Edition number 82; dateline 2 May 2016
This is culture and this is our business; we have a duty to care.
The inquest into the Hillsborough disaster was both mundane and dramatic. In an non-descript office building on an industrial estate it took a few succinct words from a jury spokesperson to confirm what so many had known from the outset and what a significant number within the establishment had subsequently admitted: that the victims were not to blame for their own deaths, that those seeking the truth had been subjected to a concerted campaign of delay and denial lasting decades, and that the authorities that had been responsible for the safety of people setting out to enjoy their leisure chose to engage upon a prolonged and extensive conspiracy to pervert the course of justice almost as soon as the events of the day had begun to unfold.
After 27 years the truth has emerged and for many it will feel as though an end point has at last been reached. However, for many in Liverpool and many among those connected to and affected by the events at Hillsborough it will also feel like a beginning. Finally, openly, honestly it is the time to learn the lessons of a horrifying event that happened nearly three decades ago.
A quarter of a century and more has passed between the event and the acknowledgement of a truth that was recognised within months by the Taylor report and within minutes by anyone who had been to a big game at Hillsborough as an away supporter; a quarter of a century in which so many of those who knew the truth, in whole or in part, felt able or obliged to maintain a fiction that has drained the joy from the lives of so many families, a fiction that by failing to enable failures and shortcomings to be exposed and explored has put so many other lives at risk since.
The campaign can now begin to start this work and, just as important but more difficult, to ensure that this work continues in the face of institutional drag, the lethargy of historic process or deliberate foot-dragging. After so many years as a member of parliament and a government minister, Andy Burnham understands how the system works and explained it like this in the aftermath of the inquest’s findings: “The system plays the long game. It can afford to. It works on the basis that people will be ground down by the frustration and the wait.”
He also made the important point about who was being made to endure this approach: “[The system] plays the propaganda war against working-class communities, encouraging the rest of the country to think the worst of them. But this is where the establishment came unstuck. Rather than the worst of our country, they are the best. They understand the power of true solidarity. As well as wrongly maligning the people of Derry and Liverpool, the establishment made the fatal mistake of underestimating them.”
The lessons of Hillsborough are many and profound, and although this lesson-learning is an issue of national importance, it is within still the remit of the sport, leisure and culture sector. Why? First, the Hillsborough disaster, the Hillsborough ground, football and all that goes with it is part of the sport, leisure and culture sector. It’s big and it matters, not just as a huge part of the economy that feeds figures into the Treasury but also as a huge part of our lives, a huge part of what it means to be us as individuals, as communities and cities, as nations. Call it leisure if you like but it does matter. Lives are lost, saved and made in its pursuit. That those responsible for the events on the day, for the circumstances that led to the disaster, for the decision to instigate a cover-up of the failings should continue to be pursued should be a matter of great importance to the sport, leisure and culture sector. It’s leisure; it matters; it’s our responsibility.
Second, the danger of otherness must be acknowledged and fought. Hillsborough was to a large extent a tragedy that happened to “them”, not “us”. It was the “us” of a government determined to wage war on what it saw as dangerous sources of opposition; of a police service allowed and encouraged to see themselves as a force to curtail and restrict rather than protect; of other authorities, whether local councils, football clubs, governing bodies of sport or members of parliament, too far removed from the people on whose behalf they held and exercised positions of influence and responsibility, the “them” who choose to watch football or disagree with government policies, the “them” who do different jobs or and speak with different accents.
For decades inclusivity has been at the heart of every plan and strategy drafted and implemented in every part of the sport, leisure and culture sector. Inclusivity is fundamental to what we do; or so we say. Has it become a trope, a phrase or a signal to meet the funding requirements or the policy expectations? Is everyone in the organisation really signed up to it? Do the institutions who demand it of their own clubs and bodies also demand it of their own stakeholders or government department? Does inclusivity punch up as well as down?
Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, spoke on the occasion of the inquest jury’s verdicts to address a gathering of people outside Liverpool’s St George’s Hall. She spoke eloquently, passionately and at length but one part stood out. “They picked on the wrong city,” she said. “They picked on the wrong mums.” It was an expression of anger and vindication but also an expression of community and solidarity, of the determination and resilience displayed year after year by the individuals, the families and the communities who were required to find it by the nightmare they faced. It was also an expression of the abandonment of all these people by those organisations, institutions and individuals with the responsibility to protect, support and care for every one of them, wherever they happened to come from, whoever their friends and colleagues were. Twenty-seven years is a long time and they must have felt every second hanging like a dark charm on an unwanted bracelet.
As everybody begins to pick up the threads of the Hillsborough inquest and find out where they have come from and where they lead to, we must take care to measure the enormity of the past wrongs and the scale of the tasks ahead. A key question at every turn might usefully be this: are they them, or are they us?
Alan Milburn’s article can be found via www.theguardian.com
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