I wonder occasionally what it was like to live in Britain in the 1980s, what with the Troubles in Ireland and the threats of the Irish Republican Army. I know what terrorism is – headline after news-report has made it an intrinsic part of our collective conscience - but until recently I only really knew of my generation’s version of terrorism. The inevitability of changing times, I suppose.
But these times have changed, not vanished: the Brighton Bombing in 1984 may be enveloped in thirty-two years’ worth of time, but it is still talked about and remembered with the intention in this case of spreading forgiveness and peace. Hymers College was lucky enough to play host to two lecturers talking on the subject, both inextricably involved in two very different ways: Pat Magee, the IRA member who planted the bomb in room 629 of the Grand Hotel, whose detonation killed five Conservative Members of Parliament including Sir Anthony Berry, father of our second lecturer, Jo Berry.
I think I would be supported by my fellow Sixth Form colleagues in saying that the atmosphere in the common room was apprehensive before the lecture. Few of us had ever met anyone like Pat before, and how the relationship would be between himself and Jo was difficult to predict. What we were actually presented with was not historical, and nor was it political to a huge extent: it was human. Pat gave some details about his role in the bombing and a little on his politics at the time, but it soon became clear that recounting the story of his crime was not the point. Forgiveness and peace were the recurring themes, especially on the part of Jo, for whom endlessly reliving the time of her father’s death would have been presumably without benefit.
Magee had been released from prison fourteen years into a recommended thirty-five-year stretch as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, and his path crossed with Jo’s in November 2000. She wanted to see Pat, ‘beyond the label of IRA,’ and noted that upon meeting, ‘we were really polite and courteous to each other.’ Some may be surprised at Jo’s willingness to meet Pat – in fact, she mentioned at lunch how some people had been openly critical of her decision – but she considered it part of her healing process, noting that she saw the human side of Pat when he removed the façade of politics from his story. ‘It would have been easier for me in the course of that meeting […] if Jo had shown anger,’ Pat remarked. But Jo, an advocator of solutions resulting from peaceful and democratic processes, did not play the aggressor, listening to Pat ‘with enormous grace.’ Perhaps this was because Jo had made her own decision to meet Pat: he mentioned that he would never have approached the family of a victim himself, even though he had hoped to use his time to in some way make a difference by informing people about the IRA.
As previously mentioned, I was unsure of how the dynamics of Pat and Jo’s relationship would appear to us: although they had travelled and spoken together for many years, it is tough to get past the fact that Pat had killed Jo’s father; this was an idea that they themselves alluded to. And so I can rely only on my outsider’s impression: there was an air of mutual respect between the pair, especially Pat for Jo, finding the ‘sufficient trust’ she placed in him ‘deeply humbling.’ An unusual dynamic perhaps, but as was repeatedly mentioned, if either of them became uncomfortable, they would stop speaking together. But their message is important, and inspiring: I certainly got the impression that they appreciated that.
I had to decide from which slant I was going to write this piece: my choices had been anything from historical, political or analytical to one of many different focuses that were brought up during the course of the lecture. But I decided to mirror the theme that was undoubtedly the most prominent and significant in the talk: a phrase I will use for the third time, forgiveness and peace. Both Pat and Jo expressed their commitment to that idea, which was avidly conveyed to us as being vitally important. Especially so, I suppose, in a world where peacetime is becoming the anomaly. ‘I believe that we have reached a significant junction now that there is no justification for violence,’ was one message of Pat’s. There is much that we can take from that to apply in present day situations, and perhaps this is a sentiment that should be taken more seriously by those with the power to make big decisions. Forgiveness and reconciliation were highlighted as vital, and the image of sitting around a negotiating table many-a-time retold. Jo, being co-founder with Pat of the charity ‘Building Bridges for Peace’, was adamant of the advantages of talking. ‘Despite differences you can have this level of contact […] that in itself I think is a powerful message,’ Pat said in reference to the relationship between himself and Jo, but also I feel reflecting any and all differences that people have. Pat is right – the message is a powerful one, and hopefully one that has the ability to reduce tension and suffering the world over.
By David Elstone, Headmaster, Hymers College