Security was tight last night as one of the IRA’s most notorious killers took to the stage in Belfast – right next to a woman whose father was blown up by him.
The event was part of the cross-community 4 Corners Festival and it was met by a disorderly protest outside the home of the Methodist Church’s East Belfast Mission where it was being held.
Dozens of people, many looking no older than their mid-teens, shouted obscenities at those walking in to watch the event, and later bins were burned in the middle of the road.
The atmosphere was so tense that the Rev Gary Mason, introducing the event, called on those in attendance to pray for the building and its staff.
The two guests – Brighton bomber Patrick Magee and Jo Berry, daughter of MP Sir Anthony Berry who died in the explosion – offered the roughly 200-strong audience an outline of their stories.
Jo Berry, speaking in a quiet voice, said: “I remember waking up and hearing that a bomb had gone off in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, and I knew that my father and step-mother were staying there.
“I didn’t just lose my father in that bomb. I lost part of me – the free spirit. I made a decision two days later. I remember I said to myself that if I can find a way to bring something positive out of this; if I can find a way to understand those who killed my father; if I can find a way to bring some meaning to this – then I’m going to be OK.”
When the pair eventually went to meet in 2000, she had been “terrified”, but added: “I was curious who he really was behind the label, behind the stereotype”.
Ms Berry said once they got beyond politics they formed a human bond and Magee apologised for his actions, telling her: “I’m really, really sorry I killed your father.”
They have kept meeting ever since, and at one point yesterday evening she announced: “I now see Pat as my friend.”
Audience members, including some who had been loyalist paramilitaries or had lost relatives, put a string of questions to them.
Ms Berry was asked about Norman Tebbit MP, who had been caught in the bomb along with his wife – and had a very different view of meeting Magee.
“He would say, and I understand his perspective, that I had betrayed my father,” she said. “Everybody has their own journey and their own way of dealing with trauma and with loss.”
Asked whether there are parts of the IRA’s campaign he still thinks were justifiable, Magee said: “I think, at root, there was a justification for our armed struggle. I would not for one second try to defend everything we did, and all the tactics we employed. Couldn’t do that.
“But I looked at the situation as a young man: what could you do to affect change in the society you’re part of. I thought the options were closed off.”
However, he said there is now a responsibility for paramilitaries to address the hurt they caused.
One man drew applause when he said the nationalist agenda could have been pursued perfectly well without violence.
Magee also revealed what he would say to dissident republicans today.
“(They’ve) got platforms and all the opportunities that were never available – I would argue – to us,” he said.
“And yet they’re not using them. I’m as bewildered now as perhaps youse are… about what they really want.”
Part of the evening was taken up with discussions of forgiveness.
At one point Magee said he did not even really understand what it means, adding that he did not seek it for himself.
“How could I be forgiven?” he asked.
Despite the heart-to-heart going on inside, there were visible reminders of the hostility of the crowd outside.
At one point a phalanx of riot police filed past the glass auditorium, prompting Ms Berry to remark that she had just come back from Beirut, and “that was easier.”
After the event closed, the young crowd was still milling around, and there were signs of broken glass on the ground as smoke from burning bills filled the air on the Lower Newtownards Road.