A tragic opportunity for reconciliation

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THANKS largely to television and advertising, Warrington has until recently been associated in the minds of many with rugby, vodka and, if you turned off the M6 or M62, with opportunities for new industrial enterprise. This was the popular image, but what happened here 2 1/2 weeks ago has - temporarily at least - changed much of that. The picture of scrummaging heavyweights, modern factories and complex computers has given way to photographs of a fair-haired innocent called Johnathan Ball, and of smiling 12-year-old Tim Parry, whose father described him so naturally and proudly as 'a good lad'.

We shared that pride. And millions of people, within and far beyond these islands, shared our revulsion at the senseless brutality that cost these youngsters their lives. They, and the dignity of their grieving parents and families, are just now the world's image of Warrington.

Their graves in Fox Covert cemetery, and the flowers there and in Bridge Street, are reminders of the terrible tragedy that hit us on 20 March. Let a small section of the press, still puzzled by the James Bulger phenomenon, accuse us, if it wills, of mawkish sentimentality and self-pity. We offer neither apology nor disguise for the shared sorrow and sympathetic solidarity that mark the family and community life of this part of our country. We are used to standing together to take the strain and to sustaining each other in times of stress. That Saturday afternoon was no exception.

And it is with pride and deep gratitude that we receive here the representative of HM the Queen at this service, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.

Many fine phrases and quotations from scripture have emerged from the rightful condemnation of this appalling act of violence. None has been more powerful than the words from St Matthew (xviii, 1-7, 10, 11), in which we hear the Lord's instructions to his disciples about how the welfare of little children is to be protected, and the care that is to be taken with the values to be set before them.

This was no meaningless platitude but a clear commandment from Christ. Indeed it would be hard to think of any more gross contradiction of these gospel guidelines than the unprincipled ruthlessness that places bombs in litter bins amid Saturday lunchtime shoppers. The so-called apology from the IRA next day, alleging confusion about which shopping centre was intended, added insult to lethal injury.

There is no need for me to add yet again to the long list of condemnations of this hateful act of terrorism. We know that there have been other murders - before and since - but few have evoked more widespread indignation than the murder of these children.

We are very conscious that in Ireland itself the death-roll has passed the 3,000 mark. Nor do we overlook the sad fact that only yards away from the youngsters' graves at Fox Covert cemetery lies the body of Private Stephen Beacham of the 1st Battalion, the King's Regiment, who not long ago lost his life while serving in Northern Ireland. Perhaps when next we see on the television news yet another funeral procession and the tears of the bereaved, we may remember these last days here in Warrington, and pray ever more earnestly for an end to the slaughter, and for peace, justice and reconciliation.

All of us have been consoled by the expressions of sympathy that have reached this town from Ireland. The presence here of the President of Ireland, Mrs Mary Robinson, is a wonderful gesture of sympathy and healing, which we cherish and from which we hope inspiration for the future may be drawn. She and the other representatives have come to be with us and to share our suffering. That is true compassion.

Nor do we forget those great rallies, in Dublin and London, that have shown the feelings of the vast majority of ordinary Irish men and women, home and away. Those feelings were vehemently expressed to me in a personal letter some days ago from Cardinal Cahal Daly, Archbishop of Armagh.

He wrote with characteristic directness: 'Rarely have I experienced such intensity of revulsion and indignation as this atrocity has evoked all over Ireland. People are outraged that such deeds are claimed by the IRA to be done in the name of the people of Ireland . . . They have only one message for the IRA: 'Please stop this senseless campaign. Please cease to dishonour the name of Ireland. For God's sake, stop now.' '

The Cardinal went on to express hope that Warrington might at last be a turning point. My mind goes back to those moving words, spoken by Tim Parry's father, when he expressed the hope that his son might become 'a symbol of peace'. Perhaps in some extraordinary way, Warrington is being given the tragic opportunity accorded some years ago to Enniskillen. We have to ask ourselves how we can respond to Colin Parry's hope for 'a symbol of peace'. Can this challenge become for us, too, what Gordon Wilson's word, 'reconciliation', has been for many in Ireland?

'Reconciliation' is a difficult word, often misunderstood. It is important because it is a two-way word, for it means more than forgiveness. It means making friends again where there has been hostility. It makes demands. It is hard to achieve. It calls for perseverance, sensitivity and trust. It calls for courage, not weakness. It is the only way to true peace and understanding. It is possible, even where previous efforts have failed. Even to lay aside sectarian hatred is possible, as we have attempted to show here.

As St Paul wrote: 'God reconciled us to himself through Christ and he gave us the ministry of reconciliation. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.' (II Corinthians v, 18,19). We are both grateful and encouraged by the presence with us of the Prime Minister and party leaders. Theirs is a heavy responsibility. We trust they will accept our prayer that they may have the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the grace of perseverence.

The third reading at this service tells us: 'No more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain. The world of the past is gone' (Revelation xxi, 4). Sisters and brothers in Christ, we meet on the very eve of the great triduum of Holy Week when we recall in devotion and faith the Passion, death and resurrection of Christ. As we agonise with Him in Gethsemane, weep with his mother on Calvary, and watch at the tomb amid sadness and anxiety for the future, let us console one another with the sure knowledge that our Saviour will rise again, even as he said he would. And He will lead us to the Easter Garden.

This is an abridged text of the address given by the Archbishop of Liverpool at the service of remembrance, reconciliation and commitment at St Elphin's, Warrington, on 7 April 1993.

(Photograph omitted)