The scale of the Hillsborough disaster meant that everyone in Liverpool knew someone who was killed or injured on 15 April 1989. For me, it was 14-year-old Philip Hammond, a skinny, blond-haired football fan who was in the year below me at Calderstones Comprehensive School in Allerton, and lived near me in Aigburth. I remember him on a school skiing trip to the Italian Alps in April 1988. A year later, he was dead.
At the school assembly on Monday 17 April 1989, as we remembered Philip, the hall echoed with the sobs of children trying to come to terms with their fellow pupil’s death. It took until yesterday, 23 and a half years later, to learn that Philip’s blood – that is blood taken from the body of a child – was tested for alcohol, to somehow prove that he and other Liverpool fans were drunk and therefore to blame for the crush. We also learnt that the lives of 41 people could have been saved, if the emergency services and police hadn’t held back. Statements were amended to clear the police. Surely this cover-up has to be one of the greatest scandals of modern history.
For 23 years, Philip’s father, Phil, has fought relentlessly for the truth to come out. Not “the truth” that the Sun claimed it was revealing in the days after the disaster, but the real truth. Over that time, people have asked Hillsborough families, and the wider Liverpool community, to “move on”. We were “wallowing in grief”, obsessed with our victimhood status. There had been an inquest, a full inquiry by Lord Taylor, there was nothing more to say. It was time for “closure”.
Even David Cameron, barely a year ago, said the families’ search for justice was akin to a “blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn’t there”. Now, thanks to the Hillsborough Independent Panel, the light has been turned on and the black cat has been found. The Prime Minister said yesterday he was “profoundly sorry” for the way the Hillsborough victims were failed, and more apologies poured out.
Mr Cameron said there had been a double injustice – the original disaster, and the cover-up that followed. But I believe there has been a third injustice, which has kept that room dark for so long. The way the families’ pleas were ignored, was, I believe, in part down to deep-seated prejudices about Liverpool. They were helped by the original story in the Sun, but also fed by a wider cultural narrative: that Scousers are hooligans, thieving, or simply “always up to something” – as Jack Straw once said – but also obsessed with holding grudges and wallowing in grief. So demands for a fresh inquiry or inquest were cast aside. All of these prejudices are unfair, apart from one: the refusal of Phil Hammond, and other families of those killed, to give up, to put aside their grief and give in to “ closure”. It’s immensely to their credit that they never did.