President visits the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace Centre

Wed 22nd Jul, 2015 | 11:00
location: Warrington

Speech on Reconciliation

Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Centre, Warrington, 22nd July 2015

Colin, Wendy, Ladies and Gentlemen, 

It is a privilege to be here with you in the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Centre. I want to thank Colin and Wendy Parry and all the staff of the Foundation and Centre for your invitation to visit today. 

I remember vividly that day over 22 years ago when word of a terrible atrocity in Warrington came across the Irish Sea. I remember the terrible sadness felt across these islands as we learnt of the dozens injured, and in particular of the deaths of two young boys; Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball. 

There are no words, we felt, that could capture the grief of their families and friends or adequately describe the profound loss they were experiencing. The loss of a child is the greatest of human tragedies, both in the grief and sadness that such a loss causes to his or her family, but also in the tragedy that the loss of potential and possibility constitutes.  

On that day in Warrington in March 1993, many lives took a traumatic turn in a direction they would never have chosen, had conflict and violence not reshaped their existence. 

This Peace Centre and the work accomplished by the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation is a unique memorial to Tim and to Johnathan. I want to pay tribute to Colin and Wendy, who, with the support of Johnathan’s parents Wilf and Marie, who have now sadly passed away, began an extraordinary journey in the aftermath of the bombing; one that led to the creation of this space dedicated to peace and reconciliation. 

Moving from the vacuum of a great loss, a loss violently inflicted, is a journey of the greatest difficulty, one where forgiveness or reconciliation are hopelessly a mere shadow.  Yet, what an extraordinary achievement it is to have not only attempted but to have successfully made that journey.

 ‘Reconciliation’ is a word that implies so much. It contains whole constellations of stories, of histories, of individual and community experiences of loss, grief, pain and division, as the material to be transacted. Yet it also paradoxically suggests possibility, the possibility of human generosity and of a selfless willingness to find a way to accept – or at least to understand - the differences between us. It is a word that conveys a sense of hope, courage, forgiveness and grace. It assumes a belief that, despite all the hurt, there can be a way forward where the violence and the conflict of the past do not dictate our present, or foreclose on the possibilities of our future. 

Paul Ricoeur suggests that merely advocating a forgetting of the past is in itself a harmful and damaging act; that “to be forgotten is to die twice”. The desire to remember however, goes beyond a need for catharsis and a perceived duty to ‘not forget’. While to ignore the past would be a betrayal of those who lost their lives and of those whose lives have been blighted by the loss or serious injury of their loved ones, using memory to reference the past we must remember in such a way that does not overshadow or damage the contemporary moment, or in a way which would rob the future to which we aspire of its possibilities. 

Invited to speak at the launch of the International Meeting of the Institute of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queens University Belfast in October last year, I gave my paper the title ‘Remembering, Forgiving and Forgetting’, to which I added on the night a fourth concept, ‘Imagining’ – for it is in imagining a future released from the burdens of distorted past memories or seemingly insurmountable present difficulties, that the energy is found for constructing what might be an empowering ethics of memory.  What I spoke of was not any utopian escape, but rather a conscious personal and collective strategy for living.

While a terrible and heinous act cannot, and should not, for the most moral of reasons, be dissolved or forgotten, it is only through an act of imagination and creativity that we can prevent that tragic memory from colonising the future.  The immense space left behind by the loss of Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball has been used to build a place of healing and reconciliation – that is an achievement from which we can all draw inspiration.

This Peace Centre reminds us of the good that can come from transactions and consequences of great tragedy, and of all that can be achieved when we remember ethically, in ways that have the potential to release us from bitterness, revenge or denunciation and allow us to move forward and achieve new beginnings.

In moving forward we must, of course, have the courage to acknowledge, interrogate and respond to the root causes of the destructive prejudice and bitterness that drives so many acts of atrocity and violence.  That immensely complex task entails seeking to understand and address the motivations of those people who are drawn to extremism and political violence, including those who have embarked on such a course from becoming disaffected or disenfranchised, who are unable to imagine alternatives to the ideas and practices that govern their present circumstances.

Radicalisation of young people is rapidly becoming one of the most significant threats in a global society, as those who are socially isolated are increasingly invited to turn to extremism as they seek, or have suggested to them, a purpose, a role and an identity. 

We know that those who are disenfranchised economically are vulnerable to the predations of the sponsors of extremism, and who can be seduced into becoming involved in lives of conflict or urged to engage in destructive forms of extremism, be they of a religious or xenophobic type. It is the most vulnerable social groups that bear this additional cost of social inequalities, inequalities the presence of which have led to the emergence of an underclass who feel deprived of a voice and a role in those societies. 

For all of us who are committed to the ideals of freedom, tolerance and peace, it is essential that we engage with those excluded individuals who may be drawn towards extremism and radicalisation. We must give leadership in identifying and tackling the social conditions in which extremism can take root.  Tackling issues such as youth unemployment, inadequate social infrastructure, and limited opportunity for participation are important in this regard, as is a critically aware engagement with belief systems and ideologies, an engagement that eschews any imposition of claims of certainty, or fear or exclusion of “the other”.

Places and spaces such as the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation and the Peace Centre are critical in their provision of opportunities for realising self-worth and opportunities for hospitality towards the other and the different. 
Thousands of people from across these islands who face all kinds of challenges in their lives, from living with the experience of violence to being at risk from extremist thought or action, come through these doors every year to take part in programmes aimed at supporting reconciliation and preventing violent extremism.

The work you do in addressing many of the root causes which lead vulnerable citizens into lives of destructive crime and conflict, including discrimination, prejudice and violence is impressive and inspiring, as are the many programmes aimed at enabling vulnerable young people to envision a different future; a future founded on forgiveness, resolution and true empowerment.

I was particularly interested to learn of the recent launch of your ‘My Former Life’ project, in which four individuals share their journey into lives of destructive and ideologically driven violence.  This is a project which also examines the corollary of those journeys, and the discovery of an impetus to exit from lives of conflict as the narrators begin to imagine an alternative and better future.  Theirs may be personal narratives but they are also universal ones that reach deep into the heart of the damaged and dysfunctional corners of society where radicalisation can grow and flourish.

It is such initiatives which underline the creativity and the instinctive generosity and inclusion that drives the work of the Peace Centre; a place of sharing, growing, and a space where so many citizens reach a genuine understanding of the mutually respectful relationships which must lie as the foundation of true reconciliation.

Next year, will be the 18th anniversary or the ‘coming of age’ of the Good Friday Agreement, which helped transform relations across these islands and provided a democratic resolution to questions thrown up a century ago in Ireland. In the 18 years since that foundational peace agreement, and its overwhelming endorsement by the electorates in both parts of the island, a whole generation has grown up, as you here in the Centre will know so well.  

Many of this generation will have no first-hand knowledge or indeed memory of the conflict that divided communities in Northern Ireland and that, on occasions, visited that violence on towns and cities in the south of Ireland and in Britain. They have thankfully been spared the grief and loss that afflicted families, such as the Ball and Parry families, who were cruelly deprived of the lives of their young sons. 

We owe this current generation a duty - to be given the opportunity to learn about our baleful past; to understand the importance of cherishing the memory of Tim, Johnathan and so many others who should never have been the victims of that conflict.  That new generation must be invited to build together in peace; to work towards understanding and reconciliation so that the legacy of the past does not corrode the present but rather helps to realise the unlimited possibilities of the future.   

May I conclude by thanking and paying tribute again to all those who tirelessly work to achieve a shared future free from destructive conflict and violence, and thus ensuring that the lives of Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball will be remembered and relevant for many generations to come.