On the 15th April 1989, Liverpool FC was set to play Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s football ground, Hillsborough, in the FA Cup semi-final. Six minutes in, the game was stopped. A crush had developed in the pens, leading to the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans. 94 people died on the day, followed by Lee Nicol’s death on the 17th April and Tony Bland’s death in 1993, after being in a persistent vegetative state since the disaster.
To put the impact of these deaths in perspective, Liverpool is a city that acts like a town. Everyone knows one another, meaning that it’s rare to find someone without a Hillsborough story. My dad was at the match, helping people up onto the stands from the terrace. My uncle was in the middle of it all, looking through bodies to try to find his best mate. This wasn’t an isolated event; it shook an entire city.
The following Wednesday The Sun’s infamous front cover was published, sickeningly entitled ‘The Truth’.
- “Some fans picked pockets of the victims.”
- “Some fans urinated on the brave cops.”
- “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life.”
The widespread phrases of ‘Justice for the 96’ and ‘Don’t Buy the Sun’ are the outcomes of Hillsborough: Liverpool in protest, dehumanized by right-wing slander and left to grieve unsupported. The dissatisfaction of the verdict of the corresponding Taylor Inquiry and Report, advising mostly that the structure of football stadiums should be changed from open pens and high metal barriers to seats, added to the outrage of Kelvin Mackenzie’s ‘truth’. This spurred Liverpool to campaign, to demand justice in the form of a real investigation, a rejection of the original verdict of accidental death, and a prosecution of whoever was to blame for these deaths. This has been admirably and bravely led by the families of the 96 for the past 27 years.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel was set up in 2009 by Labour MPs Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle, and was chaired by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool. In 2012 it published its independent report, the findings of which included that, contrary to the belief of The Sun, no Liverpool fan was to blame for these deaths. The failure of the South Yorkshire police to maintain control led to the 96 deaths – 41 of which could have been prevented had imminent and effective care been granted. Other findings included the altering of witness statements and the blood alcohol testing of the victims, including 10-year old Jon-Paul Gilhooley. All of this conspired in 1989 to paint a picture of Liverpool fans as hooligans, in stark contrast to the image of the “brave cops” maintaining law and order and saving innocent lives. The only problem for the creators of this image was that Liverpool wasn’t convinced, nor was it prepared to accept the blame.
I was born in 1997 into an angry Liverpool, a Liverpool still heartbroken from the disaster. I knew details of the tragedy as I knew the primary colours and how to count to 10. I knew that if justice were to be delivered I would have to demand Justice for the 96 and reject The Sun; as did every other child. It helps that I support Liverpool, yes; but the poignancy of this movement is that it affected everyone, including Everton fans. This movement goes beyond football, beyond religion, beyond anything that sets the people of Liverpool apart. Indeed, if you buy The Sun you are viewed as an outcast.
Following the Hillsborough Independent Panel report, apologies flooded in; David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband expressed their regrets on behalf of the British Government. Kelvin Mackenzie apologised for his words, which, as you can expect, he was derided for. The Hillsborough inquests began in March 2014 and ended earlier this month, with the verdict finally being announced today.
The verdict of the Hillsborough inquiry was a long time coming. Justice was predicted, but the nature of this justice was yet to be decided. The jury was asked to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a 14-point questionnaire, deciding that yes, the people who died at Hillsborough were unlawfully killed; yes, errors in policing led to the crush and corresponding deaths; yes, errors of the South Yorkshire ambulance service to recognise this crisis led to further deaths; yes, the deaths were a result of gross negligence; and, most importantly, no, there was no ill behaviour on behalf of the football supports that led to their deaths.
This verdict, once a conspiracy theory and now finally a legal decision, is everything for Merseyside, for the city of Liverpool, for the families of the victims – who we must think of today – and for the 96. Though justice in the form of a prosecution is yet to be delivered, this day has been long-awaited, long fought for, long dreamed of. We must never forget the 96; all of this is for them.
Words by Caitlin O’Connor