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After 27 years, sorry is still the hardest word

Charlotte Phillips, Director of Communications

Wednesday 27 April 2016

As the week has unfolded, journalists, commentators and families of those that have fought for justice since the tragic events of April 1989 have managed to find words to describe the indescribable.

On Tuesday 26 April 2016, a fairly inconspicuous glass building in Warrington was the incongruous home to the Hillsborough inquest rulings that vindicated, emphatically, the families’ 27 year fight for justice. Watching from afar, via the trustworthy medium of Channel 4 news, it’s fair to say that only an automaton could fail to be blown away by the statements, reactions and emotional outpouring following the verdicts. For anyone that has had any contact with any part of the criminal justice system in the last 25 years, Hillsborough, the families’ fight for justice, numerous governments’ (varied) responses to their plight, and law enforcement agencies’ (again varied) responses, have been a constant reminder of what happens when the Establishment gets it tragically and fundamentally wrong.

Amidst the raw emotion and jubilation at the inquest rulings on the 96 who lost their lives and those others who were caught up in that dreadful day, people both affected directly or indirectly have found the words to respond. Not just those directly linked to this tragedy, but those who have in some small but not insignificant way been touched by it – whether through work, geography, their politics or in their sworn allegiance to Liverpool FC –  all of them, yes all (at least in my small world) have found a way to express their relief, their exhaustion, their frustration, their jubilance. People everywhere have been unified in the sheer importance of what happened in Warrington on Tuesday under the watchful eye of Sir John Goldring.

Words matter


Where our own words have failed us – understandable given the sheer weight of this story – we rely upon the words of others: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Maya Angelou. Others who have struggled, others who have led disenfranchised people in the face of adversity. Words are not in any way the most important thing about what happened this week, but they have some relevance. Aside from the tears of relief and exhaustion, aside from the clapping and singing in the courtroom, they are the way in which people have been able to express themselves. Why is it then, in the context of the magnitude of this week, in the face of the sheer hugeness of it, words have failed the very people who should, or could have at least tried, to find the right ones? Speaking on behalf of the South Yorkshire Police Federation Neil Bowles, their current chair, chose to use the following words: “They [the officers] did their best and did their jobs in incredibly difficult circumstances on that day: they followed orders, and did what they were commanded to do by senior officers”. Of all the words to choose, these are they.

Two things about this statement are striking – one is in black and white, the other is striking by its omission. I think my 4 and 5 year-old sons could spot the word that is missing, and the acknowledgement that they were simply “following orders” has echoes of another tragedy embedded in history and our consciousness. This from an organisation that, along with many others, played a not insignificant role in the campaign of smear against the fans who attended the match that day.

So much has been written this week and there is so much more to say. Why then am I adding another 10 pence worth from afar? Because it’s important. Because on a day like yesterday words do matter and apart from anything else, injustice, in whatever form, cannot be ignored. I am lucky enough not to have been affected by the events of April 1989, but I have had the privilege of working for and with people who are committed to making sure that the truth prevails – yesterday was just part of that story. I have young sons that are proud to wear a Liverpool strip and have recently taken to playing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ at top volume on the Sonos. The same sons by the way, are the ones to spot the missing word.

For anyone still reading, the word is: sorry.


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