WITH autumn's chill comes the start of the awards season in which the great, the good and the just plain lucky slap each other on the back.
What a shame there is no city of the year award. If there was, the clear winner would be Liverpool and the fight of the Hillsborough families to set the record straight about how their loved ones died going to watch a football match.
Shame is the word that burns like a branding iron as one contemplates the 23-year battle for justice – and it is not over yet – that these families have endured.
Shame on you, the South Yorkshire Police of the day, for trying to deflect attention from the police incompetence that led to the tragedy in the first place, and for covering up the truth afterwards. That truth, that poisonous tooth, has now been extracted by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, established under the last UK Labour Government.
Shame on you, Kelvin MacKenzie, then editor of The Sun, which published lies about the Liverpool fans in that notorious front page headlined "The Truth". Mr MacKenzie is one of the many Johnnies-come-lately who have now come forward to say sorry. As wake up and smell the truth moments go, Mr MacKenzie makes a tranquillized snail look like Usain Bolt.
Shame on you every politician who turned away from the bereaved families and survivors, who joined, through maliciousness or stupidity, in the blaming of the victims. Let us not forget, despite this post Olympics afterglow, a certain mayor of London who, as editor of The Spectator, ran an editorial in 2004 which accused Liverpool of wallowing in "victim status" over Hillsborough.
There are others who should feel ashamed, and who will doubtless be issuing apologies in days to come. Boris Johnson, like Mr MacKenzie, said yesterday he was "very, very sorry" for the article. It is horribly little, and grotesquely late (even if, in Mr Johnson's case, it is a reprise of an apology he was forced to make at the time by then party leader Michael Howard).
David Cameron was certainly recalling those Spectator comments in the Commons on Wednesday when he said people had to "come to their senses" over what had happened. The Prime Minister was the most prime ministerial, impressive and affecting he has been as he spoke of the "double injustice" the families had suffered, first through their loss, and then by watching the victims being blamed for a disaster that was not of their making.
The word heroes has fallen more often than raindrops this summer. It should now be reserved first and foremost for the Hillsborough families and their campaigning groups. Twenty-three years of fighting. That's a life sentence on every one of the families of the 96 dead. Finally, this week, their loved ones' names were cleared unassailably and forever. As the report put it as plainly as it could, "the fans were not the cause of the disaster". Let that be writ in stone. The pain doesn't end there. Among the 96, the families now know there were 41 people who could have survived given medical help.
There are other, lesser, but still important heroes in this story, such as the Labour MP Andy Burnham, another tireless campaigner and the Minister who lifted the 30-year rule on the documents that revealed the truth, and Lord Falconer, who gave the families legal advice. Then there is Kenny Dalglish, manager of Liverpool football club at the time. Dalglish never wavered in his support of the families. King Kenny will forever be sporting royalty to Liverpudlians.
In the roll call of heroes, every unknown citizen of Liverpool who kept the faith also deserves to be saluted. Glasgow has been twinned with a lot of places over the years, but its spiritual other half is surely Liverpool, and not just because both cities have suffered footballing disasters. Any Glaswegian who has lived there knows that stepping off the train at Lime Street is like coming home after leaving home. There is the same warmth and humour, the same generosity of spirit among the people. And yes, the same appalling, post-industrial decay, and the sense of a city that has had seven bells knocked of it but keeps getting up off the canvas because what else is there to do? Let the beggars win?
That is not Liverpool's way, it is not Glasgow's way, and it is not the Hillsborough families' way. One can only marvel at the superhuman effort required on their part to right the wrongs of the past. Think of the sheer forces of the establishment – the police, the courts, the politicians – standing like sentries before the truth. Think how savagely that establishment fought to put the blame elsewhere, including, and the thought makes the stomach heave, police officers testing dead children for alcohol.
To read the panel's report (available online) is to wonder, over and over, how such injustice could have been allowed to stand for so long. Where to begin. Class played a factor, but not one that should be overestimated. From the Marchioness disaster to the Ladbroke Grove rail crash, families, whatever their background, need the courage of Daniel, the energy of Hercules and the patience of Job to get answers. Whenever the worst occurs, the first instinct of the establishment is to engage in the age old practice of cover thy backsides. Hopefully, one of the lessons of this week, and from the precedent set by the lifting of the 30-year rule, is that from now on the expectation will be that the truth will out, so it is better for all concerned to get on with the business of revealing it and learning from it.
Jack Straw, Labour's former Home Secretary, was quick yesterday to blame Margaret Thatcher's Government for being too close to the police and creating a "culture of impunity" that made them feel they could get away with a cover-up. That is an argument for another day, and some might wonder if Mr Straw, who had many an opportunity to dig deeper into Hillsborough when he was in power, is the one to lead it.
For now, the families, having had answers, want justice in the form of new inquests and criminal investigations. Those cannot come too soon. The Prime Minister who acted so speedily to set up the Leveson Inquiry must not let the momentum on Hillsborough slip away. All the apologies on earth will mean nothing if no-one is brought to account. Liverpool is watching. And she does not walk alone.
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