James Lawton: Relief and joy as Hillsborough families given shot at justice
When the Lord Chief Justice yesterday quashed the Hillsborough inquest verdict, which for so long had rested like a bullet lodged close to the hearts of grieving families, the High Court was shook by cheers.
If we still value such things as justice and truth and honestly accountable public service they would have echoed into every corner of the land.
They might also have resounded most loudly when we considered the leader of the families, Trevor Hicks, whose contribution to the 23-year battle has been a consistent source of articulate, tough-minded argument.
On the pavement outside the court Hicks, who lost his daughters Sarah and Vicky when that river of avoidable death seeped on to the football field, and whose his marriage to Jenny collapsed under the pressure of the tragedy 15 months later, exulted in the legal statements that accompanied the decision and not least the declaration, "There has been a profound and palpable belief that justice had not been done." He said: "We couldn't have written it better ourselves."
Writing it is one thing, however. Making it happen with infinite determination and patience, believing that if you have hold of a truth it is the most valuable weapon of all, has been the supreme achievement of Hicks and his allies.
Over the years there have been many internal arguments, much agonising over strategy, and some outbreaks of civil war. At various times, Hicks was at odds with frustrated splinter groups questioning the vigour of the campaign but yesterday there was the crushing denouement of the scandalous attempts to cover up the facts.
Hicks's exhilaration was easy to understand. The recent report of the Independent Panel delivered shattering blows to those accused of conspiring in the cover-up. But if we saw the Prime Minister, David Cameron, at the dispatch box apologising on behalf of the nation, if there seemed encouraging evidence that some terrible wrongs might finally be put right, there was an old pull of doubt. Would that discredited inquest verdict really be put aside? Would there be new attempts to categorise, and apportion responsibility so long after many believed the traces of guilt had been brushed over for ever?
Yesterday the other shoe clattered to the floor of the Courts of Justice. After the apology, the action – and a superb vindication for Hicks, the man who always insisted that he would never rest until justice had been obtained.
With the announcement there was also a surge of relief, a cleaning of the air. No doubt you had to lose a loved one that spring day in Yorkshire to get the true measure of it, but if you were merely there, if you had walked on to the field and saw the desperate, even pathetic efforts of mostly untrained volunteers to save lives, make stretchers out of advertising hoardings, and then you saw and heard of the horrors of the makeshift mortuaries, the cold interrogation of distraught relatives about the amount of drink taken on the way to the game – Jenny Hicks, still not knowing the fate of her girls was questioned in this way – you too had the urge to throw a punch into the air.
Why? Because you saw the extent of the failures, for one reason or another but mostly indecisive leadership, of care, and then you went to give evidence to a police inquiry and a civil-court action and you felt the weight of the official reluctance to face up to the facts. You thought that justice delayed would peter away soon enough.
It might have done so but for the resilience of someone like Hicks and all those others who, in their different ways, railed against the fact that 96 innocent dead might always have a shadow over their reputations, one that was so hideously imposed by briefings that drunken louts robbed the dead and urinated over ambulance men.
Not the least distinction of Hicks's campaign has been its great dignity. If there has been an appalling sense of injustice, and often the fear, as one Home Secretary after another slammed shut the door with some finality, that the truth would always be obscured, the resolve has been steadfast.
It has brought a terrible pounding for the police and legal establishment. It has been a victory for persistent advocacy of that which is right and increasingly self-evident and yesterday, just as when the prime minister rose to make his apology, there was a strong sense here that there should be unusual reward for a man who would not be stopped when he kept coming in the fight not for vengeance but the good name of the country.
He might be given a knighthood not for his celebrity or a time-serving career in politics or the police or the civil service – where such honours seem to be just about mandatory – but standing up, year after year, for the innocent, the abused and his idea of an implacable truth.