truth. They would not just go away. They would not be browbeaten by intimidation, legal threats, offensive ignorance or spirit crushing apathy. They would fight. They would rail. They would stand for what was right.
Of course, there have always been pockets of support for the campaign for justice for the 96 outside the city. Nowadays the media elbow and jostle for space at the front of the queue to cover the inquests and crow about injustice, and whilst the families will no doubt welcome the positive coverage of their campaign, it sounds more than a little hollow coming from some quarters. In the past, when only a few journalists cared and the truth was ignored, there were small gestures which Coleman says "sustained" the families. Fundraisers, letters, emails and other shows of support came from my own country and all over the world. They were simple shows of solidarity, an indication to the families that they were not alone.
Words cannot adequately express the hardship endured by the families and their supporters over the last quarter of a century. We may have bridled at the nasty scorn and disdainful dismissal of those who would not see the truth, and the denizens of Liverpool may have endured slanderous misrepresentation since 1989, but only the families have had to suffer the injury of loss added to the insult of calumny. Theirs has been a long and dark journey characterised by a magnificent fortitude of will and an inspirational retention of hope that there would eventually be justice for the 96.