The death of ex-Northern Ireland deputy First Minister and ex-Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander Martin McGuinness is creating a global reaction. His life and death evoke strong emotions. For the families of those who have lost loved ones in terrorist attacks, the trauma can be long lasting, and the when the events appear in the news again, the question is always asked about forgiveness. Nick Taylor, Chief Executive of a charity founded following an IRA attack describes the reaction amongst victims and survivors.
Twenty four years ago, on Saturday March 20, 1993, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) exploded two bombs on a street in the town of Warrington in North West England. It was the day before Mother's Day and the street was full of shoppers. There was no warning and the impact of bombs placed in metal bins was to create low level horizontal shrapnel that created little damage to buildings but devastating consequences to human beings, particularly children.
Three-year-old Johnathan Ball died on the street, 12-year-old Tim Parry had his life support switched off five days later, young mother Bronwen Vickers lost her leg and later her life, over fifty people seriously injured and thousands more affected by this act of violence.
Another incident in the so called "troubles" conflict and yet, as then then Prime Minister, Sir John Major, describes it to this day, the Warrington bombing was a "pivotal moment" in the peace process, that eventually led to the Good Friday agreement and a move from violent conflict to democratic and political solutions.
On Monday March 20, 2017, the local authority, emergency responders, families and those affected gathered, as they do every year, in commemoration and remembrance at the site of the bombing. But, in Warrington, whilst this is a day of solemn reflection, it is also one that is celebrated and carries a desire and hope for peace and reconciliation on our islands.
The remembrance ceremony ends at the Peace Centre, a unique and impressive building built as a living memorial to the boys. The centre is home to a charitable Foundation that has grown to become a leader in promoting conflict resolution and peace building.
Over two decades ago, Colin and Wendy Parry, the parents of Tim, founded a charity so that their son and Johnathan's names would never been forgotten. They, like many other victims of violent conflict, had a simple desire that nobody would ever go through what they did. The work started modestly bringing children from Belfast, Dublin and Warrington together to show that whilst they had differences they also shared many similarities. The foundation also started to support British victims and survivors of the "troubles".
Now, the foundation is the UK's leading organisation in preventing violent extremism through education, it operates the Survivors Assistance Network (SAN), a government-backed service that supports victims of terrorism picking up the legacy of the troubles' but providing health, social and welfare support to those affected by contemporary incidents such as recent events in Tunisia, France and Belgium.
Victims of violent conflict have experienced a very distinct kind of trauma, one that is not just an impact of a criminal act but also a crime against society often with media and political interests, invasive security and inquest investigations and constant reminders as terrorism, political violence and war are constants in our lives.
This has a long-lasting impact where re-traumatisation can be triggered at any time. The media coverage of the death of Martin McGuinness, an ex-IRA commander who turned away from violence to the path of peace, will invoke many emotions and already some commentators are pointing out that today is also one to think about victims.
Whilst the peace process on our islands has advanced, reconciliation and peace building will continue forever and the Foundation continues to represent the British victims and survivors in what it calls the "east-west" dimension to peace.
But, unlike the "flower power" vision of peace, the Foundation realised that lasting peace also meant working at the "hard edge" with those who had used or promoted violence in the past and often brokering engagements between victims and perpetrators. And through this work it engaged directly with people connected to organisations such as the IRA including Martin McGuinness.
In 2013, McGuinness made his second visit to Warrington to deliver a peace lecture, something that to some was seen as a brave and courageous step in seeking a lasting peace but by others was seen as unthinkable and offering some form of forgiveness.
It is perhaps this word that is often most conflated with peace and wrongly. I met McGuinness in 2013 and it is an encounter that I will never forget. Far from the demon that is often portrayed, he was a very personable and engaging man able to discuss English cricket, something he loved, alongside political issues. The often debated "handshake" was not an option, as he was very tactile, but at the same time our engagements with him were tough encounters. The conversations we had were difficult and challenging. I remember vividly his description of how as a teenager, he had experienced violence and what led him down the path he chose. But, he also described that as he matured he realised that violence was never the answer, that peace was the only way. His transition put him at great personal risk and I, and my colleagues, were never in doubt that it was a complete transition.
For my founders, Colin and Wendy Parry, this took immense courage to meet engage with this man so associated with the organisation that killed their son. They endured some terrible abuse for doing so, and also many views that were just plain wrong. None more so than a belief that Colin and Wendy's desire for peace and their decision to invite McGuinness into their Peace Centre, meant they had somehow forgiven. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Earlier today Colin Parry described this: "Forgiveness never comes into it. I don't forgive Martin. I don't forgive the IRA — nor does my wife, nor do my children.
"But setting aside forgiveness the simple fact is I found Martin McGuinness to be an easy and pleasant man to talk to — a man who I believe was sincere in his desire for peace and maintaining the peace process at all costs.
"I don't think anything in his most recent life can atone — that said he was still a brave man who put himself in some risk in some elements of his own community in Northern Ireland."
Peace is too often thought of as the easy option, but our learning at the Foundation has shown that it isn't about truth, justice, forgiveness — although all those aspects are important. It is about developing wisdom, compassion and courage, being able to develop critical thinking and dialogue skills to undertake discourse and argumentation, being part of a bigger whole adopting one's role as a global citizen and not as part of a single identity. Of course this is hard to teach, as it is also something that comes with experience and time and McGuinness' journey from violent conflict to democracy demonstrates that.
As we did on the anniversary of the Warrington bombing, we take time today to reflect on his life and we also keep in mind the victims, but most all the bravery it takes to wage peace and not war.
Watch the Martin McGuinness Peace Lecture 2013Suggest a correction