Revd Alan Bashforth recalls the disaster … and the search for repentance and forgiveness

Just after 3pm on Saturday 15 April 1989, I was driving a police patrol car around the Norfolk Park estate in Sheffield, when I was instructed by radio to return to my station and join others to be transported to Hillsborough Football Ground. The message said that the Liverpool fans were “rioting”.

I have known for 23 years that this assessment of the situation was wrong, and the events of this past week or so have re-emphasised this, and have taken this wrongness to a different level.

When I arrived at Hillsborough that day, I was sent with my colleagues on to the pitch, into scenes of chaos. Some fans were still placing their loved ones on advertising hoardings and running them off the pitch in search of medical treatment, and a good many others were wandering around, bewildered by what was happening. To a great extent, my only not-very-useful contribution was to wander around, too, sharing their bewilderment.

I remember being deployed, with a number of others, in a line across the pitch near the half-way line. This act of keeping the fans of Liverpool and Nottingham Forest apart revealed something of the mentality of the day: the much-feared hooligan violence was expected to break out at any moment.

As it turned out, I ended up standing next to my cousin, also a policeman who had been deployed to the ground. I remember him telling me that he had heard that six people were dead, and I recall my heart sinking at the thought.

Later that day, I found myself “protecting the scene” in the Leppings Lane Stand, amid twisted metal, litter, and the ghosts of the day — and gradually the reality of the extent of the death toll began to be revealed. When driving away from the ground later, a group of fans shouted “Murderers!” as we passed, and I wondered how the keepers of the law could have earned this title.

We were given the opportunity not to go into work the following day, so that we could sort out our minds. As a fledgling Christian, I took this chance, and went to church. There I cried. I would guess that a part of me was crying for the dead fans, but some of my tears were for the organisation I worked for, which was already starting to get the blame, and some of them were for myself, because I had felt so inept and useless on the day. I was 24 years old.

I heard colleagues whom I believed in say that the fans had been drunk; I read the papers that backed them up; and I found it hard to see half of Anfield covered in flowers. By then, I had convinced myself that the people of Liverpool had brought this on themselves. “No one forced them into the ground, did they?” When I remember how many times I said this, all those years ago, I cringe inwardly.

The Taylor report in 1990, which placed much of the blame with the Police, did little to change my view because, by then, I had decided that it was the easy line to blame the public servants who could not answer back. But gradually, through the years, as more and more was said, my view began to change.

On one level, my justification became a little more theological. People on the day made mistakes. They were fallible, just like the rest of us, and little was served by bringing them into the public square to flog them again. Part of me simply wanted the whole thing to go away, because nothing new could be said.

It is, however, a feature of our institutions that, although they are simply gatherings of fallible human beings, they find it hard to admit mistakes. It is not only about fear of litigation, either: it is about that pseudo-military phrase “closing ranks” — protecting your own.

We can castigate the Police and the military for this, but let us not forget the incidents we could quote from the NHS, or even the Church, when the innocent have suffered, and the guilty have been protected. How often do we hear self-justification, when repentance is required?

It now appears that those at the centre of events on that dreadful day not only sought to justify the actions of their organisation, but also actively doctored the evidence, using the authority they held over rank-and-file officers. Repentance is not obvious here, and forgiveness is hard to offer. Thus, some of those who made mistakes, who were fallible and broken, may well have been criminal as well.

It is also important to recognise the central part played in all this by stereotyping. When I was in the Police, some in the criminal fraternity had the acronym ‘ACAB’ (“All Coppers are Bastards”) tattooed on their knuckles, which played to an extreme stereotype. This, however, pales into insignificance when placed alongside some of the prejudice that the people of Liverpool have faced through the years. Some of this prejudice, I believe, underscores much of the tragedy of Hillsborough and its injustices.

I am sorry today for the times that I have joined in this prejudice, and I am sorry for those occasions when I have grown tired of the Hillsborough families’ cry for justice, and hoped that they would simply get over it. I am sorry, too, that on the day, somehow I did not do more — although I still do not know what that more would have been.

I am content that the victims of Hillsborough have finally been accorded the honour of being the “innocent victims” that they were. I hope that some new light and new life may flow from that, and that, as a result, we might be better at coming to greet the people we encounter each day as the people that they are, and not as those we prejudge and assume them to be.

My role at Hillsborough was so peripheral in the end that I never gave a statement, and thus at least nothing I said was ever doctored. Fourteen months after those events, I left the Police, and began the journey to ordination and a life of service to another “innocent victim”.

I live with the hope that I have served him better than I served those at Hillsborough, both on that fateful day, and in the years that have followed. I pray that, as today I offer my repentance, some sense of forgiveness will come.

This article was published in the Church Times dated 21 September 2012.
Revd Alan Bashforth, formerly PC 2204 of the South Yorkshire Police Force, is Vicar of St Agnes and Mithian with Mount Hawke and Rural Dean for Powder.