Twenty-three years after the horrific events of Hillsborough and the city of Liverpool is at last beginning to experience a sense of catharsis. Bishop James Jones, who has done as much as anyone to bring about this healing process, believes signs of recovery, could be witnessed on the chilly night of the publication of the report into the disaster by the independent panel he chaired.
“In the early hours of the morning of 13 September there was somebody going through club land in the city of Liverpool with the 400-page document and people were asking to be photographed with it. I gather some people were kissing it. It almost became a scared document,” he recalls.
“It signified that this wasn’t actually self-pity city after all. This is a community that had a just cause and these documents have exposed the justice of their cause,” he adds. But the significance of the findings of the nine-strong panel and the hundreds of thousands of pages of document released after three years of careful scrutiny continues to resonate far beyond the Mersey.
New inquests into the 96 victims have already been ordered while a new police investigation could pave the way to criminal charges against those involved in the match-day failures which led to the crush and the ensuing cover-up.
But, according to the Bishop of Liverpool, there could be another legacy as the panel process becomes a blueprint for resolving other painful chapters in recent history.
“I have had informal conversations with people within Whitehall about this, and I have made it clear that I will be very willing to take part in any formal discussions if people want to recommend this as a model for future historic cases,” he says.
Recent concern over the efficacy of public probes – not least the Bloody Sunday Inquiry which took 12 years to report and cost £190m and recent controversy surrounding the investigation into the murder of the solicitor Pat Finucane which was rejected by his widow as a “sham and a whitewash” – means there is growing interest among ministers in the panel model.
Government sources suggested one candidate for such a Hillsborough style inquiry could be the into the 1998 Omagh bombing, a crime for which no one has ever been convicted. The Northern Ireland Office is currently considering the case for a full public inquiry into the atrocity after demands from the victims’ families.
Speaking about the possibility of applying the Hillsborough model to the Troubles, the Bishop said: “It is a complex situation and I don’t know enough about it except to know that there is a range of different issues in Northern Ireland.
“It seems to me generally it is a process worth considering. I think it has relevance across the piece.”
By not involving solicitors and lawyers, and by focusing on the documents rather than interrogating witnesses, the Hillsborough Independent Panel managed to move quickly and cost effectively while keeping the families of the victims on side. “The very people that an inquiry is intended to assist are those who often feel they are actually left out in the cold. And I do think that is something which needs to be addressed in future inquiries,” he says.
Bishop Jones was required to lobby the Coalition Government after the general election to persuade it to keep faith with the panel which had been set up under Labour. He believes the issue has remained largely unpoliticised and welcomes the cross-party support and the Prime Minister’s “resolute” action. However, the search for truth and justice continues in the courts and he still refuses to use the word “cover-up” to describe the actions of South Yorkshire Police in the wake of the tragedy, claiming it is not part of his remit to make judgments.
“When it comes to those implicated in the disclosed documents, they must have the opportunity to defend themselves against whatever allegations emerge for it to be a just process. I think there is always a danger of jumping the gun,” he says.
The Bishop, who underwent a heart bypass last year, also headed the independent panel on forestry which was hastily convened in the wake of the public outcry which forced the Government into a rapid U-turn over plans to sell off huge swathes of woodland. The panel unanimously rejected privatisation, suggesting forests could provide an engine for sustainable economic growth.
The Government is due to respond next month and failure to take note of its findings could lead to a resurgent protest, he says. “The Government would be making a big mistake if it felt that the thing had died down. All those people who were up in arms are now waiting to see how the Government will respond to these recommendations,” he warns.
Having worked to promote the environment, argued passionately against unfair spending cuts and sought to bridge the gap between religious groups in the city, he is dismayed at the perception of the Church of England and its ongoing disagreements over women priests and gay clergy. An evangelical who has mellowed in his views – particularly on same-sex relationships – he believes there is a “disconnect” between the church’s engagement locally and its perception at a national level.
“I’m afraid the General Synod in full flight does not represent what is going on day in, day out in the parishes across the country,” he says. “We are there really at the cutting edge of society. Unlike other caring professions like doctors or social workers we don’t just bus in and out to these areas of deprivation and challenge: we live there 24/7. That gives us in the church unique authority to talk about where comfortable and uncomfortable Britain is today.”