Twenty years ago – March 20 1993 – was an extraordinary day in my youth work career – and a day when everything started to change. If the lowest ebb is the turn of the tide, then the events of that day were part of the point where the tide turned for Northern Ireland.
The focus of my day was a visit to Phoenix Park in Dublin, with a group of young people who had been involved in the work of the Peace People – to meet the Irish President, Mary Robinson in the Áras an Uachtaráin. Amongst my group were two young men – Jean and Sean – who were on either side of one of the most awful events of ‘The Troubles’ – a sectarian shooting onboard a mobile shop in Craigavon in which their sisters were killed alongside the shop owner.
John and Sean had participated together in one of the Peace People’s cross-community summer youth camps in Norway – and had become close friends, and in many ways became a symbol of hope – and the possibility of a new Northern Ireland.
The group were on a complete high – and the President made sure to spend time talking with each of the young people in turn – making them all feel special. As a treat – we decided to go to the ‘Hole in the Wall’ – a pub at the edge of Phoenix Park – to watch an international rugby game – the game – Ireland versus England in the Six Nations championship. In what felt like the perfect end to a perfect day, Ireland won – and the crowd in the pub – including our group – were ecstatic.
The joy was momentary. The end of the coverage was interrupted with the news that there had been a bomb in the busy city centre of Warrington, England – with multiple casualties. The mood changed instantly – and the pub fell silent. It felt like this conflict was never going to end – and there was a palpable sense of shame in the pub in Phoenix Park – that this act was carried out in the name of Irish freedom. One young boy – Jonathan Ball lost his life immediately, and a second, Tim Parry – succumbed from his severe injuries a few days later.
The days and weeks that followed drew me into a new set of relationships – including with Wilfred Ball and Colin and Wendy Parry – the parents of Jonathan and Tim – two young boys who died as a result of the explosion. I even ended up speaking at a huge rally on O’Connell Street – outside the Post Office that is one of the most potent symbols of Irish Republicanism. The people of the Irish Republic were keen to let the world know that this act did not have their support. At home there was a mixed reaction – many feeling that the deaths of their own citizens were somehow less important than deaths on English streets – and others feeling a deep sense of shame that our sordid conflict had spilled across the sea again.
‘Peace ’93’ as the response became known, was fairly short lived – but it represented an important expression of Irish public opinion – reinforcing my view at the time that the politicians and warlords were out of touch with the population of the island who had had enough and wanted to see the conflict come to an agreed end. I remember Gerry Adams (Sinn Féin leader and then MP for West Belfast) calling on republicans to join the Irish peace movement and to give it a republican agenda – this never happened – indeed there was a lot of anger toward those who seemed to approve of the ‘armed struggle’.
Colin and Wendy Parry went on to found a Peace Centre in memory of the two boys and have continued to work for peace and understanding – not just between these islands, but also around the world.