Sir Anthony Berry was killed in the Irish Republican Army's bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984. His daughter Jo talks about her friendship with the man convicted of the attack and why she thinks empathy can make a difference.
When confronted with the heart wrenching reality of conflict there are some individuals who, in their search for understanding, want more than the comforting truths provided by national, cultural or familial bonds. In Peter Beinart's powerful new book, The Crisis of Zionism, the former New Republic editor describes being troubled after watching a video of a young Palestinian boy called Khaled Jaber crying out as his father was hauled away by Israeli forces for "stealing" water intended for a settlement near Hebron. Call it empathy or a sense of common humanity but it was after seeing this child, who was his son's age, in such distress, that his views on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict began to evolve. Beinart is not alone, though, in being able to imagine himself in the position of those on the receiving end of injustice, whether in the West Bank or Northern Ireland.
If your loved one was killed in a high-profile terrorist act, there could possibly be nothing worse than finding out on television that the man convicted of the attack had been freed as part of a political deal -- one which was intended to heal the bitter wounds of a conflict, but not necessarily deliver justice. Jo Berry found herself in this situation when she learnt that the IRA man convicted of the Brighton bombing which killed her father had been released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. "It's all right for you, you're free. My Dad isn't coming back," she recalls thinking as Patrick Magee walked out of Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in 1999, surrounded by cameras, reporters and supporters. Watching the news report, she felt anger and disbelief, searching in vain for any sign of humanity or remorse in his face.
Sir Anthony Berry, a British Member of Parliament, government deputy chief whip and Jo's father was killed in 1984 along with four others when an IRA bomb blew apart the Grand Hotel in Brighton where Conservatives were staying during their annual conference -- an attack which came close to killing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Almost a month before the bomb exploded, Magee had visited the hotel, leaving behind a massive bomb with a complex timing mechanism hidden behind a bath panel in room 629. It was primed to detonate at 3 a.m. on Oct. 12 -- the final day of the conference.
At the time her father was killed, Jo was due to go off traveling in Africa for a year and had already rented out her London flat. One of her enduring memories was sitting in her car weeping and realizing she had lost both her father and her home in the same week. Part of the shock was also coming to terms with knowing her father had died because a terrorist organization considered him an enemy. "It was like my heart was now open to the reality of war, to knowing the pain others felt as they lost loved ones in conflict," she said. "Someone had wanted my father dead, a fact that shook me to the core."
Although she was to make several trips to Ireland over the next 15 years in her attempt to make sense of the conflict, Jo deliberately suppressed her memories of the period around her father's death to cope with the more practical tasks of bringing up her three young girls. She chose not to talk to them or even some friends about the events in Brighton. "I remember burying it. I couldn't deal with the pain so I squashed it in."
Her shock at Magee's release in 1999 acted as a catalyst. Suddenly she felt able to talk about her father and his death for the first time in years. Emotions which had been buried for 15 years rose to the surface, but so too did many unanswered questions, not least of which was finding out why it was necessary for her father to lose his life at Brighton. Jo felt that these were questions which only one person could answer. Through intermediaries whom she had come to know in Ireland she requested a meeting, and in November 2000 at a private house in Dublin, she finally came face to face with Patrick Magee.
There are no self-help guides on how to begin a conversation with your father's killer. Jo realized that starting a dialogue of this nature was going to require a massive leap of faith, and whether one sees this process as being about empathy or understanding, she knew she would need both in talking to Magee. In trying to understand the reasons for her father's death, Jo was willing to look for answers outside the comfort zone of tribal loyalty -- a fact which has on occasion caused her to question the path that she was taking, particularly out of concern for the other victims of Brighton, and her own family.
Jo, a first cousin of Princess Diana, certainly had a radically different upbringing to Magee, a situation she couldn't change, but one which made her more determined to try and look at the Northern Ireland conflict from the perspective of the Republican community from which he came. Understanding the motivations of the man whose actions had such a profound impact on her life was only the beginning. It was also about comprehending why someone born and brought up in entirely different circumstances felt that they had no alternative but to resort to violence to achieve their political aims. "If she could understand it, she felt she could make sense of her father's death," said Michael Appleton, the producer of the BBC Everyman documentary Facing The Enemy, talking about the initial meetings between the politician's daughter and the former IRA man.
"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen," Churchill said, something that Jo Berry and Patrick Magee would appreciate more than most. Neither of them knew exactly what they were getting into before their first meeting and there was no sense that there would be any further contact after the meeting in Dublin. According to Dr. Scherto Gill, a research fellow at the Guerrand Hermes Foundation for Peace, listening was fundamental to the process which allowed Jo Berry and Patrick Magee to understand each another. "Jo's ability to listen deeply gave Pat the space to tell a personal story about his response to the oppression experienced by himself and his community."
It was Jo's courage, dignity and her willingness to listen to him and even understand him which so astonished Magee in their first meeting. He later told her: "It would have been easier if you had been angry." He elaborated in subsequent meetings: "I was prepared for anger. I could have dealt with that. What I wasn't prepared for was someone prepared to listen to me. Or even forgive me, for killing your father." While Jo has forgiven Patrick Magee, she readily conceded that forgiveness is not a prerequisite for empathy. What is more important, she says, is being interested in listening to the other perspective and trying to understand it, even if you are not willing to agree with it.
Michael Appleton witnessed their relationship evolving while working on the BBC documentary:
Jo was unique because she offered Pat something more valuable than forgiveness, which from a Christian perspective is a predetermined rather than a personal choice. She offered understanding, and that truly challenged Pat. She offered a process rather than an act, and he engaged with that intellectually and morally. He is also unique because he took responsibility for his acts, and took the consequences of the engagement to a deep level. Until he found his limit: a complete disavowal of violence. Yet, because it's a process, 12 years on they are still dealing with that issue and Pat is still moving. Theirs is a fluid process, which is why hearing them both speak together is still unpredictable and moving.
Over a decade on from their first meeting, how does Patrick Magee feel today? "I have become a much better listener from my conversations with Jo," he emailed the other day. "Slowing the dialogue down to ensure you hear properly and explain adequately may be the best means of engaging with someone you have hurt."
Someone who was injured by Magee's actions at Brighton was Harvey Thomas, the former Press and Public Relations Director to Margaret Thatcher throughout her time in Downing Street. He was in a room above the bomb when it exploded and was blown out through the roof of the Grand Hotel, before falling through several floors. He escaped with minor injuries and in 1998, after giving a speech in Louisville, Ky., on forgiveness, he felt it was time to start practicing what he was preaching. He wrote to Magee in prison saying that he forgave him, which was followed by a meeting two years later in Dublin. "Jo's quest, like mine was personal," Thomas says, "but our approaches were very different." Whereas Jo Berry's rapprochement with Magee was a more gradual, deliberate process based on a quest to understand as much as she could about the Northern Ireland conflict, the decision of Thomas to forgive his would-be assassin and their later friendship stemmed from his deep Christian faith.
Having been involved in reconciliation projects in the Congo, Zimbabwe and many other countries, Thomas says that processes which try to bring former enemies together can only work when both sides genuinely want to move on, and move in the same direction. The friendship between Margaret Thatcher's Communications Director and the former IRA man certainly fits this pattern, progressing to the point where Magee has even visited Thomas at his Hertfordshire home. "Pat is not by nature a violent person, he is more academic in inclination." Thomas says of Magee, who completed a Ph.D. while in prison. Although Harvey Thomas disagrees with Magee's logic regarding the use of violence, he, like Jo Berry, has tried to see the conflict from the other perspective. "However much we might disagree with this view, Pat saw himself as being in a war and he felt he had no alternative but to do what he did."
While Patrick Magee still feels that the "struggle" was justified, that belief will not, he says prevent him from looking back over the past and asking difficult questions about decisions and actions he had responsibility for. He remains open to the possibility that new information or a better informed insight might cause him to fundamentally reappraise matters. "The worst thing," he wrote, "is for a person's thinking to become locked onto certainty about the past."
Professor Todd Landman, Director of the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution at Essex University believes that the lessons learnt from Jo Berry's friendship with Patrick Magee resonate far beyond the Northern Irish and British contexts. "Jo's approach appeals to a common shared humanity," he argues, and provides a grassroots way of looking at reconciliation which would be valuable in many current and former conflict zones around the world.
Jo is cautious when using the term 'reconciliation' given the dangers of raising false expectations of a panacea for achieving peace. "I am not sure what reconciliation means as it sounds like it should mean two people reconciling and ending up agreeing. I would prefer to say two people who agree to hear each other, listen, see each other as human beings and understand each other but without needing to change each other."
While Peter Beinart was able to imagine a distraught Palestinian boy as his own son, so Jo Berry has tried to see the Northern Ireland conflict through the eyes of Patrick Magee. It was because of meeting with Magee and others who had resorted to violence during the 'Troubles' and listening to their perspectives that brought Jo to one of her most difficult moments. Having deconstructed the notion of the enemy so effectively simply by listening to those on the other side of the conflict, she had a sudden painful moment of clarity: "If there is no enemy, why did Dad have to die?" she thought.
Through her work, Jo Berry has been to the Lebanon and Ireland; she has met with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and in June she will travel to Rwanda with Patrick Magee to attend a conference exploring the psychological roots of violence. Regardless of where they go from here, their improbable friendship has pushed the boundaries of understanding and illustrated what empathy and listening can achieve. "Jo Berry's perspective in talking to Pat Magee," says Todd Landman, "is that we're all part of a system that created these problems."
Jo Berry sees the building of bridges as a prerequisite in establishing the conditions where violence is seen as unnecessary. Why does she think empathy is so important in ending conflict? "My deeper aim is to be part of a world where violence is never used because we recognize the other person as being connected to us. We know your story can be my story if we work together to find solutions, and be alert to conflicts before they happen. I believe empathy is the biggest weapon we have to achieve this."
Jo Berry's charity, Building Bridges for Peace, is at buildingbridgesforpeace.org.
This article is based on interviews conducted with Jo Berry, Patrick Magee, Harvey Thomas and others over several months.