David Hennessy talks to Paul Hodson and Jo Berry, the director and the inspiration behind a new play that explores the relationship between Pat Magee, who planted an IRA bomb in 1984, and Jo, whose father was killed in the blast. Pat and Jo have been working together for peace
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her power when she was at the Grand Hotel in Brighton for the Conservative Party conference in 1984. It was there that the IRA targeted her directly for the most shocking attack on the British Government since Guy Fawkes. The blast ripped through 6 floors of the Grand Hotel Brighton, shattering the Tory conference and the British PM escaped narrowly without injury, five were killed, including two high profile members of the conservative party.
Anthony Berry, a Whip in Thatcher’s government, was one of the fatalities. Pat Magee was sentenced to life imprisonment but was controversially released after the Good Friday Agreement, having served fourteen years. It was after his release in 1999 that Anthony’s daughter Jo Berry, committed to peaceful resolution and mediation of conflict, went to meet him several times. Berry founded the charity Building Bridges for Peace on the 18 October 2009 and has also appeared to speak with Pat Magee on many occasions.
It is the unlikely relationship between Pat and Jo that has already inspired a documentary and now this play, The Bombing of the Grand Your Hotel.
Director Paul Hodson begins: “I think you tell any sort of story through good characters and I think Pat and Jo are amazing character, amazing people. It is a very political story but it only exists because of the relationship between Pat and Jo and their story.”
Pat has said himself he is not looking for forgiveness, just understanding. “Forgiveness is one of those words which I don’t really understand,” Jo explains. “There’s different ideas of forgiveness, but I do want to say that Pat is my friend which is an unusual friendship. It is about understanding, it’s about empathy. Really important is how can we empathise with the other? That’s what Pat’s been teaching me.
“I think it’s always going to be a journey. I don’t think there’s a place to reach, or maybe there is a place but it feels like a journey.
“When he planted the bomb, he wasn’t seeing any human beings. I think that’s true for a lot of people who use violence, that dehumanisation happens, there’s a cut off of humanity. Through meeting me, he’s now realised the personal loss and the loss of his own humanity. So he’s on a journey to re-find that and to heal it and that can be difficult.”
An article in The Mirror has already suggested the play is disrespectful to victims of the bomb as it allows Pat to profit from his crime.
Paul says: “When we were casting, the guy who is playing Pat, Ruairi Conaghan, said, ‘what you are doing is very good and very brave’. And I thought, ‘is it?’
“We kind of got so involved in the detail of what we’re doing that you do sort of forget in a way that we are tackling something that is controversial. I think that the reaction so far is about Pat: ‘How can anyone put him onstage and be respectful to the memory of victims of the bomb?’ And you go: ‘How do you know? Because that’s not what it’s about.’”
Jo speaks about separating Pat and who he is from what he did. There is no doubt she hates what he did but this does not mean she hates him: “He is more than the man who killed my father, he is more than the bomber. He is a man with his own story, complex reasons and is now on a path to giving back.
“I’ve seen him speak in countless places and difficult circumstances, whether we went to Palestine, Israel, Rwanda or recently in Belfast and I saw him really listen to people and try to answer their questions.
“It’s an area which we’re exploring: How do you move on from conflict? Or even if you’re in conflict, how can you not demonise and not blame and not live in the reality of ‘us and them’ and ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’.
“After we’ve spoken, a new conversation can start which is about moving on and how can you listen to someone when you disagree with them? And how can you listen to them so you understand their history and their past rather than making your story right and their story wrong, eternally keeping everything going? I’m hoping that this play is going to further those questions about as human beings, what is our capacity to see the enemy as a human being?”
Paul adds: “That is exactly the heart of what I found fascinating because he and countless others in the Troubles and in other acts of rebellion around the world at any time became a soldier and had to believe in his cause to the extent that his humanity was suppressed and I think any soldier has to do that. You can’t be aiming a gun at somebody and think, ‘oh, they’ve got a mother and brothers’. You just have to look at people as the enemy because you can’t be a soldier so you have to suppress a lot. I think that’s what Pat did.”
Thrown into a conflict, she knew nothing about by the 1984 bombing, Jo now speaks about reconciliation all over the world. She has received a death threat for appearing with Pat: “Some people find it challenging and some people, it might empower them to make changes. People say afterwards that it helped them make a phone call or reach out to someone. We never know who’s in the audience and what their story is. Everyone’s got their story. Everyone’s had trauma, everyone’s had difficult things happen, everyone’s had people hurt them and everyone’s hurt other people too.
“We’re certainly working to create a safe place for people to open up and share and have their stories heard which is important and hear each other’s stories. In Northern Ireland we’ve been working with young people, I think it’s quite hard for young people everywhere at the moment but really hard in Northern Ireland because of the legacy they’ve inherited there.
“The other part of my work is very much about empowering people to be positive change makers. I think a lot of people are frustrated and they feel they want to change things. We can make sure they’ve got the skills to be positive change makers and to know they can make a difference.
“I’ve been working with Pat and others on understanding the roots and why we decide to use violence because nobody’s born saying, ‘I want to use violence’, they don’t. If we understand the roots of it, we can perhaps address the needs in a different way. I would be against the whole ‘war on terror’ and that whole way of thinking. I do think ‘that leads to further problems’.
“There’s a very interesting programme in Denmark, they’re bringing back radical people from Syria and taking them through quite a radical process and they end up being able to be positive members of the community and stop young people from being radicalised. We just have to, I think, be very creative these days.
“Here, they’re seen as criminals when they come back but they’ve actually taken them through a process where they end up being able to be positive change makers and stop other young people from going because they’re the perfect people to tell people, ‘it’s not what you think’.”
Great work has been done on the peace process in Northern Ireland. On going back to the bleak times that brought about the events that inspire the play, Paul says: “They were unbelievably dark days. I’ve lived in Brighton for 30 odd years, I was living about a quarter of a mile from the Grand Hotel when the bomb went off and so the next day I saw at firsthand what was going on.
“There was a horrible atmosphere throughout England with that kind of English ignorance about what was really going on, what the Troubles were about.
“Now things have moved on, thankfully the world is a completely different place. It’s not there yet. I think there’s lots of work to be done. One of the things we came across in research that I just can’t believe is the number of people (in Northern Ireland) with depression and who have taken their own lives this century, since the Good Friday Agreement is phenomenal. There’s a horrible lasting effect but obviously things have moved on and I think this play and the work that Pat and Jo are doing together points to happier times, the way that things could progress.”