I took the plunge. After years of advising others to read a “great” book, Hillsborough The Truth, I finally found the cojones to do so myself. It was easy to recommend on the grounds of it being "widely accepted as the definitive account of the disaster." The biographies of Liverpool stalwarts populate the bookshelves of my home and workplace. After reading Alan Hansen’s A Matter Of Opinion, which included his account of that horrendous day in April 1989, I read no more apart from an autobiography of Bill Shankly. He had died in 1981 so I knew it was comfortable to tread there.
Throughout my imprisonment I promised myself that I would one day stand in the Kop. I eventually did but I have been at the monument to the 96 dead outside Anfield more often than I have attended games inside. Invariably, I found my equanimity jostled by the push and pull of complementary emotions. They were similar to those undergone when at the graves of those dead republican hunger strikers I had journeyed with during the H Block blanket protest, when we did not walk alone but with each other. Anger, hostility, sadness, empathy, loss, all rotated as they displaced each other at the uppermost branch of the Injustice Tree conjured up in my mind.
I had followed the progress of the campaign for Justice for the 96 but at a safe distance, declining to become immersed in the detail or ever watching live footage of the disaster. Shortly after the unlawful killings I wrote a piece for a local South Belfast Sinn Fein paper. It's title was Albert The Imbecile. Albert had ventured on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback the baleful opinion that God had visited the disaster on Hillsborough as divine retribution for the Anglo Irish Agreement having been signed in a town by the same name just outside Belfast. No hatred like religious hatred.
Still, there was always some reason, that never convinced me but which I thrust out in front of me like a shield, for not going too close. Like a crash watched from a distance, the blood and the wails could be dealt with by the first responders. The words of Kenny Dalglish’s daughter, Kelly, might offer a window of understanding:
It brought home to me that what I’d witnessed was more than names and a number in a death toll. These were people with families who’d loved them.
Best, perhaps, not to test the Jungian notion that “there's no coming to consciousness without pain." Easier to maintain a safe distance and a calm mood that would easily shatter upon descent down among the dead men, women and children of Hillsborough.
Even more so than the hunger strikes eight years earlier, caused by the same Thatcherite mindsight that stripped context from complex social and political issues so that they might be reframed as a law and order problem, best dealt with by a baton rather than investment and justice. The hunger strikes are easier to deal with because we were combatants with a knowledge of the risk. The Liverpool fans were civilians, many of them children, with absolutely no awareness of the consequences of their wholly innocent actions.
On the evening of the thirtieth anniversary of the event I began the journey into the 9th circle of hell. Just over a month later, it is 0418 on Saturday morning. I cannot sleep. Why Me? Surviving the Hillsborough Disaster 1989 by Robert Lynch, a short account which I almost completed on a bus from Dublin yesterday, unsettled my nocturnal rhythm. Put the sleeplessness to good use and get my thoughts out on Hillsborough The Truth, the first amongst equals, the most powerful book I have ever read.
Already the review is writing itself in front of me.