The power of empathy

The DR conference keynote address heard that, even in the most extreme conflicts, dialogue, listening and mediation can help build bridges

The Review in a pileOn 12 October 1984 the IRA detonated a bomb at the Grand Brighton Hotel. Staying at the hotel at the time was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a number of Conservative MPs and party members, as the Conservative party conference was taking place nearby. Five people were killed by the blast, including Sir Anthony Berry MP, the Member of Parliament for Enfield Southgate. He was 59 years old and left behind his wife and six children aged between 15 and 29.

In September 1986 Patrick Magee received eight life sentences for his part in the bombing of the hotel. Patrick had planted the bomb in the hotel a few weeks prior to the conference. He was released from prison in 1999 as part of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

In a remarkable, moving and inspiring keynote speech at the Dispute Resolution Conference, delegates heard from the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, Jo Berry, and from Patrick Magee himself. The speech had an added poignancy as it was given on the 34th anniversary of the bomb and of Sir Anthony’s death.

Both spoke with evident emotion and both were clearly still trying to come to terms with what had happened to them or what they had done. They explained how they had met, how they felt and continue to feel, and what they had been able to learn from their meetings with each other. Jo and Patrick have now met on hundreds of occasions and both said that they were continuing to learn and were often taken by surprise by what the other said at these meetings.

Jo told us how only a few days after she had lost her father, and the part of her that believed the world could be a peaceful place, she decided that she wanted to find a way to bring the positives out of her horrendous experience.

She wanted her father’s death to have meaning and wanted to understand those who had caused it. She became involved in building bridges between communities in Northern Ireland.

Fast forward to 1999 and the release of Patrick from prison. Jo explained that her initial emotion, quite understandably, was one of anger but then she felt that she needed to heal and that perhaps she should meet Patrick. After a number of attempts to make contact with Patrick she was finally able to arrange a meeting and the two met for the first time on 24 November 2000.

This was a meeting that, as Jo and Patrick both acknowledge, broke all of the rules about arranging and facilitating victim/offender meetings. It seemed to work for them, they say, because each was prepared to listen to the other and to a degree empathise with the other. Both talked of their fears and worries prior to the first meeting. How would they feel? What would happen afterwards? Would it be confrontational? What if they let themselves down? These were all questions that either Jo or Patrick said they were asking themselves prior to that first meeting.

Patrick told us that when he first met Jo he believed he was there as a political obligation to explain to Jo why he had done what he had done and to try to help her to understand his point of view. During this meeting Patrick made the connection that Sir Anthony was a good man and that he had killed him. The impersonal, labelled conflict that Patrick had been involved in had become very personal. Patrick admitted that meeting Jo face to face brought home to him immediately and overwhelmingly the enormity of what he had done.

Both Jo and Patrick later said that they believed that if Patrick and Sir Anthony had sat down and had a cup of tea then they would have got on very well together.

Jo and Patrick have continued their conversation, and not only continued it but continued it in public. We were privileged to listen to their ongoing conversation in the form of the keynote speech. Patrick explained that there was still much to be resolved but that having this conversation has also allowed them to help others. They have given speeches to conferences around the world including in other areas of conflict, such as the Middle East and Central Africa.

This ongoing conversation clearly continues to be an emotional and challenging experience for both Jo and Patrick, and indeed for their audiences. Questions are raised about forgiveness, empathy, tolerance and understanding which are not easy to answer. Jo explained that for her it was not a matter of forgiveness: the key was empathy, understanding and being able to listen. Patrick echoed this focus on empathy. His political views have not changed but he admits to being conflicted, understanding that his “journey” hurt people. He asks himself how could he continue the journey without hurting people and believes that it is about empathy, and if it is about empathy then the obstacles that prevent empathy need to be removed.

Neither Jo nor Patrick have complete answers to these questions but their conversation is ongoing and we were privileged to hear a part of that conversation. Both have struggled with the meetings in the past and there have been consequences for both of them: not all friends, family and associates agree with and approve of what they are doing.

Their message is a positive one and is directly referable to dispute resolution and how listening to each other and seeing the other’s point of view can be the key to understanding, even in the most extreme of circumstances. Jo and Patrick’s message is one of dialogue, listening and mediation as a means to enable divided communities and the general public to explore and better understand those divisions. Their charity, Building Bridges for Peace, promotes this message with a focus on the humanity of the individual and the power of empathy.