Speaking Truth to Power

Last night I had the privilege of being at an event in the Waterfront Studio which was part of the Belfast Festival, but unlike other events I usually go to in this and other festivals it wasn't primarily an artistic one. There was a short, superb set by the Féile Women's Choir at the beginning, but despite the fact that my wife sings with them, that wasn't my main reason for going, rather it was to hear Professor Phil Scraton, one of the members of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, speak about the work of that panel, the tragedy that unfolded on 15th April 1989 and its aftermath, under the title of "Hillsborough: Speaking Truth to Power."
This was an event not just for Liverpool fans or football fans, but for anyone interested in politics, power and the dignity of people in the face of injustice. 
Whilst I was quite familiar with most of the material presented, to hear it all over the course of 90 minutes from a person intimately involved with the whole process over it's 23 years, was profoundly moving. It was a reminder, as if we needed reminding, that the recovery of truth is an important if not sacred thing, and the tendency that we have in this part of the world to avoid really dealing with the past is storing up trouble for the future...
It was also a salutary reminder of the tendency of those in power (of whatever hue) to be prepared to sacrifice the lives and well-being of ordinary people for the sake of the system... Sometimes it's in the name of progress, sometimes in the name of protecting what we have. We see it in the factories and shipyards of industrial Britain, the mud of the Somme, the prison camps of the rapidly crumbling British Empire, the pit-villages, towns and cities of post-industrial 1980's Britain, the neglect of spectator safety concerns in the fight against football hooliganism in the late 1980's and the erosion of civil-liberties in the recent war on terror... And that is only a snap-shot of British history... it happens with just about every earthly nation and system to a greater or lesser extent. The sacrifice of the few for the sake of the many, or actually, if you look at it more cynically, the sacrifice of many for a few at the top.
The phrase "Speaking truth to power" has become almost a modern cliché - indeed it was articulated by historian, Professor Peter Hennessy on at least one occasion as what might be seen as a job description or mission statement for civil servants... Sadly the truth articulated by civil servants is often in cold hard cash terms, rather than in terms of the cost to human beings. Had more civil servants spoke of truth in those terms regarding Hillsborough, instead of recycling myths and untruths then perhaps it wouldn't have taken 23 years for some of the injustices to be addressed... Now the truth in all its messy complexity is, in the words of the X-Files, out there... But it is out there in a coherent, accessible form... 
What happens with it now remains to be seen. There has long been a campaign of "Justice for the 96". In many people's minds that is about criminal justice and retribution on those who were to blame, and this report may, in part serve as a reservoir of evidence in that process, it also serves to address some of the injustices inflicted on the friends and relatives of those who died, but justice itself has not been fully accomplished and will not until we fully learn from what happened... Indeed the publication of the truth may, in the short term, make things worse for those who are hurting rather than better. The revelations regarding the survivability of some of those injured and the response of the ambulance service came as a shock to many. The cold hard facts may in the short term produce even greater anger, and, as Prof. Scraton stated last night, such anger is not irrational, it is, in many ways the only rational response to such truth... Nor is anger necessarily a negative emotion... Indeed in the face of systems that seem to be fuelled by the pain of the poor and the powerless, then perhaps we should be a little more angry. 
And in many ways it was that idea that brought me back full circle... to a song. Not one of those sung by the Women's Choir, a mixture of Beatles songs, fun songs, protest songs and the inevitable "You'll Never Walk Alone", which I don't think I have ever heard sung more movingly, but a song by John Bell of the Iona Community:

Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain,
Informed of God’s own bias we ask him once again:
“How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self interest turn prayer and pity blind?”

From those forever victims of heartless human greed,
Their cruel plight composes a litany of need:
“Where are the fruits of justice? Where are the signs of peace?
When is the day when prisoners and dreams find their release?”

From those forever shackled to what their wealth can buy,
The fear of lost advantage provokes the bitter cry,
“Don’t query our position! Don’t criticise our wealth
Don’t mention those exploited by politics and stealth!”

To God, who through the prophets proclaimed a different age,
We offer earth’s indifference, its agony and rage:
“When will the wronged be righted? When will the kingdom come?
When will the world be generous to all instead of some?”

God asks, “Who will go for me? Who will extend my reach?
And who, when few will listen, will prophesy and preach?
And who, when few bid welcome, will offer all they know?
And who, when few dare follow, will walk the road I show?”



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