The 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster have received the Freedom of the City of Liverpool in an emotional “bitter-sweet” ceremony.
Families of those who lost their lives in Britain’s worst sporting tragedy on April 15 1989 collected a specially designed scroll and a unique medal with the name of their loved one inscribed on it.
It was the first time the city has posthumously awarded its highest civic honour.
Also receiving the Freedom of the City at St George’s Hall from the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Roz Gladden, were Professor Phil Scraton, who led the research by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and former Liverpool FC manager Kenny Dalglish and his wife, Marina.
Each family member who picked up their award was greeted with rapturous applause, as were the Dalglishes, but the biggest cheer of the evening was reserved for Prof Scraton, whose tireless campaigning since the tragedy eventually led to the fresh inquests into the deaths, the unlawful killing verdicts from the jury in Warrington and the ongoing criminal investigation.
Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, said she was “delighted” that Prof Scraton had been honoured by his home city, while Trevor Hicks, whose daughters Sarah, 19, and Victoria, 15, died in the tragedy, said it was “very deserving”.
Speaking ahead of the service, Prof Scraton said: “On the one hand it’s a bitter-sweet experience.
“We should not be here, those people should never have died so I cannot help but think that the most important part of tonight is the commemoration of those who died.
“But at the same time it is also a celebration – a celebration of ordinary people who can pick up the mantle and fight for justice, and that they can win.
“To me that is a tremendous, tremendous indication to other families in other situations to never give up.
“From my own point of view, I did a job. I’m an academic, I’m from Liverpool. I knew from the outset intuitively what I felt has happened had happened at Hillsborough, and I worked on it.
“I felt I should never give up because I don’t think you can commit to something like this just for a short time.
“So once the inquests had ended the first time, once we had been through all the inquiries and investigations and we went into what I thought were the fallow years when nothing happened, I still felt it was important that the struggle for justice continued and that led invariably, inevitably, to the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and then from the panel to the inquests and now on to the next stage.
“So all those things taken together, I suppose in one sense, is a vindication that we should always look for the depth, the understanding and knowledge around these dreadful awful situations but at the same time we should never back down in the face of authority.”
Ex-Liverpool manager Dalglish and his wife, Marina, were recognised for their “unstinting support given to the Hillsborough families over 27 years” and for their “substantial charity work”.
The couple have helped raise millions of pounds for cancer treatment in the city through the Marina Dalglish Appeal after she successfully battled breast cancer.
Dalglish, who was joined at the ceremony by ex-team mate Alan Hansen, said he felt “very very humble” to be honoured.
He said: “All we did is we went out, enjoyed ourselves, played football and won a few trophies.
“When Hillsborough came along we only did to the families of Hillsborough what they did for us and that was support us.
“I think it is normal for people to help each other in their moment of need. If somebody wishes to reward you then, that is their choice.
“We did it because it was the right thing to do. Myself, the players, everybody involved at the football club, it was our responsibility to turn supporter and help them through the darkest days they had.
“I think it’s a tremendously rewarding night for them (the families) because of what they have achieved.
“They can look forward and be very proud of themselves at what they have achieved, the sacrifices they have had to make to get here.
“They are the real heroes. It is nothing to do with us, we only lent them a hand.”
His wife told reporters: “I think it is sad we are here at all.
“I wish we were not getting an award and everyone was still here but I think it is great that we are accepting it on behalf of everyone that has helped, because Kenny and I got it but there were hundreds and thousands of people who helped. We are accepting it on behalf of them.”
Mrs Aspinall said: “As everybody knows, Kenny supported an awful lot of families in difficult, difficult times. How he has done it I will never know.
“To face one family in grief is hard enough, Kenny had to face so many, and his wife Marina. They thoroughly and richly deserve this honour.
“And also for what Marina has done as well for cancer research and everything else in this city. She has been amazing. They are just icons as far as I am concerned.”
She said the ceremony was “a beautiful tribute but bitter-sweet”.
She said: “I think it means a great deal to the families because it eases a bit the pain that people are going through.
“It doesn’t take away the grief and the heartache, obviously. Nothing can ever repair that damage. But to know that the city is still thinking of them 96 after 26 years says a great deal about the people and the city itself.”
The Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, told the audience that the Hillsborough victims would be “forever immortalised in the history of our city”.
He said: “We want the world to know that the 96 in this city will never be forgotten and will forever remain in our hearts.”