Standing tall on Liverpool’s famous waterfront lies the majestic Royal Liver Building, crowned by two enormous birds. Legend has it that one of the Liver Birds looks out to sea keeping watch over its prosperity, while the other turns inland, a protector of the people. The mythical Liver Bird is the unlikely protagonist in myriad legends of romantic intrigue but to most, the lofty bird is the symbol of Liverpool. Erected in 1911, the birds have stood tall during triumph and disaster, the years stripping the shiny copper finish but not the immense 18-foot structure. A century on, the noble form of the birds silhouetted against the Liverpool skyline speaks of pride and resilience.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. And with the new inquests underway, it’s once again making news headlines around the world. As the days go by, more and more personal tributes flood in, giving faces and identities to each of the 96. This does not make easy reading – 78 of those to die were under the age of 30 and many left spouses and young children behind. And yet it is wonderful to honour these people, taken before their time, in the pursuit of something they loved.
I hesitated before writing this post. This is my third Hillsborough tribute and I wasn’t sure I had anything new to say. However as the inquests began, I realized that my focus had shifted to the families of the 96, the survivors, and all those left behind. The story of the hundreds if not thousands of campaigners who have spent the past 25 years in pursuit of that most fundamental commodity: justice. As Hillsborough was not an accident. Hillsborough was a catalogue of errors, negligence and contempt resulting in carnage. But the disaster that took place on 15 April 1989 was sadly only the beginning of the tragedy. As the cover up which later emerged was so watertight and slick an operation that attempts to seek the truth were batted away with ease. The ordinary public took a sceptical stance – after all, what the families pleaded was so improbable, and the unjust reputation of football fans as drunken hooligans did nothing to strengthen the case. The senseless cruelty of loss was thus compounded by suspicion and damaging slurs.
On 19 April 1989, as that notorious headline first hit newsstands, the Anfield dawn was laced with the scent of a million flowers, lying in silent tribute. The visual impact of those scarves and flowers was startling. Kenny Dalglish claimed it was “the saddest and most beautiful” thing he had ever seen. A haunting show of solidarity in the face of blackness; a theme that would continue over the years. But if the families and campaigners had known of the long road ahead on that cold Wednesday morning, the hopelessness may have defeated them. For it would take 23 years for the light to break free.
15 April 1989: The worst stadium-related disaster in British history as (an eventual) 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death and hundreds more seriously injured.
19 April 1989: The sun publishes infamous front page article entitled ‘The Truth’, accusing fans of attacking and urinating on police officers and pick-pocketing the dead.
January 1990: The Taylor Report judged failure of police control to be the main reason for the disaster.
March 1991: A verdict of accidental death is returned at the inquests, ruling that all supporters were dead by 3.15 p.m. in spite of claims to the contrary.
August 1998: Home Secretary Jack Straw rules out a new inquiry, while the Hillsborough Family Support Group brings private manslaughter charges against the men in charge on that day: Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield and his deputy, Superintendent Bernard Murray.
July 2000: At the end of a six-week trial, Mr Murray is found not guilty of manslaughter while the jury fails to reach a verdict on Mr Duckenfield. The judge refuses a retrial, ruling that a fair trial for Mr Duckenfield would be impossible.
As one decade and then two crept by, the families were staunch in their fight for justice. But what about behind the scenes? How much happiness was lost? How much simple contentment was tinged with the bitterness of injustice? How many families buckled under the strain and how many survivors struggled with feelings of trauma and guilt? Cries of 'Justice for the 96' rose regularly from the stands and those in possession of the truth aired it with passion. And yet door after door was slammed in the faces of families and campaigners, key documents languished under a veil of deception and Tony Blair dismissed the case with the simple scrawl of 'what’s the point?' When the breakthrough came in 2012, the sense of triumph was overwhelming. Margaret Aspinall’s rousing, heartfelt speeches and Sheila Coleman’s impassioned words were as moving as they were awe-inspiring. And who could forget the steel in Anne Williams’ voice as she claimed, 'I will never go away'. Time sadly did run out for Anne who passed away last year, but not before she saw the light at the end of the tunnel. The bravery and sheer dignity shown by the Hillsborough families is incredible. They are an example to us all.
April 2009: The Hillsborough Independent Panel is set up following government minister Andy Burnham’s call for previously unreleased documents relating to the disaster to be released.
September 2012: After a long inquiry, the Hillsborough Independent Panel report finds that police orchestrated a cover-up, altered documents and blamed innocent supporters for the disaster. The document states that 41 lives could have been saved and absolves fans of any wrongdoing.
March 2014: New inquests into the disaster begin in Warrington. The inquests are expected to last nine months.
Hillsborough and the Justice campaign are examples of the darkness and light inherent to life. It is a saga that moves like nothing I have ever encountered. As a mourning Merseyside laid scarves and flowers, grown men sobbed. That people could die while part of something so joyful was perverse. Everybody knew somebody suffering at the hands of this unnecessary tragedy. And the years may have passed but the suffering did not. There was the devastation recorded in the newspapers and then the private devastation that was never aired. The type that keeps you awake in the dead of night and casts your life in grey. Too many tears have been shed in the hours since those cars, buses and trains set out for Sheffield. Tears of loss and abandonment. Tears of anger and frustration. Tears of wonder at the bravery shown by these exceptional people who would not give up.
The families of Hillsborough have long been admired on Merseyside. They were collectively named the Greatest Merseysider of All Time in a 2014 Liverpool Echo Poll; the annual memorial service is always packed to the rafters; and Justice for the 96 stickers can be found as far away as Australia as fans seek to spread the message. But since the revelations of September 2012, the world has stood in recognition. The Hillsborough charity single was the 2012 Christmas number one and Anne Williams was honoured at the 2013 BBC Sport’s Personality of the Year awards for her incredible commitment to uncovering the truth of what happened to her son Kevin. 'They're wearing me down,’ she had said. ‘But I'll wear them down before they wear me down’. And that she did.
It’s been a long road but the end is in sight. A spirit of optimism can be felt around Merseyside. The tide has turned and the truth is out. The 96 are being recognized as the men, women and children they were – a most basic right. And as we take our hats off to them, we turn to their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, grandchildren, grandparents and friends and honour them too. The people who affirmed, 'we will never go away – until we find Justice for the 96'.
And as the salty tears of Hillsborough washed over the land, the Liver Birds stood tall, as did the city: strong, resilient, protectors of the people.