Hillsborough: It's time the real truth came out

As Parliament debates releasing the Hillsborough papers, a mother explains to Robin Scott-Elliot why the families will never rest until there is 'accountability' for the 96
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This morning a coach will leave the Anfield Sport and Community Centre, turn on to Lower Breck Road and head south out of Liverpool, its destination the Houses of Parliament. This evening, for the first time and more than two decades after the event, the Hillsborough disaster that cost the lives of 96 Liverpool fans, will be debated in the House of Commons. It will be the latest stopping point of a journey that has been long, painful, stubbornly maintained and repeatedly frustrating, and is still not over.

It will be another long day for members of the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG), who lost sons, daughters, fathers on that dark spring day in Sheffield 22 years ago. They will remain in the public gallery until 10pm when the debate will be closed and the motion voted on. The motion, tabled by Steve Rotheram, MP for Walton, calls for all government documents about the disaster, including cabinet minutes and No 10 discussion papers, to be released in an "unredacted, unedited and uncensored form" to the families and the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP), a seven-strong group chaired by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool.

The motion is expected to be passed and provide a fillip – and potentially a notable one as the attitude of the Thatcher government of the time has long been questioned by campaigners – to the HFSG and others who have dutifully pressed for answers. Rotheram describes the debate and the release next year of the findings of HIP as a potential "end of a chapter" – still not the final chapter because that depends on what HIP's study of more than 45,000 boxes of documents from government, the South Yorkshire Police, the city of Sheffield and other sources throws up.

"It's a bit of history," says Margaret Aspinall, chair of HFSG, about the debate. It is the first to come about because of an e-petition, one that quickly gathered 40,000 more backers than the 100,000 required to force Parliament to consider it. "People who signed know an injustice has been done and it's about time the truth – the real truth – of Hillsborough came out."

Aspinall has become used to facing politicians. A few months ago she met privately with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who is expected to reply for the Government tonight, and Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary. She only accepted Hunt's apology for misinformed comments over Hillsborough once she was offered assurances that the release of documents to HIP would not be censored.

"It's a good thing that this debate is happening because it's letting the government know we won't go away," says Aspinall. "We will never go away. It keeps us in the forefront, keeps the momentum of Hillsborough."

Aspinall was 41 when her son died. She is sitting at a table in the group's office in the Anfield Sports and Community Centre. Behind her a large red banner covers much of one wall. The word 'justice', in black letters, features prominently. What is justice for the 96, and for their families? "There's no justice – I don't believe in the word justice now," says Aspinall. "Accountability. That's the word I would use now. There's right, there's wrong, there's accountability and there's truth and they are the only things you can get."

Can she and the group she speaks for get that? "I'm always cautiously optimistic. I try to believe and I have hope – that's the best word. But even if we get the truth, there's no victory in it. We are still the losers, we will always be the losers. I will never be satisfied because I will never see my son again. I will never be satisfied because my son went to his first away game and came home five days later in a coffin. I've got to live with it – we all have for 22 years."

It was on 15 April, 1989, that Margaret Aspinall fixed a gold chain and crucifix around the neck of her eldest son. It was a present from his 18th birthday three weeks previously. She poked fun at him for not being able to do it up. "You're supposed to be a big boy now," she said.

James was a churchgoer – unlike his mother – and rarely missed Saturday evening mass with his friend, Graham Wright, who was to die alongside him later that afternoon. That day they would not, James told his mother, be back from Sheffield and the FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest in time for church. He promised her he would go on Sunday.

"He went to meet Graham and get the coach. I said ta'ra and watched him go up the road and that was the last I saw of my son alive," says Aspinall. "I didn't know the word Hillsborough. I knew he was going to Sheffield Wednesday. I didn't know it was called Hillsborough. We had the TV on and my sister-in-law Rose said 'There's trouble at Hillsborough'. And I said 'Where's Hillsborough?' We watched people being laid down by the goalmouth. Rose said 'I think some of them are dead.' 'Don't be stupid,' I said. 'Don't be stupid'."

James Aspinall was in pen three, one of four that made up the Leppings Lane end. Liverpool, with their large support, had protested over being allocated that end of the ground rather than the larger Spion Kop. A narrow tunnel led into pens three and four. Eventually over 3,000 people were crushed into a space the Health and Safety Executive was to judge adequate for 1,600. The policing was equally inadequate – and was to be condemned by Lord Justice Taylor in his report later that year.

"You heard seven had died and the numbers kept going up. I turned the television off. The first call was from my husband [who had been in the other end of the ground]. That was about half past six because they got locked in [the ground]. He said 'Have you heard from James?' 'No Jimmy,' I said. 'Find him.'

"He went back to the hospitals and was told James wasn't on the lists. By now it was going on nine o'clock. I eventually got through to [the coach company]. They said 'all passengers are accounted for. They'll be arriving in Liverpool at midnight.' I thought 'He's alive. Thank God.' Jimmy came back and we went down to Lime Street and waited for every coach to come in. I said to Jimmy 'You'll have to go back. Please go back and just find him.' He found James about four in the morning.

"He had phoned me every hour on the way up – so if James came home he could do a U-turn. He phoned at one, he phoned at two, the last was at four. At five he didn't call. I knew... knew in my heart that he'd found James.

"I went outside to try and calm down because I was hysterical. I saw my sister. Jimmy had asked her to come down. I shouted 'What are you doing here?' and as I said that my husband was coming round the corner in the car. As Jimmy got out, I ran. I screamed at Jimmy 'Don't catch me, don't catch me up.' If he couldn't catch me, my son's alive."

Later, Aspinall asks for there not to be too much emphasis on what she calls "the emotional stuff". She worries it makes people think they are always "moaning and whingeing".

"I'm not a sad bereaved mum, I was but I'm not now – what I do I do for a good cause, for the future. I live every day without my son, but I don't wallow in it. I try to do the positive things. People don't realise what we have done – our group has done some good things, some marvellous things for the future."

The raw emotion, and its telling, matters though because the events of that afternoon are the fundamental reason why she will be sitting in the Public Gallery this evening and why she has played a leading role in campaigning for the bare truth of what happened that afternoon, and how the families of the victims were treated later, and why a game was allowed to be played in such an unsafe environment, and policed with lethal incompetence. The raw example of what happened to one family is a blunt reminder of why so many still make their voices heard.

"Can't you see why they are all still fighting, the fans, the families, what they were accused of and what happened to them," says Aspinall.

"The police cost 96 innocent lives. People say you can forgive and forget. I don't know how you can forgive. It's a very hard thing to forgive what has been done to the families for 22 years. If they had put their hand up right away and said 'we've made some terrible mistakes' this wouldn't have gone on. They prolonged it."

It is down to the prolonged efforts of Aspinall, Rotheram and others that the campaign has reached Parliament. It is an important, and certainly symbolic stopping point, but the campaign bus will stay on the road. "We will not," says Aspinall, "let this rest."

Hillsborough: the 22-year battle

15 April, 1989

96 die with 766 injured as Liverpool fans attending FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest crushed after over-crowding.

May 1989

Lord Justice Taylor heads public inquiry into disaster, seeking to establish causes and future preventative measures.

January 1990

Taylor report published, citing "failure of police control" as crucial. Report makes 76 recommendations for future. Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, controlling police at the incident, blamed for "failing to take effective control" of situation.

March 1991

Hillsborough inquest jury returns accidental death verdict. Victims' relatives, expecting "unlawful killing" or open verdict, angered.

November 1993

Victims families' request for judicial review of inquest rejected by Divisional Court.

June 1997

Then Home Secretary Jack Straw announces review of evidence originally submitted to Taylor inquiry.

February 1998

Straw explains new medical evidence not "significant", therefore no new inquiry permitted. Some fans plan private prosecutions.

July 2000

Private prosecution by Hillsborough Family Support Group ends as jury fails to reach verdict on two charges of manslaughter against Duckenfield.

March 2009

Woman who lost 15-year-old son in disaster has appeal to reopen the inquiry rejected by European Court of Human Rights.

April 2009

Home secretary Jacqui Smith requests South Yorkshire police release secret files on the disaster.

August 2011

Over 100,000 sign online petition demanding secret files be published.

Rik Sharma