At 10am on Wednesday, I sat alone in the august and still surroundings of a panelled room in 10 Downing Street. Before me on the antique table was tea in a bone-china cup and saucer and a copy of the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.
As I turned its 395 pages, a swirl of emotions transported me straight back to a very different time in very different surroundings: a pub in Warrington, the Cherry Tree, where as a 19-year-old I had felt blind rage as I listened to friends recount the horror they had just witnessed at Hillsborough.
Earlier on that fateful April day, I had been at Villa Park with my dad and two brothers to watch Everton in the other semi-final. My only real memory of the game is seeing "5 dead at Hillsborough" flash across the scoreboard. Normally, a semi-final win would have sparked jubilant scenes in the Everton half of the Holte End. But, at the final whistle, it was subdued. Everyone was thinking about friends and neighbours who were in Sheffield.
As we made our way up the M6 and listened to the first radio reports from the disaster scene, conversation in our car turned to our own experience there one year earlier.
In January 1988, we had stood on the Leppings Lane, crammed into the central pens. It was one of those match experiences that don't happen any more; when your feet were lifted off the floor and you felt the fear of not being in control of your legs. That day, I did not watch the second half; I had my eyes pinned constantly on my dad and 13-year-old brother John and didn't want to let them out of my sight. If I was feeling this ill and struggling to breathe, how were they coping?
One year on, even though the radio reports kept mentioning "fans forcing a gate", we all agreed: the inadequate ground design must have played a part.
In those days, there were no mobile phones. I had to wait until we got home to call my friend Stephen Turner. His mum answered after half a ring: "Stephen, Stephen, is that you?" I felt terrible for having called and put the phone down without speaking.
It was a huge relief when he finally arrived in the Cherry Tree. He was not in a good way. That night, we tried to help him make sense of what had happened, with our own experiences of the ground.
I wonder how we would have reacted if we had known that, at the same time, parents arriving at Hillsborough to identify the bodies of their children were being questioned as if they were criminal families under suspicion.
How would we have felt if we'd known that: senior officers were ordering the taking of blood alcohol levels from people who lay dead; were in the early stages of fabricating stories about supporters' "animalistic behaviour"; and heading back to the station to run PNC checks on the names of the dead?
Hillsborough made me furious back then – and I felt the same fury, even more, sitting in Downing Street sipping my tea on Wednesday 12 September. When I saw the reports of "near misses" ignored, and I thought of my own experience in 1988, it was clear that this was a tragedy that could have been so easily avoided, 96 lives saved.
When it had finally arrived, I found the truth much harder to take than I ever expected – the passage of time has made things worse, not better. All day, I kept asking myself: how could an injustice on this scale have been hidden for so long? Why did my own party not do more to help the Hillsborough families?
Hillsborough has always been an issue where, for me, the personal and political come together. It's about who I am, where I come from, the people I love. So it was a source of great pride to me that Labour fought the 1997 election with a commitment to reopen Hillsborough.
In 1998, when Lord Justice Stewart-Smith announced the results of his "scrutiny", I was working out of the old Football Trust on the new Government's football task force. I can still remember the abject disappointment I felt that day, and my utter shock at the reaction of an employee of the trust. He said he had always found the lack of accountability on Hillsborough hard to understand given one simple fact: it didn't have a valid safety certificate on the day of the disaster. I had never quite taken this in before. No valid safety certificate.
When I finally made it into Parliament, I often thought about whether there was any way I could reopen Hillsborough. The inquiries I made always drew the same response: too difficult, best to leave alone, all avenues exhausted.
Then, by twist of fate, I was made Culture Secretary in 2008, Liverpool's year as Capital of Culture. I spent a lot of time in the city and got to know the then Lord Mayor, Steve Rotheram. Early in 2009, Steve said I would be getting an invite to speak at Anfield at the Hillsborough 20th anniversary memorial service. I agonised about whether to accept, knowing the Government had nothing to say. I talked it through with the family, and the consensus was that I'd never forgive myself if I didn't.
It seems strange to say this now, but my main worry before giving the speech at Anfield that day was whether I could get through it without breaking down and crying. When the first "Justice for the 96" chants rolled off the Kop, I was not surprised, as I half-expected them. I wanted the country to hear them.
Minutes after the service, as I recovered my composure in the Centenary Suite, my phone rang and it was Gordon Brown. I was worried that I had brought some extra bad publicity on a Government for which good publicity was in short supply at the time. He told me I had done a brilliant and brave thing.
I came off the phone and Steve asked me to come to the town hall to speak at a reception for all the families. I told him I'd rather get off home, given the day I'd had. He forced me into the car and, 10 minutes later, I was walking up the grand staircase to be greeted by the worst possible welcoming party for an Evertonian: Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. "Oh no," said Kenny when he saw me, "you've not come to upset them all again, have you?"
It raised a good laugh and they all did their best to bring me round. When I spoke to all the assembled families, I made them a promise: I would try to get them the truth about Hillsborough.
The next day, I travelled to Glasgow for one of our cabinet meetings outside London. I had told Gordon I wanted to raise Hillsborough at the end of the agenda and a call I had made with Maria Eagle in advance of the 20th anniversary for full disclosure of papers. In a discussion, a number of issues were raised. Gordon concluded: "There are issues to resolve but we need to back Andy up on this." That was the moment when government policy on Hillsborough changed and the road to Wednesday 12 September began. He knew I cared deeply about it. It was real loyalty to me and I'll for ever be grateful to Gordon for his role in all this.
Now the truth is out, the fight for justice is starting in earnest. I won't be able to rest until we have overturned the inquest verdict of "accidental death". I'm no lawyer but the centrality of the safety certificate issue – that the authorities knew Hillsborough was not a legally certified safe venue – means "unlawful killing" must be a real possibility.
Other questions need to be answered as we digest the panel's comprehensive report. Will individuals now be held properly accountable for unforgivably blaming the survivors of a tragedy? If the authorities were aware of a cover-up, why didn't they do something about it? How did Parliament allow injustice on this scale to stand for so long? Was it in part down to the anti-Liverpool feeling that was stoked by some politicians and the London-based media in the past two decades?
The families will never achieve closure, but, for now, they can at least find some comfort in truth.
As I sat on the train to Liverpool on Wednesday, I got a text from Stephen Turner. He said he'd struggled with memories of Hillsborough for 23 years and this was the first day he'd felt hope. It was the best text I have ever received.Reuse content