Northern Ireland

Beyond the Brighton bombing

Twenty years ago the Irish Republican Army bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton in an attempt to kill Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her entire cabinet during a Tory Party conference.

Jo Berry, Harvey Thomas and Patrick Magee will mark the Oct. 12 anniversary with a reflective evening at the historic St. James' Church near Piccadilly Circus in London. Their goal is to talk about the lessons they have learned from one of the most shocking terrorist acts in the bloody history of the Irish and the English.

Berry is the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, one of five people who died.

Thomas was Thatcher's press secretary and barely survived.

Magee was the IRA terrorist who planted the 100-pound bomb behind a panel in the bathroom of Room 629.

"The fact that the three of us will stand side by side as friends is a story in and of itself. It shows that true reconciliation is possible," said Thomas, during lectures at Palm Beach Atlantic University. "Reconciliation isn't easy. But how do we move forward if we cannot forgive our enemies?"

The 65-year-old Thomas is a broadcaster who is as well known for a 15-year stint with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as for his years as Thatcher's media specialist. Thus, he works in two different worlds. Thomas is as comfortable dissecting Bible passages with other Christians as he is fine-tuning public-relation campaigns for politicos and executives in Saudi Arabia and other tense locales. His passport has been stamped in 120 nations.

Reconciliation in the post-September 11th world, he said, must involve secular people as well as religious believers. It means convincing hostile armies of true believers to treat each other with respect, if not tolerance. What is the alternative?

"What happens if nothing is done is almost certainly global warfare," said Thomas. "We have to ask ourselves: What are we willing to do to try to head that off?"

Berry has asked the same question. Two days after the bombing she fled to the St. James sanctuary and sent up a non-believer's prayer to find some way to seek peace and deal with her own grief. This pain led her to seek a meeting with Magee when he was released from prison after 14 years, as part of the Good Friday peace agreements in Northern Ireland. They met privately and then agreed to have further talks about forgiveness, this time filmed by BBC cameras.

The public forum with Thomas is the next stage in this bridge-building process. Berry hopes it draws everyone from political activists to therapists, secular diplomats to believers from many different sanctuaries.

"I dream of a world in which we have choices to resolve conflict other than violence," she said, via email. "Talking with Patrick Magee is a way of learning from the past, which may give insight for creating a different future. I am learning about the effects of blame and looking at how we make choices not to blame."

Thomas was made a similar pilgrimage.

For millions of people in Great Britain and around the world, one of the most unforgettable moments after the bombing was watching -- live on television -- as rescue workers pulled the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Thomas out of tons of concrete rubble. His own memories of those moments center on hours of frantic prayers for his family.

Now Thomas has new memories. His dialogue with Magee began with letters while the bomber was in prison. A few years later, Magee ended up sitting in the Thomas family kitchen, sharing baked beans, stories and regrets. They talked about decades of oppression, the bitter choices of civil war and the dehumanizing effects of violence.

One of Thomas' daughters asked Magee: "You do realize that if you had succeeded in killing daddy, I wouldn't be here?"

Magee wept and so did Thomas and his family.

Reconciliation is a process, said Thomas, but it begins with a decision to forgive. This is a personal choice and it's impossible for one person to tell another when or how to take this step. Seeking personal reconciliation is not the same as seeking justice.

"I have no doubt that I needed to forgive Patrick Magee," he said. "It's what God wanted me to do. So I did it."