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When it's time to forgive

Prince Charles’ words of reconciliation in Co Sligo were a powerful reminder of how it’s possible to find closure. Five other people tell us how they did it, too

The poignant image of Prince Charles at the water’s edge in Mullaghmore this week marked an historic milestone in British-Irish relations, following the IRA murder of his beloved uncle, Lord Mountbatten and three others in a bomb attack in Co Sligo 36 years ago.

Prince Charles was visibly moved as he approached the point where debris from the lobster fishing boat Shadow V washed up on the shore all those years ago.

He said: “It’s been a long time. I never thought it would happen.”

Before making the heart-breaking trip to the village, the Prince of Wales told an audience at the University of Ireland in Galway how there has been a ‘changing relationship’ between Britain and Ireland over the decades.

While acknowledging the strife that has existed between the two countries, he commended the work that has been done to heal those wounds. The prince said: “Recent years have shown us, though, that healing is possible, even when the heartache continues”.

At the same event, Prince Charles was seen shaking the hand of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, a man who once justified the killing of Lord Mountbatten.

As this iconic image was beamed across the world, Charles has been praised for his brave act of forgiveness.

We talk to five people who reveal how they found it in their hearts to forgive those who had wronged them.

Eileen Wilson (40) is originally from Scotland and now lives in Belfast with her children Jade (18), Mason (16), Piper (13), Archie (12), David (9) and Robert (8). She says:

There were issues with my mother-in-law from day one - she made it clear that I wasn't good enough for her son.

On our wedding day she wore a black hat and told me that she was in mourning for him. I had a miscarriage quite early on after we got married and she said I wasn't good enough to carry her grandchild.

She said horrible things to me, but it was always when it was just the two of us. My husband knew that I was telling the truth, but he never actually heard what she said. Around the time that my daughter Piper was born, we ended up cutting all contact with her.

My husband and I split up five years ago and near Christmas 2013, I decided to reach out to his mother. I didn't phone her but I sent her lots of photos of the children as she lives in Scotland. She hadn't seen any pictures of them for a long time and she hasn't even met the youngest two.

I was quite surprised to get a card back and some gifts for the children - now I make sure she has contact with them. They phone her regularly to tell her about school and she sends over cards and notes. Piper was in a dance competition recently and I sent her pictures, then Jade's formal was featured in a magazine and I sent a copy over so her granny could see it.

I've spoken to her a couple of times, so I know now that things are good between us, which I'm very glad about. My main focus now is on her and the children.

She's in her 60s now and I'm very pleased that she's becoming part of their lives. She lives in Scotland, so visiting is difficult but it might happen this year.

I lost both of my parents in the last five years, which had a big effect on me. I have to say forgiving my mother-in-law has lifted a real weight from my shoulders. My beliefs have helped, too, and I think the Church has played a large part in my forgiveness. I had talked to my minister about the situation a lot and he was the person who suggested I reach out to her.

I don't think it's worth mentioning the past to be honest, as I've drawn a line under it and moved on - and I think my mother-in-law feels the same.

We haven't talked about any of it, it's all about moving forward now."

Jude Whyte (57), who has six children, lives in Belfast and is a lecturer in social work. He says:

Our family home in University Street was bombed on Thursday, May 12, 1984 and my mum, Peggy Whyte, along with a young policeman, Michael Dawson, were killed. Mum was 53 and Michael was 21.

It was a targeted bomb set at the front door of our house by the UVF. My mum had seen a sports bag lying on the windowsill and called the police — she was standing at the front door as they arrived and the device went off.

It was the second time we had been targeted — we were Catholics and my parents were both involved with the Alliance party. My father was an election agent for David Cook, the first Alliance mayor of Belfast.

Afterwards, I had a mixture of feelings, including paranoia and fear. Mostly, I couldn’t believe that an innocent woman had died this way. My mum’s death made me a very bitter young man and I had a lot of negative feelings, prejudice and distrust following the bomb attack. 

A number of years later I met and started working with David Ervine, examining the issues of sectarianism, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.

Working with David changed my attitude and I realised that there is not enough time to hate in this world, we must work night and day to build peace, reconciliation and tolerance.

Later, I met the family of the young policeman who was killed in the same bomb as my mother. That experience made me realise death affects everyone in similar ways.

For me, forgiveness happened in a classroom in 1989 when a young student asked David Ervine, ‘Tell me why your organisation murdered my father’. He went over to her and put his hand out to her, saying ‘I’m sorry for what happened to your father and I’m working night and day to make sure this doesn’t happen again’.

It was a brave thing to do and when the student shook his hand there was a deadly silence in the classroom. I felt something leave me, even though I’m not a religious man in any way. Forgiving has allowed me to function as a normal human being and it’s prevented me from becoming a drug addict or an alcoholic.”

Emma-Louise Johnston (36) is a TV presenter and broadcaster. She lives in Maghera with her husband Jonathan Crawford and their children Emily (3) and JJ (1). She says:

A long time ago when I had just started in the world of work, there was a person who didn’t like me very much. I don’t want to say what kind of job I had, but this person went out of their way to make my life hell.

This was a colleague and every single day they would try to undermine my self-confidence which was pretty horrible. Even if I managed to avoid them most of the time, I knew I would inevitably run into them and life would be just as bad again. I’ve never been an anxious person, but I could feel the fear build up in me every day as I went into work.

I don’t know why this person felt they had to target me, maybe their lives were very unhappy at the time? I’m sure they knew what they were doing though, it was a deliberate thing.

It’s such a cliched thing to say that time is a great healer, but over time I’ve been able to let go and forgive them. There hasn’t been a face-to-face moment where I’ve been able to forgive them in  person, but in my own mind I’ve been able to let go of the whole thing and move on.

Although it was all-consuming at the time, it’s a comparatively small thing to forgive especially when you see Prince Charles shaking Gerry Adams’ hand, or a parent forgiving the drunk-driver who killed their child.

Then you realise those are big things and I don’t know if I could be that forgiving, although, I think forgiveness is very cathartic. You’re probably much happier if you don’t hold a grudge and move on from things.”

Claire Fitzsimons (37) lives in Belfast and is currently studying social work. She says:

I had my car stolen from outside my flat around two years ago. The police told me two guys had taken it for a joyride and written it off by crashing it into a bus stop.

The loss of my car was a huge inconvenience. My dad was ill at the time, so not having transport made it difficult for me to visit him. My social work placement was coming up soon and I needed transport for that. My car wasn’t worth that much, but because of the excess on the insurance I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford to replace it.

One of the car thieves had turned 18, so he had to go through the criminal justice system as an adult, while the other was only 17, so he was being processed as a juvenile. The Youth Justice Agency contacted me and told me about restorative justice. They explained it was a chance for the young lad and me to talk, and possibly reconcile.

At the time, I was so cross about losing my car, I just wanted to meet the person so I could make him understand the consequences of his actions.

I brought my cousin with me for support at the meeting, and the young lad was with his parents.

He told me he had been drunk when he stole the car and he didn’t really remember what he was doing.

Then I explained what it meant for me to lose my car. I asked him how he would feel if I took something of his with no concern about how it would affect him?

It was a frank conversation and we also discussed what he wanted to do for a living and the choices he was making in his life.

We agreed he would do community service, as well as alcohol awareness courses. He also agreed to pay me back the excess charges from my car insurance.

I found the session cathartic, but I wasn’t ready to forgive him, yet — that came six months later. I received a letter of apology from him that included a cheque for the insurance excess that he had saved up. I think that was the point where I was able to see that the meeting had an effect on him. I believe that he thought about it and decided to turn things around — in those six months after the meeting.

In the meeting it dawned on me that he was just a 17-year-old kid who hadn’t been thinking. I was able to forgive him because I could see him realising the consequences of his actions.

He deserved a second chance. I was also able to tell the person who had wronged me how I felt — it had been good for both of us.

I don’t know what difference it made to that boy’s life, but I like to think it did something good.

Forgiving stops bad feelings eat away at you — then those feelings stop being a major part of your life.”

Jo Berry (57), who lives in Somerset with her three daughters, runs the charity Building Bridges For Peace. Her father, Sir Anthony Berry, MP, was killed in the 1984 IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton. She says:

My sister woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me that a bomb had gone off in Brighton. It was another eight hours before we heard the news that our father was dead and our stepmother was injured.

My first reaction was absolute shock. After it happened I can remember this overwhelming feeling that I was now part of a violent conflict and I wanted to try and bring something positive out of it.

Straight away, I wanted to try and understand the people who killed my father.

I didn’t feel anger then, it didn’t come until many years later. We weren’t given any kind of support at the time of the bomb, so I think some of the emotions were buried because they were too difficult to deal with.

My feelings came out around 1999 at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. I was invited to Glencree Reconciliation Centre, where people who had been affected by the Troubles could come together and tell their stories, and that was a powerful experience.

I met the Brighton bomber Patrick Magee in 2000, because I wanted to hear what he had to say. Although he had been convicted of the hotel attack, he had been released under the Good Friday Agreement

I was nervous and a bit scared of meeting him, but I wanted to see who was behind the label of terrorist, as I thought that would help me with my own healing.

Patrick and I have met many times since and worked together. Patrick doesn’t think I’ve forgiven him, but I think I have. I think forgiveness is a difficult word though, so I don’t use it.

It puts pressure on people to behave in a certain way. I prefer to say that I can empathise with Pat and I’ve given up any wishes of revenge, which is more important to me.

I don’t know that I’ll ever forget that Pat killed my father, but he’s become so much more than that through the work that we’ve done together over the last 15 years.”

Acts of reconciliation

  • Pope John Paul II was shot four times in an assassination attempt by Mehmet Ali Agca in 1981. The pontiff required emergency surgery and very nearly lost his life. Two years after his recovery the Pope visited Agca in prison and gave him his forgiveness, shaking his would-be assassin’s hand. On leaving his cell the Pope described Agca as, “a brother whom I have pardoned”
  • Last year, actor Mark Whalberg requested a pardon for an assault he was convicted of in 1988. As a troubled teenager in Boston, the future movie star punched Johnny Trinh in the face but late last year Johnny revealed he had forgiven the star and would like to see him pardoned
  • Gordon Wilson and his 20 year-old daughter Marie were buried in rubble in the 1987 Remembrance Day bomb in Enniskillen. Marie died as her father held her hand under the rubble. Wilson famously stated that he bore no grudge towards his daughter’s killers and met with members of the IRA in the name of peace

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