I REMEMBER where I was on April 15, 1989. I was leading a youth weekend at Rydal Hall in Cumbria, eager to finish a walk in the hills so I could catch up on the Liverpool versus Nottingham Forest FA Cup semi-final being played at the same time. My brother was at the match in Sheffield, and I knew a few other people who had been lucky enough to get tickets.
I got back and turned on my car radio. I couldn’t understand what was going on – even the commentator on the BBC sounded so traumatised that for a long time he simply assumed we all knew. As the news then became clearer, so did the horror begin to dawn.
In the end 96 people died. That is enough for everyone in Liverpool to be connected in some way with someone bereaved. The classic journey of bereavement has shock giving way to anger, anger to grief, and grief to acceptance.
However, here, it seems that the grief exploded in a sea of flowers and mementoes at Anfield, while the anger slowly burned. It burned for nearly a quarter of a century before a new inquiry was sanctioned.
It is still hard to buy a copy of the Sun newspaper in Liverpool today. Shameful allegations of fans’ alleged sub-human behaviour pushed grief aside and fired an anger that has simmered ever since.
Police behaviour, doctoring statements and all the other stuff now well-documented put the reputations of the officers concerned ahead of the grief of bereaved people.
Now a verdict of unlawful killing has been returned, this time on the basis of proper investigation and fully-informed inquests.
After more than 27 years, those involved can now move on knowing that the truth has been heard – not only about what happened on that dreadful day, but also about the deliberate manipulations that subsequently condemned a city to unrequited misery.
One constant throughout this appalling business was the bond between Yorkshire and Liverpool, my home city and the place where four generations of my family still live. One of the most impressive campaigners for justice came from Keighley – Trevor Hicks, who with his then wife lost two daughters in the crush at the Leppings Lane end of the ground. The city of Sheffield recognised from the outset its inescapable involvement in the huge grief of those who had been denied not only the lives of those they loved, but also the justice needed from such an avoidable tragedy.
It was perhaps neither random nor coincidental that the person asked to chair the independent panel, and whose work led to the new new inquests, was a Church of England bishop.
The then Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, understood not only the anger of those offended, but also the need for the sort of justice that can lead to reconciliation.
Pulling back from the blame game, he was able to establish a panel that scrutinised documentation. Objective, rational and concrete, the panel was able to identify just where truth had been obscured, leads missed, facts misrepresented, evidence manipulated. His brief was to expose the truth and then leave it to the judicial authorities to address the consequences.
The bishop was equipped to chair this panel because he had the courage, clarity and committed impartiality to search for the truth, regardless of what it might cost those involved.
It was also a pastoral response to the destroyed lives, wrecked relationships and demolished hopes of some very distraught people. He also clearly had the confidence of those paying for the whole thing that the narrative of events would be properly pursued under his leadership.
So, where to from here? Well, at least the bereaved – who held their final memorial service at Anfield last month – can know that the truth has been told and heard.
Dignity can now be allowed where reputations lay questioned and character suspected.
Justice has been done and been seen to be done. If forgiveness is possible as those affected look to put this quarter of a century to rest, then it can now be credible – arising from knowledge of the facts (even uncomfortable facts) and full awareness of the degree of justified grievance they have borne for so long.
This changes something else. The police and others now deemed to be in some way responsible for the tragedy must address their personal and collective response.
This will not be easy for them. Justice must in the end be liberating for everyone, even those for whom the truth is painful.
I am a Scouser and live in Yorkshire. The former Bishop of Liverpool has retired to Yorkshire. (The current Bishop of Liverpool was born and bred in Bradford, West Yorkshire).
The bond between the two is not sentimental. It is a fatal error ever to accuse Yorkshire people, or Liverpudlians, of sentimentalism.
But the shared experience of this grief and anger has constructed a bond that generates mutual respect when it comes to the game of football that should always bring competitive pleasure, but never bring death and humiliation.
In circumstances such as these, we often speak of “closure”. Not that memories are closed off or emotions allowed to run cold. But a sense of justice for those who can no longer speak for themselves – who can neither justify nor explain themselves – does allow a future unchained from the grief and anger that will not stop stinging until the sting itself has been drawn.
A verse in the biblical book of Proverbs pleads: “Open your mouth for the dumb!” It has been quoted as an indictment against those who allow injustice to prevail because to protest would be too costly or wearing or inconvenient.
Today it can be cited with pride on the part of families, supporters, football clubs, cities and even bishops: the voice of the dead has been honoured and now they can lie in peace.
The Right Reverend Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds. He was born in Liverpool.