Last night crowds of people walked through a protest and lines of riot police to listen to two people talk about what it means to move forward when you have more reason than most to look back. It was a pretty intimidating entrance, but the place was packed full of people (photo on the right by Glenn Jordan). You can see some of the press coverage here.
The event was called ‘Listening to your enemies’ and was part of the 4 Corners Festival. It was hosted by the Skainos centre on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast.
The event was chaired by Rev. Dr. Lesley Carroll and featured Jo Berry and Patrick Magee. Jo Berry lost her father, Sir Anthony Berry, in an IRA bomb in a hotel in Brighton in 1984. Patrick Magee was a member of the IRA at the time and one of the bombers of the hotel.
In the past fourteen years, the two have appeared together at over a hundred engagements.
The evening involved some reflections from each of them, followed by a long question and answer session with the audience (I have written this piece based on notes I took at the event).
Jo Berry began the discussion by talking about why she wanted to meet Patrick Magee. It was her who sought him out, and after asking a few times, he finally agreed to meet her.
Patrick Magee reflected that ‘It’s difficult sitting with Jo because I killed her father. Even after 14 years of dialogue [with her] it’s still difficult.’ He added that coming to East Belfast (which is mainly Loyalist) to continue that dialogue was particularly poignant for him.
Patrick Magee said that when he first met Jo Berry he felt it was the first time since he got involved in the Republican campaign that anyone had really listened to him. He said that Jo Berry’s willingness to listen to him had disarmed him. Having met her he quickly grew to have tremendous respect for Jo, and realised that she was a intelligent, brave, and very fine human being. As a result he began to realise that her father had been a fine human being too. ‘And I killed him’, he added. He said that this was a deeply profound thing to have to carry with you. It is ‘a loss that can never be made up.’
Magee reflected that during conflict you can’t help but have a reduced view of the world. You don’t see human beings. And you don’t see the human cost.
He said the reason he continues to do the work with Jo Berry is that, ‘hopefully you can stop other people taking up the same course.’
Most of the questions from the audience were directed toward Magee, understandably so because of the significance of the venue on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast. I personally would have loved to hear more from Jo Berry, and I hope that I get another opportunity to hear her again soon. After the event there was some discussion on stage between Gary Mason, Jim Wilson, and Harold Good about where Northern Ireland could find a ‘Mandela moment’. I would suggest we don’t have to look far. You would have to go a long way before you find a more dignified and saintly human being than Jo Berry.
Magee was asked if he had a message to dissident Republicans, those who continue to believe in the legitimacy of a violent campaign. He replied that he was bewildered with dissidents. ‘They are going nowhere. I don’t think anything can be achieve through violence in the situation we find ourselves in.’ He added that he believes some dissident groups are looking for an exit strategy (a view that would be supported by this recent article in the Newsletter).
He reflected that ‘It’s hard to argue that any life was worth what we went through.’ He later stated that he hopes political leaders can embrace compromise. Jo Berry added that it would be wonderful if political leaders would try to understand the other community.
One member of the audience asked, ‘How do you deal with your emotions?’ Patrick Magee replied: ‘You don’t just leave your past behind. You carry the ghosts of that past with you. You carry it.’ Jo Berry replied: ‘Anger and pain can be transformed…every time I’m listened to it helps me transform my emotions….There is the potential to move on with emotions but never to reach the point of closure.’
One man stood up towards the end of the questions and said he had attended the event by accident. He said he had been looking for an AA meeting and had seen the police and the protest outside and had wondered what all the fuss was about so had come along. He said that it was a privilege to be in the audience and hear the dialogue. And so it was. A huge well done to the 4 Corners Festival, Skainos, all involved in hosting the event, and all who attended, despite having to walk through a protest and police lines to get there. Spare a thought as well for the police officers who had to protect the building, and for those who were injured doing so.
Jo Berry closed the evening with some concluding remarks, before both her and Patrick Magee were quietly ushered out of the building. Before she left she offered the following statement: ‘Pat is my friend, beyond any label.’ I suspect Mandela was looking down and smiling.