Andy Burnham says Manchester’s response to arena bombing was ‘magnificent’

Seventeen days after Andy Burnham was elected Mayor of Greater Manchester the bomb went off.

The former Labour Health Secretary was still finding his feet outside the Westminster bubble when Manchester’s worst peace-time atrocity claimed 22, mostly young, lives, and left an entire region shell-shocked.

As the world’s media focused on Manchester’s grief and its people sought direction, the mayor went through the full range of emotions.

Every hour, he said, seemed like a day. Initially, he felt an overwhelming sense of sadness, and not a little fear. Then, after a vigil he had organised saw Mancunian defiance come to the fore, pride and humility replaced the fear.

As names and faces were put to corpses, and small coffins were carried at funerals, St Ann’s Square became a shrine and Don’t Look Back In Anger was adopted as the city’s anthem, Burnham struggled to articulate what it all meant.

Until, a few months later, at a homelessness event in Piccadilly Gardens, these lyrics, sung by an unknown band called Prose, knocked him sideways:

Manchester has lost its sound, the kids, the kids that can’t be found,

and there’ll never be a day that goes on where I say,

I won’t be carrying this weight in my heart,

remembering the place where I was when things changed,

and the world started falling apart.

Manchester has fell to its knees in the bedlam we forget to breathe

the city that’s never asleep loses its legs for a second and grieves,

and we get to our feet, build up our strength and we help the bereaved

and stand up together we’re stronger than ever,

our hearts and our heads are the weapons we need, we will not accept this is any defeat.

Burnham, 48, says: “It summed up everything I’d felt. Manchester had lost its sound. The day after the bomb, it was deadly quiet and jittery. It felt momentarily winded and unable to respond. But then it did and its response was magnificent.”

May 22, 2017, had been an ordinary Monday evening for Burnham. It was his dad’s birthday, so he dropped round a bottle of wine, then played five-a-side football, went home and switched on Newsnight.

Then his phone rang. It was great friend and Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram asking what was happening at the Arena, where his daughters had gone to see Ariana Grande. The next call told Burnham it was a terror alert.

He says: “I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. I decided not to go to the Arena while everything was unfolding, but to stay at home and gather my thoughts.”

The next morning, he stood at the town hall telling the world that after the darkest of nights, Manchester had woken to the most difficult of dawns. He says: “It certainly felt like the darkest night I’d ever had. They were a hard few hours when I kept asking myself, ‘How will this place respond?’”

He and the Manchester City Council leader Richard Leese decided to hold a “vigil of peace” that evening in Albert Square.

On social media, the far right accused them of lighting candles as terrorists planned a next attack.

That angered Burnham. “We weren’t saying, ‘Light a candle and love each other’, we were saying, ‘Be proud, don’t let anything change you, don’t lose confidence’.

“When Tony Walsh read his poem This Is The Place, the mood completely changed. Mancunians had found their voice. That vigil massively helped set the tone.”

He was also in St Ann’s Square when the mass rendition of Oasis hit Don’t Look Back in Anger broke out. He says: “Hearing that build was just amazing. It showed that for all our challenges our biggest asset is our people.

“We saw it in the immediate aftermath, when Muslim taxi firms gave free rides. Something phenomenal came out of that terrible night. The sense of solidarity was summed up by the ‘worker bee’ symbol being adopted. It’s an emblem of Manchester and it says that no one is bigger than the whole.”

There were 14,200, mostly teenage girls, trying to get out of the Manchester Arena when suicide bomber Salman Ramadan Abedi, 22, detonated an explosive device, killing 22 people and injuring more than 500.

At the time Burnham described the attack as “an act of pure evil”. Does he still think that?

“Yes. This individual grew up here. To commit that act in a place where he knew there was an ­audience of teenage girls was pure, vindictive and unremitting evil.”

If that’s the case, I ask, is it hard not to look back in anger?

“Terrorism is designed to create anger. It’s where the streetwise attitude of Manchester came in.

“Because when they sang Don’t Look Back In Anger they knew it was the best two fingers they could give them.”

On tomorrow’s anniversary it is the bereaved families who occupy his thoughts. He says: “I talk to them all the time. And every day is a new day of pain. This one will be extremely difficult.”

But along with all the grief and sadness, he believes this is a day to remember how, in a short space of time, his city saw the worst and then the best of humanity.

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