The Hillsborough victims have campaigned for 23 years to expose the truth. Joe Shute talks to the Yorkshire businessman leading the fight.
TREVOR Hicks’s office on the outskirts of Keighley overlooking Halifax Road is small, sparse and stuffy.
What decorations there are – a model of a steam train and a bottle of commemorative ale – are the kind accumulated by many managing directors.
The only signs of anything unusual are a candle holder with 96 stems in the corridor outside, and a quote from a calender next to his desk that today, by chance, reads, “A poor memory is not the same as a clear conscience”.
The 66-year-old, who over the past month has been at the centre of exposing the alleged biggest establishment cover-up in recent history, smiles at the coincidence.
On September 12, the managing director of England Worthside Ltd who lost his two teenage daughters in the Hillsborough tragedy, sat stunned in Liverpool Cathedral alongside other bereaved families as they became the first people in the country to hear the evidence of an independent panel set up in 2010 to examine 450,000 documents relating to the disaster.
Among the panel’s findings was a cover-up and smear operation that has started the biggest investigation into British policing and could result in criminal charges being brought against, among others, West Yorkshire Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison, as well as a failure to address grave safety concerns at the stadium.
Most painful of all for the families was the fact that 41 of those killed could have been saved were it not for the shambolic response of the emergency services – three people fainted as the evidence was read out. It was what the president and former chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group has fought so hard for over the past 23 years.
But for the man born at 3 Council Houses, Drax, who worked his way up to become a company director living with his wife and two daughters in an upmarket north London suburb where he collected subs for the local branch of the Conservative Party, there is not a hint of glee at bringing down the establishment he was so proud to be a part of.
The events of April 15, 1989, where he fought to resuscitate Vicky, 15, and Sarah, 19, on the Hillsborough pitch, will always remain too close for that.
“The lowest point in my life was when I had to leave Sarah on the pitch and go in that ambulance,” Mr Hicks says. “We put Vicky in, the wrong way round as it happens, a daft detail you think of later. We then went and got Sarah and went to put her in, but the ambulance was full. It takes longer to tell than it did to happen but I had this horrible moment thinking, ‘do I stay or do I go...’”
That night, Mr Hicks and his then-wife Jenni, were told their daughters were the property of the South Yorkshire coroner and drove back home to London, unable to come to terms with the horror of what had happened.
“The worst thing of all was the Sunday morning,” he says. “We travelled home late on Saturday night and got back about 2am. But South Yorkshire Police had released the names and addresses of some of the victims and two sisters living in a posh part of London were easy meat. “We woke up – well that is the wrong phrase because we never went to bed – opened the curtains and were surrounded.
“We lived in a cul-de-sac and the neighbours couldn’t get in or out. There was a posse of reporters, there were satellite trucks everywhere. I started off hating the Press because they wouldn’t leave us alone. Until you are in it, you don’t know. They were taking it in turns to ring the doorbell. One friend was manning the phones, one doing the front door. We were trapped in our own house.
“We managed to sneak out one day and went shopping, we just wanted to get out. I think Jenni was looking at a clothes rack or something and this lady just came over, gave her a peck on the cheek and said, ‘You know what that is for’ and off she went. That was a real act of kindness.”
Soon after the tragedy, Mr Hicks’ marriage collapsed, and in 1990 he moved back to Yorkshire to live in Grassington and work at England Worthside. In the first year he drove 90,000 miles covering the country, balancing his new job with his role as chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group. The intensity of coping with the aftermath of Britain’s greatest sporting disaster meant he was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
“One of the reasons for getting that was I never really grieved,” he says, “I didn’t know I had it. I was diagnosed by the psychologist, I was drinking too much and that was the clue.
“I was working all hours doing things. It’s what I needed. The quiet moments were when I used to feel really down. I operated three lives, group MD of the company, chairman of the Family Support Group, then there was ‘Tragedy Dad’ as I often got called. I didn’t want to get into any relationships at that time. The reason I use tragedy dad is because of the Press. In one way it is a proper label but that is the bit of me I felt was private. Yes, I had to be in the public domain, but most of that was as chairman. The tragedy dad part of me was mine and my family’s.
“I suppose it is a bit of the Yorkshire mentality. I’m not going to admit to having PTSD, I’m not going to admit to crying. Now I class myself as a chipped cup. No matter how many times you clean me or polish me, I’m still going to be a chipped cup.
“People tell you that time heals, it doesn’t. You just learn to cope.”
In the years after the tragedy, the Hillsborough families were dealt numerous blows in their campaign to establish the truth about what happened.
In 1990, the possibility of pursuing any criminal charges was ruled out by the Director of Public Prosecution and in 1991, an inquest returned a verdict of accidental death for all the victims.
Meanwhile, private manslaughter charges bought by the Hillsborough Family Support Group against South Yorkshire chief superintendent David Duckenfield and his deputy, superintendent Bernard Murray, who were both in charge on the day, came to nothing despite a six-week trial in 2000.
“When I heard the panel’s findings, I was pleased we had been vindicated but there was also dread,” Mr Hicks said. “We are almost back at the start again.
“Part of the reason why I want us to follow through on Hillsborough, is not just for the people who perpetrated the various crimes or misdemeanours or whatever you want to call them.
“It goes much beyond that now. It’s the sickness of society in many ways. It may have been 23 years ago but I’m told by some of the people I talk to it’s nearly as bad.
“Before Hillsborough, when we lived in London, we had been to a game at Queens Park Rangers. The girls had been pulled out by the police on the way into the ground and Sarah had refused to let a male officer search her, so the guy got stroppy with her. They deliberately kept them waiting about 40 minutes and then let them go anyway. The girls were absolutely fuming because they missed the start of the game. All the way back we were driving in the London traffic and these two teenagers were giving me hell. They said: ‘You are always on their side dad’.
“I said, ‘A policeman is a civilian in uniform and one day you might need their help, so you should show them some respect’. I still respect them and the majority of policemen I know are good guys. That is why we have to sort out the bad ones because they are dragging everybody down to their level.”
Mr Hicks says one simple rule he has stuck to in the decades where he has gone from “establishment man” to the person fighting it head on, is whether he can look himself in the eye when he shaves.
There will be those involved in the events of 1989 staring at the bathroom mirror this morning, asking themselves the very same question.
Hillsborough panel’s findings
The Hillsborough Independent Panel was set up in 2010, following an announcement on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.
Its report, released on September 12, claimed a cover-up took place to shift the blame on to the victims and it was possible 41 of the 96 lives lost might have been saved if the emergency response had been better.
The panel found 164 police statements were altered, 116 of them to remove or alter “unfavourable” comments about the disaster.
This month, the Attorney General announced he is applying to have the verdicts in the inquest into the 96 deaths at Hillsborough quashed, while the biggest inquiry into the police will also take place.