People power and the might of the few

Justice for the 96 who died at Hillsborough - they deserve no less. (1208JC9)
Justice for the 96 who died at Hillsborough - they deserve no less. (1208JC9)

In recent weeks I have had the privilege of meeting some of the families affected by the Hillsborough disaster when they visited Derry on a fact-finding mission ahead of a major British government report into the 1989 stadium crush. The meeting was a powerful experience and one I have thought about often since.

Jenni Hicks, Margaret Aspinall and Sue Roberts were specifically interested in the planning and preparation that went into the publication of the 2010 Saville Report into Bloody Sunday. They hoped to glean some advice and encouragement from our own ardent campaigners, who, despite all the odds, achieved the impossible in persuading the British government address the wounds of Bloody Sunday.

I was fortunate to be present during these discussions and found myself quietly in awe of these three courageous people who had lost so much and yet stood tall, speaking with passion and integrity on behalf of their Hillsborough Family Support Group.

Almost one hundred football supporters were crushed to death on April 15, 1989, while attending an FA Cup Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium. Besides the 96 who lost their lives as a result of the crush, a further 766 people were injured.

Senior police blamed “drunken Liverpool fans” for the tragedy which unfolded on the overcrowded terraces - and British tabloid newspapers perpetuated this cruel myth, essentially blaming the fans for their own death.

It is a lie the families will never accept. They will not rest until the inquest verdict of accidental death is changed to a rightful verdict of unlawful killing.

On September 12 and following many years of campaigning, the British government are to release a report on previously unseen secret police and governmental documents that may shed light on the events of April 15, 1989, and the extent to which efforts were made to shift blame from the police to the football fans themselves.

Although there is no direct connection between what happened on Bloody Sunday and the events at Hillsborough - the two separate tragedies draw interesting and obvious parallels.

On both occasions, the good names of those killed and injured were sullied and the press added insult to injury. On both occasions, the authorities suggested the dead were responsible for their own deaths - Derry’s murdered civil rights marchers were publicly branded gunmen and nail-bombers within hours of the Bogside massacre. Both events decimated those left behind, deeply scarring their communities, their cities, their faith in the police, government and the Rule of Law.

Nobody is quite sure what this Hillsborough report will contain, but the main hope is that declassified documents will shed light on how the entire tragedy was handled by the powers-that-be. One thing is for certain, the world needs to know the truth and the history books need to be rewritten.

Jenni Hicks lost both her daughters at Hillsborough, her 19-year-old daughter Sarah and 15-year-old Victoria. Her hopes for next month’s report are clear: “What I’d like to see is the evidence to back up what we had always thought - that there was a conspiracy between the media, the government and the police - to shift the blame from where it really lay on to the supporters themselves,” she told me.

There is no doubt that the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign was propelled forward by the peace talks unfolding behind closed doors, but make no mistake - it was people power alone that kept Bloody Sunday in the public eye since 1972.

Perseverance is something Derry’s ‘Sunday’ families know only too well. If it were not for Derry’s determined few, then the subject of Bloody Sunday would have been consigned to the annals of history and long since forgotten.

Just like the Hillsborough families, these ordinary people demanded explanation, refusing to rest until Britain finally listened.

I honestly never realised just how tough the Derry campaigners’ quest had been until I was hired to become their press officer for the publication of the 2010 Saville Report. It is an experience I am deeply grateful for and one that I will carry with me forever.

The Hillsborough families have been relentless in their pursuit of answers.

Although collectively, they form a much larger group than their Derry counterparts with 96 families to contend with, the essence remains the same - people power can move mountains.

Meeting the Hillsborough families has had a profound effect on me.

Their refusal to back down when faced with a fundamental wrong illuminates all that’s good about the human spirit.

Regardless of whether we agree or disagree, their sheer courage and their vision that they will someday succeed in their quest for truth and justice is a lesson to us all. And I, for one, have no doubt they will succeed...