The night Parliament united over Hillsborough

Written by Gavin Callaghan is press officer and speechwriter for Dan Jarvis MP and Steve Rotheram MP on 21 October 2011 in Diary
The debate on the disaster that claimed 96 lives marked the end of a 22 year campaign for justice. Gavin Callaghan, who works with Steve Rotherham MP, explains the background behind Monday's debate

The last Member of Parliament to receive a round of applause in the Chamber of the House of Commons was Tony Blair on the day he departed from Prime Minister’s Questions for the last time. Some applauded because of an appreciation for what he had done for the country. Others applauded because that was the end of him.

On Monday evening, Liverpool Walton MP, Steve Rotheram, replaced Blair as being the last Member to be applauded in the Chamber. They applauded because after 22 years he brought one of Britain’s darkest and unresolved days back into the public conscience.

The Hillsborough disaster took the lives of 96 innocent men, women and children in April 1989. Almost immediately after the disaster, an orchestrated cover up ensued meaning that no one has ever been held responsible for the events on that day.

This summer, 140,000 people signed an e-petition in the space of three weeks requesting the release of all government documents, including cabinet minutes, uncensored and without redactions. On Monday, MPs debated whether this should happen. The verdict was unanimous; enough is enough – give the families what they want.

After a 22-year wait, Steve was never under any doubt whatsoever, that this was the one and only chance to get it right.

Working for an MP is a great privilege, working for two even more so, but I often feel that too often, the public are unaware of the work that goes into speeches like the one Steve gave on Monday. I am not simply talking about putting pen to paper and ensuring the correct phraseology is used and the facts are checked and double checked. I’m talking about the pressure MPs feel and the weight of expectation they know is on their shoulders.

Steve was at Hillsborough in 1989. Like thousands of others, he watched 96 people die in front of his very eyes when he should have been watching a football match. In the decades that followed, thousands of people have joined the calls for justice, not just from the UK but from all over the world.

22 years later, Steve, who went to the game in 1989 as a 24 year old bricklayer from Liverpool, stood in the House of Commons as the Member of Parliament for Liverpool Walton to deliver the most important speech of his life.

In the weeks, days and hours leading up to the debate, I could tell his nerves were growing. Throughout Monday we rehearsed the speech, changed words and phrases, removed paragraphs   and rewrote sections. Steve always knew he wanted to put the names of the victims on record by reading the list of 96 names and ages but I could tell he was questioning whether he would get through the speech without breaking down and crying.

You see, Steve grew up in Liverpool where the 96 have never been forgotten. Unlike some MPs, Steve reads every single tweet that he is sent and I can tell you, the messages of support were a constant source of strength and a reminder that the country was on his side.

Tony Blair hated coming to the Commons – he couldn’t deal with the archaic nature of the place. Steve, like many others, may perhaps share Blair’s sentiments especially after the process which led to a debate on the floor of the Commons. In fact, just a week before this debate, Tory MP, Christopher Chope had objected to it because he wanted a longer debate on his pensions. I note he is yet to apologise for his scandalous behaviour.

Yet the process by which we secured the Hillsborough campaign, was, in many ways, the quintessential modern day campaign. We used the very latest form of lobbying (online government e-petition), utilised social media, asked celebrities to use their profiles and channeled the media into our message which meant that despite a a very traditional parliamentary process, a modern machine was able to take effect at the very heart of parliament.

This is why the Hillsborough debate provided much more than just a giant step towards justice for the families. It provided parliamentarians with the opportunity to put a wrong, right. It proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they could be trusted to speak on our behalf.

When Steve entered the House on Monday evening, he had around 3,000 followers on twitter. After his speech, celebrities such as Piers Morgan claimed it was “one of the great parliamentary speeches of all time.” Just shy of five hours later Steve left the Chamber trending worldwide, with nearly 9,000 followers and having captured the hearts and minds of a public that thought parliament could never be trusted again.

Good work goes on by good people from all political persuasions inside this magnificent building. People like Dr Fox and Nick Clegg have done much to diminish the achievements of ordinary backbenchers not interested in cars, titles or media attentions, but simply intent on providing the strongest possible voice for their constituents.

I was fortunate enough to be in the under galley of the Chamber on Monday night, about ten feet away from Steve. I have been in there hundreds of times. On Monday however, the atmosphere was electric – unlike anything I have  ever witnessed. You could have heard a pin drop. I knew his speech was packed with passion, but his delivery was first-class.

You could see as you looked around the Chamber, Members were fixated on him, listening intently to every word. I suspect some were still amazed as he reeled off the facts about Jon-Paul Gilhooley, the ten year old victim tested for alcohol and the disparaging words used in the immediate aftermath by Douglas Hurd, but most were simply amazed his voice was holding up.

I knew that there was a particular line that Steve was going to say which had choked him up every time we had rehearsed. The line read, “Out of the darkness of the Hillsborough tragedy, an eternal flame of unity has emerged and means that Liverpool is now synonymous with a unique kind of solidarity. Whether red or blue, we are Scousers all.”

Indeed, the emotional nature of the debate grew when Steve read out the names of the 96. The House remained silent. It was a world away from the circus that is PMQs on a Wednesday.

Steve’s speech was followed by a moving speech from Andy Burnham who, as Steve said in his closing remarks, has brought a tenacity to the Justice campaign that only he could. It was also incredibly moving to hear from Clive Betts and Angela Smith talk about the dark cloud that has hung over the City of Sheffield since that tragic day. It seemed that when both sat down after their speeches a weight had been lifted off their shoulders.

And the third city involved, the city of Nottingham, was also represented in the debate. Dan Jarvis and John Mann spoke of how easily it could have been Forest fans caught up in the disaster had it not been for the toss of a coin as to which ends the fans would be situated.

It was a truly national debate on a truly national tragedy.

As I walked out of the Chamber, I watched as MPs from all sides of the House, surrounded Steve in the members lobby to congratulate and thank him. Some MPs still had tears in their eyes. Others had smiles on their faces. Some simply relieved that the mother of parliaments had restored, to a degree, public faith. Collectively, the MPs, led by Andy and Steve walked out to the central lobby where the families of the 96 greeted them. Again there were tears; again there were smiles but this time there was also hope.

The thirty seconds or so reminded me of something an MP had said four years previously in the chamber, “Some may belittle politics but we who are engaged in it know that it is where people stand tall. Although I know that it has many harsh contentions, it is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. If it is, on occasions, the place of low skullduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.”

The Member was Tony Blair. He was right and on Monday, Steve Rotheram proved it.

Tags: Hillsborough, Steve Rotherham MP

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