Saturday, 21 January 2012

Making Friends with the Enemy

Jo Berry's father was killed in the Brighton bomb in 1984. Since then she has been on an extraordinary journey, working for peace and reconciliation, even alongside her father's killer.

I was struck by Jo's story and her gracious dignity when she came to speak in Alsager on 16th January. I wrote an account for various church magazines in the town and I reproduce the article here with Jo's permission.

Making Friends With The Enemy
‘It’s a journey and it’s a choice ...’

On 12th October 1984 Jo Berry was setting out for a two-year development project in Africa when the ‘phone rang with terrible news. A bomb had exploded at Brighton’s Grand Hotel where her father, Sir Anthony Berry MP and her step-mother were attending the Conservative Party conference. In the hours which followed, even worse news emerged. Her father was among the dead.

‘I felt I had been thrown into a war,’ she told a gathering at the Alsager Peace Centre on 16th January. ‘I had never thought of him as an IRA target, still less about the issues that lay behind the conflict.’  Over the next few years that would change dramatically as Jo sought to understand her father’s killers. It was journey that would lead to her working alongside Pat Magee, the only member of the gang convicted for the bombing, in peace and reconciliation initiatives in trouble-spots across the world.

‘For me, the question is about whether I can let go of my need to blame, and open my heart enough to hear Pat's story and understand his motivations,’ she said. ‘The truth is that, sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t and this choice is always there.’

Shortly after the bombing, Jo found herself sharing a taxi with a Belfast man whose brother had been an IRA volunteer killed by the British Army. She visited Northern Ireland and became involved with groups supporting the victims of violence or working for reconciliation. Later, she would work with Colin Parry who lost his son in the Warrington bombing, another tireless campaigner for peace and conflict-resolution. She met former IRA and INLA men, Loyalist paramilitaries, former UDR men, British soldiers and ordinary people on both sides of the sectarian divide. And in 2000, following his release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, she finally met her father’s killer, Patrick Magee.

Jo movingly described that initial three-hour meeting. For the first hour he stood by the conventional ‘justifications’ for political violence she had heard many times before, how he’d felt that non-violent protest was not enough, that the beleaguered Republican minority had to take direct action even if it meant planting bombs and taking civilian lives. She heard him out and, touched by her dignity and empathy, asked to hear her story in all its rawness, anger and rage. In order to objectify the bomb victims as ‘targets’ he had forced himself not to think of them as human beings. Confronted by Jo’s calm dignity he said at last, ‘I’m really sorry I killed your father.’

At their next meeting, Pat Magee was profoundly moved by a question Jo passed on from one of her daughters, ‘Does that mean that Grandad Tony can come back now?’ Pat began his own journey, joining Jo on speaking platforms, conferences and workshops in Northern Ireland, the Lebanon and other regions scarred by communal violence.

Although there remain differences of opinion between Jo and Pat on the legitimacy of violence to achieve political ends, they have worked together to promote peace and reconciliation with varied groups. ‘The very fact that we share the same platform says something in itself,’ Jo explains. ‘And wherever we speak together it creates an impact.’

Jo fully acknowledges the dilemmas involved. Not all her siblings and relatives share her views, but they have come to respect her stance. ‘It starts with us. We need to take responsibility, be vigilant, show empathy and respect, see the humanity in everyone.’

For more details of Jo’s work on conflict-resolution see:

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