Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, February 14, 2001
From hatred to hope and healing
Project helps survivors on both sides of Northern Ireland conflict to forgive


Sometimes you have to travel halfway around the world to heal emotional wounds at home.

Just ask Nigel Watt. He journeyed from Northern Ireland to Northern California -- hoping, at long last, to find a way to cope with the violent death of his father nearly three decades ago.

Watt is one of 18 residents of Northern Ireland who came to Stanford in January as guests of the Healing on Past Experiences (HOPE) Forgiveness Project -- a workshop designed to create dialogue between Catholics and Protestants who have lost close relatives in that country's bloody civil war.

The weeklong session cost about $25,000 and was underwritten in part by the Stanford Continuing Studies Program.

Watt was only 4 when his father, a member of the government security forces, was gunned down by the pro-Catholic Irish Republican Army in 1973.

"I was left with a mother and a brother," he recalls.

Then in 1986, Watt and his brother were themselves the targets of an unsuccessful bombing attempt.

"They did it because of my father and because we're Protestants," he says.

As time went on, Watt's anger toward Catholics grew more intense.

"For years I held resentment for Catholics," he says, "until I came here to Stanford."

Nigel Watt, 32, was a small boy when his father was gunned down by the Irish Republican Army. photo: L.A. Cicero

Watt credits the HOPE Forgiveness Project for giving him his first real opportunity to get to know Catholics on a one-on-one basis. What he discovered is that a Catholic who loses a loved one can suffer just as much as a Protestant.

"I have Catholic neighbors," he says, "but I've always watched my back when I'm around them. Now when I return home, I'll be able to open up more."

Watt's transformation is what the HOPE Forgiveness Project is all about -- learning to cope with tragedy from the past, while moving toward reconciliation in the future.

Conflict and negotiation  

"One of our objectives is to see if we can help put a society back together again," says Byron Bland, associate director of the Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation, who helped organize last month's workshop.

Bland, a Presbyterian minister, came up with the idea for the HOPE Forgiveness Project after years of working with Catholic and Protestant peace groups in Northern Ireland. Bland also had become familiar with the Stanford Forgiveness Project -- a program that stresses the importance of forgiving others as a way of promoting psychological and physical well-being. Participants in the project use forgiveness to let go of anger and thereby increase their sense of confidence and hope.

Bland approached Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, about working with residents of Northern Ireland.

"I asked Fred if this technique would work for people involved in a politically charged situation," Bland says. "He said yes, so we decided to give it a try."

Margaret McKinney of Belfast, Northern Ireland, visits the original grave of her son, Brian (left, inset), who was kidnapped and murdered by members of the Irish Republican Army in 1978. Brian’s remains were found in a bog in the Republic of Ireland in June 1999. He was reburied in Belfast a few months later. Courtesy: Margaret McKinney

Luskin and Bland held their first Northern Ireland workshop at Stanford a year ago. Six people were flown in from Belfast, including Margaret McKinney -- a Catholic woman whose 22-year-old son, Brian, disappeared in May 1978 after several run-ins with local leaders of the Irish Republican Army.

McKinney assumed that her son had been kidnapped by the IRA, but it took more than two decades for the truth to emerge.

"No words can describe how I felt those first few years after Brian disappeared," McKinney remembers. "It was horrendous. My husband and I developed so many health problems we actually had to quit working."

White House visit

  McKinney eventually became an activist, lobbying on behalf of families whose loved ones had vanished without a trace. She approached Sinn Fein, a political party with close ties to the IRA, contacted members of the British Parliament and even met with President Clinton in the White House.

"I told the president, 'I just want Brian's body back, so I can put him to rest," recalls McKinney, "and he said, 'I promise you I'll help you find your son.'"

Ten months later, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams came to her house in Belfast and told her she was going to get Brian's body back.

"I can't describe the tears of joy and love I felt at that moment," McKinney says.

Not long afterward, the IRA finally revealed the locations where nine missing victims had been buried. According to the IRA, Brian's body had been taken across the border to the Republic of Ireland and buried in a boggy region called Colgagh.

"The Irish government spent six or seven weeks digging for his grave," says Linda McKinney Pyewell, McKinney's oldest daughter. "They were about to give up on the last day of June 1999, when my mom suggested that they search another part of the bog."

McKinney's instincts were correct. The search team found Brian's shoe, then his body side-by-side with another victim. Both men had been shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs.

The McKinneys held a funeral for Brian in Belfast on Sept. 4, 1999. A few months later, Margaret McKinney arrived at the HOPE Forgiveness workshop at Stanford.


"When she first came here last year, Margaret told me, 'If I knew who did this to my son and I had a gun, I'd kill them,'" Bland recalls.

But after getting to know other parents whose children also had suffered violent deaths, McKinney began to pay close attention to Bland and Luskin's message of forgiveness.

"I can truthfully say that coming to Stanford has helped me feel the peace in my heart that my son has now," McKinney says. "I feel no more pain. What's happened in the past is past."

When the six workshop participants returned to Belfast, they agreed to find other people still traumatized by the death of a loved one.

McKinney didn't have to look far.

"My husband, Bill, is suffering. He's hurting very bad," she says. "Every morning he goes to Brian's grave, but he just won't talk about it. He just bottles it all up inside."

She wanted her husband to come to the second Stanford workshop this year, but he would have nothing to do with it. So she decided to invite her daughters, Linda and Sandra, who have had their own difficulty coping with their brother's death.

"I couldn't discuss it for years," says Linda McKinney Pyewell, a married mother of four. "I left Belfast in 1981 and moved to London. I just had to leave."

Pyewell credits Luskin and Bland with helping her overcome years of pent-up bitterness toward her brother's killers.

"I would say that the Stanford project has helped me enormously," she notes, "and it's made a real difference for mom."

Her younger sister, who still lives in Belfast, also had problems reconciling the past until her trip to Stanford.

"It's been an incredible experience," says Sandra McKinney. "I still resent the people who did this to Brian, but now I'm able to speak more openly."

Overcoming fear and intimidation is part of the healing process, says her mother.

"IRA thugs are still living in my neighborhood, but their threats don't affect me any more," she notes. "We've all learned that we can live peacefully with each other."

Promises to keep  

"This year's workshop surpassed my expectations," observes Bland. "We had 18 participants, so it wasn't as intimate as last year, but we accomplished something very important. They all left here with a new story about who they are -- the story of a survivor instead of the story of a victim. They'll be healthier people for that."

An important goal, notes Bland, is to transfer the positive experience of the HOPE Forgiveness Project to the realities of daily life in Northern Ireland. To achieve that, all workshop participants have agreed to meet at least once a month and to begin reaching out to other survivors of violence.

"Both communities, Protestant and Catholic, have used the deaths of your loved ones to keep the violence going," Luskin told workshop members. "We need to say that we no longer want to use our own tragedy to divide one another. It's a revolutionary idea that you'll take with you when you return home."

Some workshop participants are putting together a book about their experiences, others have launched a campaign to build memorial benches in parks where Protestant and Catholic children play together -- a particularly poignant gesture for Ethel Allen, whose 34-year-old son, Philip, was murdered in March 1999.

Philip, a Catholic, was drinking in a pub with a Protestant friend named Damien Traynor. Without warning, a Protestant Loyalist burst through the door and shot both men dead.

"When Ethel came here last year, she was one of the most fragile people I'd ever seen," recalls Bland. "But this time, she's entirely different. She's become one of the strongest members of the group."

Allen agrees.

"I used to think that no parent could suffer as much as me, but now I see we're all suffering," she told the workshop, trying to hold back her tears.

"I've learned a lot since I started coming here," she added. "I really do owe my life to Stanford."

Bland and Luskin hope to hold a third HOPE Forgiveness workshop next year.

Fred Luskin and Byron Bland have held two workshops on forgiveness for people who have lost relatives in Northern Ireland's bloody civil war. photo: L.A. Cicero

Brian McKinney was kidnapped and murdered by members of the Irish Republican Army in 1978. Brian’s remains were found in a bog in the Republic of Ireland in June 1999. He was reburied in Belfast a few months later. Courtesy: Margaret McKinney