This evening, at the Houses of Parliament, we saw a revelation. After twenty-two and a half long years, the Members of Parliament present decided unanimously and without the need for a vote that the government should release all of its documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, bringing, at long last, a chink of light to the ongoing battle of the families of those that died that day after years of struggle. To say that this was evening when emotions ran high would be an understatement of epic proportions. This was an evening when bureaucracy took on a human face, when elected representatives told the story of English football’s greatest tragedy, in terms that left any “debate” over the release of these documents utterly redundant.
It was an evening which saw once in a lifetime parliamentary performances from several MPs. Firstly was the member for the Liverpool Walton seat, Steve Rotherham. Mr Rotherham’s speech lasted for twenty-eight minutes and can be seen in full here. A man that was present on the day of the disaster, his clear and concise speech concluded with a point of principle in a world which often seems to have none these days: a listing, for the purposes of the official government record Hansard, of the names and ages of all of those that died. To applause at the end of his speech, he repeated a phrase which has become the tragic mantra for the search for answers in the two decades since it happened: justice for the ninety-six.
Rotherham wasn’t only member of parliament to shine this evening. Alison McGovern, the member for Wirral South, choked back tears as she talked of the human tragedy of the disaster. Andy Burnham, the member for Leigh, former Culture minister and a former Chair of Supporters Direct, described the attitude towards football supporters by the police at the time as them being considered “the enemy within”. Esther McVey, the member for Wirral West, described how the help that supporters that day gave to the injured was “cruelly and inaccurately misrepresented in tabloids”, whilst Maria Eagle, the member for Garston and Halewood, described the official treatment of the families of the dead after the disaster as being “official skulduggery and lies”.
They stepped up, and they stepped up. From all shades of the political spectrum. They stood and they articulated what so many of us have felt in the intervening years since it started to become apparent that we weren’t getting the full story regarding what happened on the fifteenth of April 1989. And at the end of the evening, with the decision having been made to release the government’s documents, Rotherham summed up the mood of a very large number of people: “Tonight, this parliament, when given the chance, got it right”. It has been a long time coming, but the families of those that died may start to get some closure from a tragedy that killed almost one hundred people and tore countless further lives apart.
It is worth taking a second to recall where this particular debate came from. It came from the voices of almost 140,000 people, who took advantage of the new e-petitioning system to force parliament to debate the subject in the first place. One of the most important campaigners for this was the Liverpool-born Premier League footballer Joey Barton, who used his degree of Twitter celebrity to persuade many to sign the petition. He was present at the Chamber this evening, and his support for the campaign has this evening been heartily reciprocated by Liverpool supporters. He can expect a warm welcome when he visits Anfield with Queens Park Rangers in December.
We should also recall that Hillsborough was a disaster that happened to all of us. It was the inevitable accumulation of a policy of containment on the part of both clubs, the authorities and the police which treated all football supporters extraordinarily badly for many years. Anybody that regularly attended big matches during the 1980s will have their own stories about crushes either outside or inside these rusting, crumbling citadels. Had Hillsborough not happened on that dreadful day in 1989, it would have happened somewhere else, given time. It is only with the benefit of the twenty-twenty vision of hindsight, however, that we are able to see this. As supporters, we felt the crushes, we saw the fences and we assumed, perhaps subconsciously, that there was a plan for if anything went wrong. Hillsborough proved that, if there was a plan at all, it was woefully inadequate.
This evening, parliament stood up and said many of the things that have been argued for years by people that must have often felt as if they were butting a brick wall. It’s not the end of the story, of course, and the government’s papers might not even provide the answers that we hope they will. The parliamentarians did what they could, though, and they have at the very least made the symbolic gesture of committing to record the version of events that was for so long swept aside. The naysayers of the tabloid press printed their fictions of that day with impunity, presumably in the belief that this day would never come. “The truth hurts. But that is no excuse to hide from it”, wrote The Sun’s then-editor Kelvin McKenzie as his newspaper lied about the events of that day. He might just find out now that “the truth” can come back to haunt you in the most unexpected of ways. Today, though, was for those that lost their loved ones on the fifteenth of of April, 1989. We hope that, if nothing else, today marks the end of their torment and the beginning of justice and the truth, whatever that may bring. Parliament did them proud, and now, hopefully, the truth will out.