YP Comment: Justice at last for The 96 on a day of vindication and valediction

FOR 27 tortuous years, the families of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough tragedy '“ Britain's worst ever sporting disaster '“ walked steadfastly alone in their pursuit of justice and the truth.

Relatives of victims of the Hillsborough tragedy embrace after an inquest ruled that 96 Liverpool fans were unlawfully killed.

Now, they will never walk alone after an inquest jury overturned, arguably, the gravest miscarriage of justice in this country’s legal history and ruled that eight dozen fans of Liverpool Football Club were unlawfully killed at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.

The unforgiving toll of nearly 10,000 heartbreaking days and sleepless nights was self-evident as campaigners sobbed tears of sorrow and relief in solidarity after this landmark verdict, the culmination of Britain’s most exhaustive inquest, confirmed what they had known all along and never doubted for one second – namely their precious loved ones died because of gross negligence on the part of those charged with ensuring their safety.

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If only these courageous families, and whose humility, dignity and tenacity has been the only redeeming feature of this shameful episode, were believed at the time – and not subjected to an indefensible cover-up and vindictive character assassination which hshook public confidence in South Yorkshire Police, and the Establishment, to its very foundations before being exposed.

It should never have come to this. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, these were not football hooligans as some portrayed them so erroneously and continued to do so until relatively recently in a gross fabrication of the truth.

Normal people, so full of hope and optimism when they said cheery farewells as they began the fateful journey from Merseyside across the Pennines to Sheffield to support the team which meant the world to them; they only lost their lives because of the catastrophic failings which exacerbated this disaster. Not because of anything they did on the day in any way shape or form.

Even though it has long since been established that the reputation of these fans was unfairly vilified in a truly contemptible manner because senior police officers, and others, were desperate to mask their own culpability, each and every surviving relative – tragically some did not live long enough to witness this watershed day – are owed a collective apology after being betrayed by a judicial process which had a misguided belief in its own infallibility. Nothing less will suffice, even though no words, however eloquent or emotive, will ever be adequate to right this haunting wrong.

The soul-searching does not end here. Even though many of the senior police chiefs involved in the fateful operation on April 15, 1989, and subsequent inquiries, are either deceased or no longer in positions of authority, the Crown Prosecution Service is now duty-bound to consider criminal charges against those surviving officers whose actions, and evidence, has been found to be so discredited. Families should not have to wait any longer than necessary for this process to be completed, and with total transparency.

A corrosive culture of denial has prevailed to for too long. As Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds and a proud Liverpudlian, writes in The Yorkshire Post: “The police and others now deemed to be in some way responsible for the tragedy must address their personal and collective response. This will not be easy for them. Justice must in the end be liberating for everyone, even those for whom the truth is painful.”

The wisest of words, this spirit was echoed by David Crompton, the current chief constable of South Yorkshire Police, who issued an unreserved apology to the families after admitting, for the first time, that his force got the policing of the fateful match “catastrophically wrong”.

Twenty seven years too late for the victims, some of whom demanded Mr Crompton’s immediate resignation in the inquest’s aftermath, this contrition is a necessary step as the families concerned seek closure after winning, arguably, the most important result in the proud history of Liverpool Football Club.

South Yorkshire Police’s darkest ever chapter, it is nevertheless important that the perversion of the truth does not totally detract from the heroism of all those who tried to comfort the dying.

They, too, have to live with the nightmare that they endured and witnessed. It’s little comfort that we’re assured this could never happen today.

What will remain of comfort to Liverpudlians is the memory of the humanity shown by those Sheffield families who spontaneously opened their doors to strangers and provided great comfort to shell-shocked fans who had become separated from friends, and who had no means of contacting relatives or getting home. In this technological age, it’s hard to believe that this tragedy preceded the advents of mobile phones and bank cards and these gestures of goodwill are proof that adversity invariably brings out the best in mankind.

Like the people of Liverpool, the people of Sheffield – and Britain for that matter – were let down by a corrupt senior police team which would have got away with this monumental cover-up if its skulduggery not exposed by the extraordinary inquiry presided over by James Jones, the then Bishop of Liverpool, which prompted this new inquest. The significance of his work, and the authority it carried, must not be overlooked.

The 96 can at last rest in peace with their reputations restored and their memories no longer sullied by the lies which masked the truth for 27 years before this belated day of vindication and valediction. They will never walk alone.