Gordon Wilson, an unassuming draper turned peace advocate, was real spirit of Enniskillen
Father held his dying daughter Marie’s hand, but bore no ill will to the IRA bombers, writes Alban Maginness
The unfortunate misunderstanding over the future siting of the Enniskillen bomb memorial has left a sour taste after the recent solemn commemoration of the 11 people killed and scores of others injured in the IRA bombing of the Enniskillen remembrance service on November 8, 1987.
Hopefully, this will be sorted out in the very near future, as the Enniskillen bombing is seen, in the unionist community, as an outrageous attack by the IRA on their religious and political identity. It is, therefore, a very sensitive and important issue.
The bombing was, by any standards, one of the most outrageous incidents of the Troubles — not just because of its large death toll, but also because it involved the targeting of a remembrance service with its marked religious character, sacred in particular to the Protestant community.
In simple terms, it was an unjustified and cowardly attack on a largely civilian gathering in the centre of Enniskillen to prayerfully commemorate the dead of the two World Wars.
The great irony of the Enniskillen attack was that it was carried out by an organisation, namely the IRA, which was purportedly carrying out its paramilitary actions because it wished to bring about a united Ireland.
Through this action — and, indeed, the rest of its misguided campaign of armed struggle — it undermined the very objective to which it was allegedly wedded.
For what the Enniskillen bomb did was to increase the determination of unionists to oppose a united Ireland and to drive a further wedge of distrust and division between the two communities in Fermanagh and beyond.
The only legitimate way to a united Ireland in 1987 was by peaceful, democratic persuasion. What was true then is still true today and the job of democratic nationalists remains to convince unionists, solely by democratic and peaceful means, that a better future lies for them in a united Ireland.
However, through its futile and self-justified campaign, the IRA set back the cause of a united Ireland by one, if not, two generations.
But the Enniskillen bombing also produced something saintly and palpably good, in the wonderful person of Gordon Wilson.
Despite the murder of his young daughter, Marie, and being a victim of the bombing himself — having been buried with the dying Marie under the rubble of the bomb explosion — he emerged as an advocate of peace and reconciliation.
Having been rescued and knowing of the death of his young nurse daughter, he remarkably said: “I bear no ill will; I bear no grudge.” He was even quoted as saying: “I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”
What a powerful personal testimony to forgiveness and reconciliation were those words alone.
He did not demand revenge, or even justice, as he might reasonably have been expected to do. He had captured in those phrases and, indeed, in his subsequent, rather short, life of peaceful advocacy, the spirit of peace, and not surprisingly went on to set up a trust called the Spirit of Enniskillen.
This was to promote reconciliation and, in particular, to provide for young people on both sides of the divide an opportunity to meet one another and to travel abroad together in order to get experience of living outside Northern Ireland, so as to promote greater understanding.
He was also appointed to the Irish Senate by Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in 1989 and there continued to promote
peaceful understanding between north and south and simply among everyone he met.
He met the IRA in an attempt to understand its action in Enniskillen and elsewhere.
He also met Sinn Fein in the late1980s and early-1990s, when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so.
He challenged the IRA through dialogue, common sense and reason to justify its actions.
He did so out of a sincere conviction that it must be persuaded and encouraged to end its violence and work through politics to achieve change.
However, he was not convinced that his efforts made any impact upon it, or indeed anyone else, including loyalist paramilitaries, that he also met and tried to get to put away the gun.
Gordon Wilson was a modest man and, although a Senator in Dublin, he was not a professional politician by any means.
Yet he was disarmingly powerful, because of his modesty and the very simplicity of his message of peace and reconciliation.
He was a most unlikely voice for peace, given the enormous pain and hurt that he had to bear in his personal life.
The cruel and senseless violence of the Enniskillen bomb, 30 years ago this month, transformed him from a quiet, unassuming draper into a powerful advocate for peace in our society.
So, out of that terrible evil, there came great goodness — and that is something we should remember and value.
The late Gordon Wilson, and his daughter Marie who was killed in the Enniskillen bomb