Forgiving someone can often be the hardest thing to do, but a story involving a Berwickshire man, a rubber bullet and a young Northern Irish boy proves that it can be done even in the most extreme of circumstances.
In 1972 Charles Innes was serving in the British Army with the Royal Artillery in Londonderry during a great period of unrest in Northern Ireland.
The country, and Londonderry in particular, was a pressure cooker of tension, anger and violence following Bloody Sunday, the incident on January 30, 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry in which 26 unarmed civil-rights protesters and bystanders were shot by soldiers of the British Army.
Charles is the first to admit that being a soldier in his 20s in such a hostile environment was a very intimidating experience. On May 4 of that year, his stay in Derry took an unexpected and devastating turn which highlighted just how cruel a place the world can be. Local youths had taken to throwing bricks and other makeshift ammunition into the army’s secure base at a local police station. It became common practice for Charles, now 71, and his comrades to fire rubber bullets as a deterrent.
Unfortunately, on this particular day one of the bullets Charles fired didn’t give one youngster the chance to run away. Instead, it knocked him to the ground and he was rushed to hospital. It was touch and go whether the boy concerned, ten-year-old Richard Moore, would survive. In the days that followed it was established that the incident had left him completely blind.
Charles was kept informed of his condition and was absolutely distraught about what had happened.
“I was filled with sadness and regret,” he recalled. “It was a very hectic time. Although, following the incident, I turned down an offer to be relieved of my duties it was always at the back of mind what had happened to the poor lad.”
The story could have ended there, but after serving in the army for another 21 years and then as training officer for another eight, Charles received a phone call that would set things on a course he never would have predicted.
“I’d been retired for a few years when I received a phone call from an ex-Royal Ulster Constabulary officer. I had worked for the RUC during my second spell in Northern Ireland and the man assumed I knew him, but I had to apologise and tell him I didn’t.
“But then he mentioned the name Richard Moore and it all came flooding back. The man told me how Richard’s life had panned out. How he’d graduated from university, run a number of businesses and founded the charity Children in Crossfire, which he set up to alleviate the suffering of those youngsters caught up in war.”
It didn’t stop there. Richard had written a letter to Charles which he and his wife Louise sat and read together.
At the end was a request to meet in person. After spending time putting together a fitting reply, the wheels were set in motion for a poignant and emotional reunion. The lobby of a hotel near Edinburgh airport was to be the location for a conversation which sowed the seeds of a friendship which is still going strong today.
“I walked into the foyer and saw this man sitting down. I knew instinctively who it was,” Charles recalled. “After just a short time of chatting I got the feeling that I’d known him all of my life.
“Of course we talked about what happened. What struck me about Richard was how positive he was. He said to me ‘we can’t undo what has happened but we can go forward’.”
In an interview last year, Richard said: “I have now been blind for 40 years. For a long time I thought of myself as a person who had lost his sight but at this stage I have been blind longer than I was a sighted person. Reflecting on blindness now, it has been a positive experience.”
Over the past few years Charles, who has lived in Whitsome for 14 years, has made numerous trips to Northern Ireland to visit Richard during the course of which he met his mother and gave a talk on their friendship at a centre in the heart of a staunch Republican community.
“When I walked into the room that day I could feel an element of hostility straight away. But by the end of the talk the whole room was in tears.
“There is a similar reaction wherever myself and Richard give our talks.
“I’m often asked if I feel guilty about what happened and my answer often causes an intake of breath from people who are listening.
“I don’t feel any guilt because to do so would suggest that I intended to do what I did.
“During spells of what was often referred to as ‘minor aggro’ – but in reality was a lot worse – we fired rubber bullets on a regular basis and no-one had ever been seriously injured up until that point.
“Of course I wish that it had not happened and I never would have believed all these years later that I’d be such good friends with Richard.”
One of the many touched by the story was the Dalai Lama. So much so that he is now a patron of Children in Crossfire and invited Charles and Richard over to Dharamsala in 2010 to give a talk in front of an audience of over 2,500 people.
“I never thought back in 1972 that all of this would have happened. It’s amazing that something so good has come from it. Richard is a terrific man and an inspiration.”
As people get ready to mark Remembrance Day, Charles Innes and Richard Moore will present their talk ‘A Gift of Reconciliation’ at St Cuthbert’s Church, Norham on Saturday at 5pm.