‘I hope Tim and Johnathan are looking down on this place and feel proud about all the good things that happen here…’
A personal reflection by our Director of Programme, Kelly Simcock
Saturday 20th March 1993 doesn’t feel like 25 years ago. As a 14 year old, the bombing of my town was an event that shocked and appalled the world. To me, as a teenager in a relatively small town it was unfathomable. An extraordinary and terrible event that it is one that I know will be etched in my mind forever.
Warrington’s shopping centre was vastly different then to now. Bridge Street was the centre of our social scene as teenagers with the popular shops and the iconic McDonalds at its heart. It was a horrifically cruel bomb attack as it struck at the heart of the place so many young people would gather. Unlike most Saturday’s I wasn’t there that day. I was on a minibus en-route to undertake a practice expedition for our DofE award with my school friends. The bus got a puncture and we were headed back in to the centre of Warrington when we suddenly encountered terrible traffic. I recall us sitting there teasing our teachers that they were imprisoning us on a bus when a police officer finally spoke to our teacher through the window. The news was bad. Panic ensued as my friends and I realised that our loved ones could have been in the town centre. My Irish grandparents were due to travel back down to London – my mum was dropping them at the bus station. My friends’ mum worked in the C&A clothes store. Everyone on that bus knew someone who would and could be in town. When I finally reached my friend’s home as my parents couldn’t get to me, we watched the news in shock as the images flooded in of our town centre and so many faces and places that were familiar; were filled with terror and devastation.
Just like me, my peers and fellow Warringtonians will remember that day clearly. I am frequently surprised at how many outside of the town do too. It was an event that stood out amongst the horrors of the IRA’s bombing campaign because of the losses and because of the fact it was two young boys who were taken from us with a no-warning attack. Those injured included many young people and of course the young mum Bronwen Vickers who lost her leg (and died a year later from cancer), became a symbol of the terrible injuries inflicted. Cruel beyond imagination. Why Warrington? It’s a question that remains to this day. So many questions still unanswered. What also stood out at the time however was the response of the Parry family. I remember seeing Wendy’s pained expression, but also seeing and hearing Colin Parry who gave voice to that pain. What stood out at the time was his clarity and eloquence and her dignity and composure in spite of the unimaginable having happened to their family. They spoke of understanding and dialogue as opposed to revenge and retribution. A strength and courage that has endured and has become a hallmark of their organisation and what it now stands for…. an organisation that I am proud to work for today.
The Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation is the organisation that rose from the horrific events on March 20th ’93. Inspired by their visits to Northern Ireland where they say the impact of ‘Peace farms’ and cross community dialogue – Wendy was the driving force behind wanting to see the creation of a physical and lasting memorial to her son and Johnathan. The Peace centre itself is an iconic building and the pride of Warrington. With over 50,000 visitors through its doors since it opened 18 years ago, the centre itself is an inspiration to all that pass through. Whether it be a day long conference run by a local company or a week long leadership programme delivered by the Peace Foundation – people cannot help but be inspired and impressed by the place and its legacy.
I want, however, to pay tribute to what has been achieved at and through the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation since it started in 1996. Whilst much of that has taken place in the centre – even more has taken place outside.
Colin was a team member on the first ever programme the Foundation delivered. The Tim Parry Scholarship as it was known at the time saw young people from Warrington, Dublin and Belfast come together in the spirit of friendship and reconciliation. Colin often describes what we do as ‘getting people to talk’ and his description is accurate as ultimately, everything we do is geared towards those basic principles of human relationships. What remains important about that initial programme is that Colin and Wendy understood that we needed to get people together to talk and that is what we have continued to do.
The work expanded over the next decade. Projects with young people and communities in and from Northern Ireland and the important work with victims of ‘the troubles’ later followed. The work evolved eventually to also see us engage with former combatants. Former paramilitaries and soldiers coming together to share their experiences and to hear from ‘the other’ was not only transformative for them and the victims that they went on to dialogue with – but also key in helping break the cycle of violence. Further significant moments in the Foundation’s history have also seen our work reach international audiences. Palestinian and Israeli participants have engaged in dialogue within the centre’s four walls. Drawing on our learning from other conflicts, our facilitators have skilfully curated safe spaces in which those whose lives are filled with hate and tension can start to see ‘the other’ in a way they had not been able to before.
The London bombings of July 2005 was a turning point for the Foundation. 9/11 had seen a gradual increase in racial tensions in the UK along with the rest of the world. Fears of the rise of Islamist extremism occurred and Islamophobia became a phenomenon never articulated in such terms before. The Peace Foundation found itself receiving calls and requests for its work in places it had never been as schools and communities struggled to manage the challenge of these new and growing tensions. The Foundation started work in a school in Leeds that had been attended by one of the London bombers. It was there that we encountered extremism of many forms including that of the far right which at the time was not necessarily in the headlines. As an organisation steeped in the history of a sectarian conflict – we were all too familiar with what is now termed ‘reciprocal radicalisation’ and we worked to engage all groups and communities in the work we went on to deliver in Leeds. Over a three year period a school that had experienced serious levels of violent conflict was transformed with restorative practices embedded in its structures to manage conflict. This project became a model that we then took to other parts of the country to help tackle conflict and build cohesion. It was at this time that the government launched its CONTEST (Counter Terrorism) strategy and with that the Prevent agenda was launched. The Foundation was well placed to deliver to some of the outcomes this national strategy set out. For us – preventing violent extremism is why we exist- this was simply an extension of what we were already doing.
In the past five years alone we have delivered a suite of projects and programmes to around 4000 beneficiaries. Our ‘Women for Peace’ project sees us engage women to help them manage conflict in their lives and those they love. The ‘Holding Difficult Conversation’ courses we run sees us work with teachers and front-line workers to help them manage conflict differently. Skill and techniques to reduce rather than increase the tension. Tools and tips on how to understand manipulation and persuasion – and how they can work with those they are charged with in a way that engages and heals. Communities for Peace engages entire communities in collaborative dialogue. Seeking to confront the problems they face in their communities rather than to shy away in the knowledge that lasting solutions can only be created by getting to the source. We work with all communities, unpicking and working through the challenges there and then. Small Steps for Peace sees us engage with 8-11 years olds in the classroom. Equipping children with the ability to ask questions and THINK rather than simply to make judgments. This important programme ensures children know how ‘us and them’ mind-sets are developed and equips them to think respond differently when faced with that difference. These are just a few examples as to how the Foundation’s work is continuing to work at the frontline of the conflicts and challenges our communities face
As well as our work to prevent and resolve conflict in communities, we also help people to recover. Our work with Survivors has continued down the years and we now provide assistance to those affected by contemporary terror attacks. Ours was one of the first organisations to offer support to the Manchester bombing victims after the horrific attack in May last year. Its expertise is well honed in this field given the increasing and unpredictable nature of the threats now facing society. Our practitioners offer everything from advice and support to connection with other survivors as part of a peer network.
As an organisation we have grown in size and reach to something perhaps beyond the Parry’s ever dreamed of. Responding to contemporary challenges using well-honed peacebuilding practice developed through the decades – our work has been recognised by the EU, the UN and other international bodies. We offer advice and support to governments, we work on the frontline supporting those who need it most. All of this as a result of something so tragic, but also as a result of the incredible strength and determination of parents who would not allow their sons lives to be taken in vain. Colin and Wendy continue to work with us day by day – their example providing inspiration to a brilliant and hard-working team who are proud of their association and who go the extra mile to ensure they serve the Foundation and its objectives well.
The challenges of violent extremism continue to challenge political leaders and their policy makers alike. The public appetite for a response to the threats that will deliver and endure- is understandable. We are reminded of the need to tackle these issues every time another awful attack takes place. What is clear however is that it is organisations like the one Colin and Wendy Parry created in Tim and Johnathan’s name continue to provide those answers. The sad fact is that violent extremism is not new. The tactics of terrorist are all too familiar to us. Creating division and mistrust by driving ‘us and them’ narratives and by carrying out sickening attacks that push communities to blame ‘the others’…. we know what they aim to do. But it is not through knee jerk, short term responses based on revenge and security measures that we will overcome. It is by making time to focus on what brings us together and what unites us. It is by making it difficult for people to see one another as ‘the enemy’. This is not achieved through quick fix approaches that simply provide a sticking plaster at best. It is by investing time in people and human relationships that we will really overcome. It is through the creation of safe spaces for children, young people and their teachers; victim’s survivors and even ‘perpetrators’; for communities fearful of the other – that we will make a difference. Time and space to get to know one another, time and space for dialogue. It is by doing this that the Peace Foundation continues to play an integral role in peacebulding and combating violent extremism, and to advance its goals to reduce the possibility that anyone chooses to solve their problems by planting a bomb in a bin on a busy Saturday lunchtime.
For Colin and Wendy Parry this week will be yet another in their history in which they will be reminded of the terrible pain that will no doubt ever leave given the loss of their precious son. It is at times like this however that I am reminded of the words of a young man from Swindon who came on one our Leadership programme a few years ago. Only 14, Jack was referred to the programme for his ‘challenging’ behaviour. Like so many of the young people referred to our programmes his success in even managing to engage and listen during the programme was, in and of itself- an achievement. He did however make an observation that really struck a chord with me and my colleague Jon and his peers alike. ‘I hope that Tim and Johnathan are looking down and feel proud about all the good things that are happening here’. So simple yet so true. For all the evil acts that are carried out in this world-it is about how we respond and outnumber them with the good. Through the work of the Peace Foundation – Tim and Johnathan’s names will go on.