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Tipping the scales towards justice for Hillsborough victims

On the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster STEVE ROTHERAM looks back at how the campaigning families of those killed shook the foundations of our political and judicial Establishment forever

By now there is virtually no-one left in our country who does not know why April 15 1989 is regarded as the darkest day in British sporting history.

The word Hillsborough has, in itself, become a symbol of historic injustice.

Yet for almost 25 years questions of why and how a disaster on that scale was allowed to happen remained unanswered.

Getting those answers and making them meaningful will require a detailed understand of the backdrop to Hillsborough - and it is complicated.

It includes the manner in which the city of Liverpool was perceived nationally and how the image of Liverpudlians had been distorted from depictions of the cheeky Scousers of the Merseybeat era and the long-haired lovers of Liverpool that little Jimmy Osmond (painfully) immortalised, to dangerous militant agitators and "giz a job" dole-ites during Merseyside's industrial decline.

More recently Boris Johnson's gross generalisation of Liverpool as "self-pity city" led to such outrage that the blond-haired beefy Bullingdon Boy came to the city to offer a personal apology.

It is worth remembering again that as football fans from Britain's most successful club - at the time - and as a city vehemently opposed to Thatcherism and the suppression of the working class, we were an easy target and there is no doubt that the Establishment exploited the opportunity to hit us hard.

Sometimes I find myself, in quiet moments late at night, asking myself: "How did this ever happen?"

I have read and reread the Taylor and Hillsborough Independent Panel reports, so I understand the culpability of those really responsible.

But my question is more to do with how an organised conspiracy of misinformation and smear can become the accepted orthodoxy of the day and why the "mother of all parliaments" took two decades to begin the process of putting right this great wrong.

Hillsborough's continued relevance has helped to expose other great historical injustices, even when people's capacity for shock regarding the behaviour of those charged with protecting society is diminishing.

From the hacking of a missing murdered schoolgirl's phone, to the surveillance of Stephen Lawrence's family, to the free rein that Jimmy Savile was afforded to abuse a seemingly endless list of vulnerable children, to Orgreave and the Shrewsbury pickets, questions remain about the conduct of some of those whose job it was to protect and serve.

However Hillsborough provoked large swathes of a country that doubted claims of collusion between politicians, the press and police to re-evaluate their preconceptions.

Unfortunately, but rather inevitably, there are still a minority of people in this country whose misperceptions of the people of Liverpool - hewed in the furnace of anti-Scouse sentiment that spilled from the pages of red-top rags and broadsheet apologists - is so strong that they refuse to look objectively at the facts before them.

Their ignorance is an element of the injustice which still fuels a deep-burning anger. I'm unsure if that will ever subside. I'm angry with those in authority who allowed things to deteriorate to the extent that 96 innocent men, women and children were needlessly lost.

I'm angry that the media - the self-proclaimed guardians of the truth - chose to ignore fact, opting instead for the reporting of fiction and, in some cases, concocting salacious untruths to sell a few more papers.

But most of all, I'm angry at our democracy. How did those who occupied positions of political and judicial power allow such an injustice to go unchecked for so long?

There was nothing new - other than the extent and sheer quantity of evidence - in what the Hillsborough Independent Panel published in September 2012.

It was evidence that had existed for more than 20 years.

A city had pointed to the body of proof that corroborated its version of the facts and yet no-one in power was prepared to really listen, although some did appear to play the game.

Books had been published outlining the substantiation of fans' accounts, but the Establishment had circled the wagons and picked off those that raised their heads above the parapet.

Those who campaigned for Hillsborough justice uncovered a dark underbelly within the mainstream of British society. For many years there has been an unquestionable imbalance in the pursuit of truth, with one version peddled by those in authority who have time, money and resources behind them, versus the authenticity of ordinary people fighting to expose wrongdoing and corruption.

I hope that the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report will be a line-in-the-sand moment - where the thirst for real truth is promoted instead of the favouritism that is often shown by the British judicial system to cases which are well-connected, well-funded and well-resourced. But, let's face it, cuts to legal aid will hardly help in that aim.

Since the momentous day when Bishop James Jones and his expert independent panel produced their report, I have reflected on the feelings expressed by families, survivors, supporters, campaigners, politicians and the country at large.

Remember that the Hillsborough families are a group of people who were brought together under extraordinary circumstances. They never wanted to be bound under the umbrella of "campaigners," but their fortitude stands as a lasting legacy for others fighting for justice against seemingly insurmountable odds.

As a result of what these remarkable women and men have undertaken over the past 25 years, never again should a police officer, lawyer or politician underestimate the unyielding bond of a parent's love for their lost child or the fortitude of a city wronged.

The heroines and heroes of the Hillsborough campaign have shaken the very foundations of our political and judicial establishments forever.

The legacy of the 96 is, in many ways, still to be fully appreciated. I believe history will judge it positively. It is one of police reform, political modernisation and ultimately a more meaningful concept of justice.

As we mark 25 years since the disaster, it is interesting to gauge public opinion, perhaps from conversations on Tube trains in London, on buses in Leeds or in bars and restaurants in Leicester.

It's no longer the faint, lonely cries of Liverpudlians of alleged malpractice on the part of organs of the state and the British Establishment - it is now the majority of the country that knows about it, accepts what really happened and who are appalled by the injustice of it all.

Gerry Marsden's anthem of Anfield calls on us to "Walk on, with hope in your heart," and that is exactly what we will continue to do, until we finally achieve justice for the 96.

 

Steve Rotheram has been Labour MP for Liverpool Walton since 2010. He also served as the Lord Mayor of Liverpool from 2008 to 2009.

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