The moment in the Cabinet Minister’s speech when the crowd started jeering was when he got to the bit about how the dead “would never be forgotten”. In the stockpiles of hollow promises, “They will never be forgotten” is standard issue New Labour trite.
It’s the political equivalent of a mass produced greetings card pledge. It sounds grand, suits the occasion and let’s face it, who’s actually ever going to try to hold you to it?
Apart that is from the people who really don’t — who really can’t forget They lined the stands of Anfield this week in their tens of thousands, those who genuinely never will forget. The terrible tragedy of Hillsborough is remembered in Liverpool not just because the 96 who died were, as one relatives’ spokesman recalled, real people with real families.
But because so many people in the community from which they came believe those who died and those who were injured that day never got justice. By justice they mean that nobody was ever held properly to account for what happened at Hillsborough.
From the perspective of Northern Ireland what is striking are the parallels and the differences with our own experience. The parallels include all those assurances from successive governments down through the years about how victims of the Troubles would never be forgotten. And the quiet anger of so many within our community who believe that actually they have. And that they have never received justice either.
The differences? The most obvious one is the scale. In some ways it’s almost easier to understand the enormity of the loss of 96 human lives. When you get to 3,000 plus it’s near impossible to comprehend. And that’s just the number of the dead. The other thing of course is that whatever happened at Hillsborough that day, whatever degree of human failing it represented, nobody actually went out that morning thinking, “I’m going to kill people”. They did here. Men sat down and plotted horrific bloody murder. Others carried out their plans. Others still rushed to condone and justify what they did. How many of those people were ever brought to justice?
What is said to have stunned many observers was the size of the crowd which gathered to mark the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough. That after all this time so very many people still feel so strongly. In Northern Ireland, where it’s been an intrinsic part of peace process policy that we are told to draw a line under the past (or selective bits of it anyway) and where we are constantly informed that refusing to do so is anti-peace, the sense of injustice hasn’t gone away either.
True, a few high profile cases have been subject to wildly expensive inquiry and scrutiny.
But the vast majority of victims feel their suffering has been brushed under the carpet and trivialised. The recent suggestion that equal compensation should go to both the families of the victims and those who murdered speaks volumes about how very little sensitivity there is at official level.
Another recommendation of the Eames Bradley report is storytelling. Story-telling may sound like some twee, happy clappy exercise in ‘talking through your Troubles’. In fact if handled properly (always a concern here) it would at least serve to give many people a voice through which to express and record what actually happened to them, the suffering they endured, the way they feel they have been forgotten.
The biggest killers by far in Northern Ireland were the paramilitaries. Yet their role here has been deliberately downplayed by a process that wants to keep them all on board. As a result many of the paramilitary hierarchy who visited so much pain upon this place have done quite nicely out of this process.
It is not too late or too much to ask that their former role be examined and at the very least the horror their organisations inflicted, be fully recorded and recognised. As the man shouted when the Cabinet Minister reached for that well-worn platitude about how we must never, ever forget