The Guardian has an interview with Revd James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, about his work chairing the inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster. Bishop James says he knew what he was taking on and that, following the panel’s findings, ‘truth must now lead to justice.’:
The Right Rev James Jones sits in the ample study of the stately residence he occupies as the bishop of Liverpool, and explains why he agreed to chair the independent panel that examined the horrors of Hillsborough. It was, he acknowledges, a much meatier undertaking than the common routines of Church of England business, which Jones laments as too often parochial, wrapped up in “interminably long debates” and lacking engagement with society.
He knew what he was taking on, Jones says. He was inducted into Hillsborough, and the bereaved families’ campaign against what they complained was a grievous injustice and a South Yorkshire police cover-up, in his early days as Liverpool’s bishop. In 1999, a year into his post, the Hillsborough Family Support Group asked him to preside at the memorial service for the disaster’s 10th anniversary, and they explained their continuing agonies.
Though John Sentamu, now archbishop of York, then of Stepney, was a member of the Macpherson inquiry team that reported in 1999 on the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, it is unusual for a church figure in Britain to chair such a process. “The church sometimes colludes with a very parochial approach, that it should not stray outside its walls,” says Jones. “It takes us away from engagement with society which I believe is our calling. I absolutely believe the church should take an active role in helping to frame a just society.”
When he was considering whether to accept the invitation to chair the panel, made by the then Labour government’s home secretary, Alan Johnson, in 2009, Jones consulted the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, among others. “To paraphrase, Rowan said this is exactly what the church should be doing.”
Jones pays tribute to Andy Burnham and other Merseyside MPs, including Steve Rotheram, Maria Eagle, Derek Twigg and Alison McGovern, who supported the families in their quest for the truth. “MPs, politicians, come in for a lot of stick,” Jones says. “But these MPs’ advocacy of the families has been outstanding. If a politician has to represent, they have represented their people fearlessly.”
Those who worked with Jones over almost three testing years testify to his range of skills, including as a chairman, negotiator – and politician. He lobbied hard to secure the continuation of the panel’s work and civil service support when the Cameron government took over in 2010, and, like others involved, praises the contribution of the home secretary, Theresa May. “She gave her commitment and she has seen it through,” he says.
He says the families’ loss, many of them parents whose children died, remains raw: “As a pastor, I could see the symptoms of grief there, in the demeanour of the people.” When the press conferences were over, he took himself to the cathedral’s chapel. “I went to remember the 96, and to pray for truth and justice to prevail in God’s world.” He adds: “I strayed from my brief as chairman in that moment – but it was the end of the day.”
From the chair in his study, Jones talks gently, mostly about his Christian beliefs and ministering to people’s grief. But when he reflects on how Liverpool itself was defamed, portrayed as unjustifiably whingeing when the city always expressed solidarity with the families, he reveals a glint of steel. “There has been that phrase ‘self-pity city’. I think people will think twice before they say that again,” he says sternly. “The report has allowed Liverpool people to say: ‘This is the truth about us.'”
Then, quietly, he concludes: “And truth must now lead to justice.”