Exclusive: Burnham on Hillsborough

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Hillsborough memorial; MP Andy Burnham © Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Hillsborough memorial; MP Andy Burnham © Wikipedia/Creative Commons

As Liverpool marks the 24th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster today, MP Andy Burnham talks exclusively to JMU Journalism about his appearance at the 20th memorial service, setting off a chain of events which had far-reaching consequences.

In 2009, at the 20th anniversary service for the 96 Liverpool fans who went to the 1989 FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest but didn’t come home, the tide finally began to turn in the city’s fight for justice.

With the eyes of the world on Anfield, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport – and Aintree-born Scouser – Andy Burnham stood in front of the Kop and felt the full force of its anger.

His speech was interrupted by a lone cry of “Justice!” which became a wall of noise and fury as he was met by a crowd who showed the deep wounds of Hillsborough still remained.

Burnham told JMU Journalism: “I went there knowing it was going to be a tough day but in some ways when the chants started I half-expected it, I was ready for it. I wanted it to come out. I wanted it to be heard because it had to be heard.”

He admitted he had agonised over whether or not he should attend the service: “I knew the government hadn’t done anything for people but at the same time I couldn’t, in all conscience, not represent the government. I knew it was going to be difficult but I knew I had to be there.

“The dam needed to break; there needed to be a moment when the issue burst back onto the national scene and I look back on it and I think it was the best thing that ever happened because I was pleased that it happened to me.”

At the time he was seen as a figurehead villain, representing those in power who had continuously denied the calls from Merseyside for a new inquiry into the deaths at Hillsborough. When the 20th anniversary memorial crowd of over 30,000 vented their rage and frustration at Burnham, all he could do at that moment was nod his head in understanding.

However, the MP for Leigh took the message from Liverpool direct to his fellow Labour government members in Westminster and demanded action. His efforts were to result in the formation of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, overseeing the scrutiny of 450,000 documents relating to the disaster.

When the Hillsborough Independent Panel finally reported back on 12th September last year, its findings exonerated Liverpool fans of any wrongdoing and demonstrated one of the biggest cover-ups in the country’s history, as blame was shifted away from those responsible.

It could be said that if it was not for Burnham’s appearance at the 20th anniversary service, justice may not be any closer today and vicious myths and lies about the tragedy would still be perpetuated by those from outside the city who had not understood the true nature of the disaster and its aftermath.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel report slammed the emergency services, the Football Association, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, and shocked many, including Prime Minister David Cameron who apologised in the House of Commons for what he described as “a double injustice”.

Andy Burnham saw the powerful report in Downing Street on the morning of its release, and although he knew a lot of what it contained to be true beforehand, seeing it all in print had a profound impact on him.

He told JMU Journalism: “I just kind of remember the surge of anger I felt when I read they had checked the police national computer, with the deceased names being run on it.

“The FA had been warned and received complaints from a whole number of people after the 1988 semi-final [also at Hillsborough]. To have it laid out in black and white that the FA actively ignored complaints from supporters was pretty shocking really.”

The 43-year-old also gave his own account of a visit to Hillsborough in 1988, for an FA Cup third round game against Sheffield Wednesday which he attended just two days after his 18th birthday, along with fellow Evertonians, his father and brother.

The Hillsborough disaster, April 15th 1989

The Hillsborough disaster, April 15th 1989

Though Everton’s 1-1 draw was remembered for the start of a tie which forced three replays, Burnham’s recollections portray the uncomfortable nature of the central pens of the Leppings Lane end.

He said: “That game sticks in my mind because I didn’t watch anything going on on the pitch. I spent the whole of the second half watching the back of my dad and my brother’s heads because I was thinking ‘if I feel this bad God knows what they’re like’.

“I knew straight away what had gone wrong. The ground was fundamentally unsafe and most football supporters knew that.”

Hillsborough’s lack of a valid safety certificate was one of many factors detailed in the independent panel report, and Burnham believes that justice will now follow the truth.

He said: “The sad thing about it was a small group of people that followed every detail knew but the country didn’t know. There were simple, established facts, and what happened in the aftermath was only known by a minority.

“I think people now know what happened and what went wrong so it’s a case of the will to lay responsibility where it needs to be laid and take action against individuals who need to be held accountable.”

Hillsborough victims2

About Ian Bolland, JMU Journalism