SINN Féin’s Martin McGuinness looked for reconciliation as he marked the 20th anniversary of the IRA’s “shameful” bombing of Warrington.
The North’s Deputy First Minister was invited to speak at the Cheshire town’s peace centre this week by Colin Parry, whose 12-year-old son Tim was one of two children killed in the attack.
It was seen as a watershed moment in the peace process, as people on both sides of the Irish Sea voicing their horror at the bombings.
“I was once in the IRA, I am now a peace builder,” said Mr McGuinness during his speech on Wednesday.
“It has been a journey which has involved much hurt and pain. I have followed many coffins and stood beside many grieving families in the years since.
“But there can be no greater tragedy in life than parents having to bury their child.”
Mr McGuinness acknowledged that as a republican leader, it would be “hypocritical” to distance himself from the suffering brought upon victims of IRA bombings.
“Regrettably the past cannot be changed or undone,” he added.
“Neither can the suffering, the hurt or the violence of the conflict be disowned by republicans or any other party to the conflict.”
The former MP was met at the town by a small band of 12 demonstrators who objected to his presence there.
They held up placards with references to the Birmingham Pub Bombings, the IRA’s most deadly attack on British soil, which killed 21 people and left more than 200 with injuries, some serious.
Julie Hambleton, whose 18-year-old sister Maxine was killed in the 1974 attack, said letting Mr McGuinness give a talk on peace was like “asking Myra Hindley to give a talk on child protection”.
The Deputy First Minister said his “heart goes out” to the protesters and described the peace process as a “journey”.
“I fully appreciate that there are other people who don’t feel able to make that journey,” he added. “I would be the last to criticise them.”
In response to a question about the Warrington bombing itself, he said: “It’s absolutely shameful that two young boys lost their lives.”
Mr Parry admitted that his decision to invite Mr McGuinness to speak in the town was “audacious”, but said most people had reacted positively to the speech.
“I haven’t forgiven the IRA for killing Tim, nor has anybody in my family and we never will,” he added.
“But we don’t just talk to victims of terrorism, we also talk to people who have been associated with terrorist acts.
“In simple terms, you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends.”
The Warrington bombing also killed toddler Jonathan Ball and left 56 people injured.
No warning was given for the attack and no-one has been prosecuted for orchestrating it.