On the morning of November 8, 1987, 100 people gathered around a war memorial in the small town of Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, braving the cold winter wind to honor those lost in World War I and World War II, as they did every year on Remembrance Day.The mood was solemn and reverent; many heads were bowed and a few tears were shed. Without warning, the silence was shattered as an explosion ripped through the adjacent St. Michael’s Reading Rooms building.
The three-story wall nearest the crowd became an avalanche, raining down bricks and dust upon the startled group, who had no time to react. An anonymous eye witness described the scene: “The explosion itself seemed to last about 15 seconds,” he said. “Then there was a dead silence for 10 seconds. Then there was sobbing and crying. I’ll never forget it. It was chaos. We just rushed to try to get the rubble off the people. Other relatives were looking for their relatives—children were looking for their mothers. I helped take the bricks off, and I consoled people. There were two bodies in the street. People were crying; soldiers were crying. The most seriously injured were pressed up against a railing by a wall that collapsed on top of them. People knew their relatives were underneath it. Everyone rolled up their sleeves and helped.” Unfortunately, the efforts of the town’s residents, British soldiers and rescue workers who quickly arrived couldn’t save 11 people, who were either killed immediately by the explosion or died later from the wounds inflicted by the falling debris. A further 63 people were injured, including 13 children.
One of those rescued from the rubble was Gordon Wilson, the owner of a drapery business in Enniskillen. His daughter, Marie, a 20-year-old nurse, was also pulled to safety, but did not survive. In an interview with the BBC, the grieving father described being trapped under tons of bricks with his daughter.
“We were both thrown forward, rubble and stones and whatever in and around and over us and under us,” Wilson said. “I was aware of a pain in my right shoulder. I shouted to Marie was she all righ, and she said yes. She found my hand and said, ‘Is that your hand, Dad?’ We were under six feet of rubble. I said, ‘Are you all right?’ and she said yes, but she was shouting in between. Three or four times I asked her, and she always said yes. When I asked her the fifth time, ‘Are you all right, Marie?’ she said, ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Those were the last words she spoke to me. She still held my hand quite firmly and I kept shouting at her, ‘Marie, are you all right?’ but there wasn’t a reply.”
Most would have reacted with bitterness or resentment toward the Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist group that planted the bomb, but Wilson shocked the world by refusing to condemn the perpetrators in his moment of absolute sorrow. “The hospital was magnificent, truly impressive, and our friends have been great, but I miss my daughter—and we shall miss her, but I bear no ill will; I bear no grudge,” he said. “She was a pet, and she’s dead. She’s in heaven, and we’ll meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”
Wilson then went on to reveal a solid faith unshaken by the terrible loss of his daughter. “Don’t ask me please for a purpose,” he said. “I don’t have a purpose. I don’t have an answer, but I know there has to be a plan. If I didn’t think that, I would commit suicide. It’s part of a greater plan, and God is good. And we shall meet again.”
In a 2006 interview with Ireland’s Sunday Tribune, Wilson’s wife, Joan, explained how her husband’s example helped her progress past resentment to a point of forgiveness and a commitment to reconciliation. “Gordon believed in loving your neighbor, and if your neighbor included terrorists, you loved them too,” she said. “It took me longer. I never wanted to hurt the bombers, but I wanted to give them a good shaking and ask them why they’d done this. Then I realized maybe they’d gone down the wrong road because things had gone badly in their lives. They mightn’t have been blessed like Gordon and me. So I forgave those who killed my child.”
The impact Gordon Wilson had on Ireland went far beyond the walls of his family home. Not content with merely forgiving the IRA, Wilson reached out to the organization and the opposing Loyalist groups (so-called because of their loyalty to the English monarchy) to help heal the wounds of the conflict between Irish Catholic nationalists (who wanted annexation from Great Britain) and Protestant unionists (who wanted to remain part of Great Britain). The violent clashes between the two sides, collectively called “The Troubles,” claimed 3,636 lives and injured 36,000 people between 1966 and 1999. Immediately after the Enniskillen bombing, Wilson began the work of reconciliation, urging Loyalists not to retaliate. He met with them several times face-to-face, as well as with leaders of Sinn Fein, the political party dedicated to creating an independent Irish republic. After the IRA detonated a bomb in Warrington, England, in March 1993, the second bombing of the town that year, Wilson was granted an audience with the IRA leaders who likely had sanctioned the attack that killed his daughter.
A year later, both sectarian organizations declared ceasefires, and Wilson, the humble, soft-spoken store owner whose only political experience had been his tireless efforts to reconcile Ireland’s warring factions, was elected senator in the newly formed Irish Republic. Although these shaky agreements were later violated by the IRA attack on London’s Canary Wharf in February1996 and the bombing of Manchester’s city center five months later, the nationalist and unionist paramilitary groups reached a final peace settlement in 1997, which has only been broken once (a bomb planted by the Real IRA splinter group killed 21 people in Omagh, Ireland, in 1998). Johnston McMaster, lecturer and program coordinator of Education for Reconciliation Programme in Northern Ireland at Trinity College Dublin’s Irish School of Ecumenics, believes Wilson’s reconciliation work had a lasting impact on the peace process. “Gordon Wilson’s refusal to be hateful toward the perpetrators of the Enniskillen bombing and the conciliatory work he did had a great effect on both sides of the Irish conflict,” he says.
A Holy War?
Gordon Wilson was not the only Christian individual who successfully reached out to unionists and republicans in the spirit of reconciliation. “People within the faith community such as Reverend Harold Good and Father Alec Reid, who oversaw the IRA’s weapons decommissioning, have taken remarkable initiative in the Irish peace building,” McMaster says. “They’ve taken the lead in making connections and having positive dialogues with people of violence who have bridged a divided society and helped reestablish peaceful community.” Other notable contributors to Irish reconciliation include Mairead Corrigan-Maguire and Betty Williams, who along with Ciaran McKeown founded the Peace People organization in 1976. Following well-supported peace rallies and the inception of community outreach programs, Williams and Corrigan-Maguire, who lost her sister, a niece and two nephews to The Troubles, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year. Members of the Peace People continue to unite people from either side of the sectarian lines.
While Christian individuals and small groups worked hard to reconcile the differences in their society, McMaster believes both Irish church denominations could have done more to halt the violence. “In the past 30 years of the conflict, the Church—both Protestant and Catholic—has been largely ambivalent,” he says. “There were the politics of condemnation of the other side, but a lack of shared history, understanding of the causes of conflict or a united vision for the future.” Some critics have jumped on the inaction of Catholic and Protestant leadership, citing it as evidence that Christianity was to blame for The Troubles. McMaster disagrees with this reductionist position, stating that true faith would never try to justify the atrocities committed during the conflict. “You can never reduce conflict to a single strand,” he says. “It’s always complex, and Ireland is no exception. Religion has been exploited to legitimize conflict, and the Bible has been misinterpreted to justify sectarian violence, so in this way religion is a strand. But history, politics, culture, economics and issues of collective identity are equally important factors.”
The transition of Northern Ireland from virtual civil war to peace has created new possibilities for the Protestant and Catholic institutions to work together in addressing the mistakes of the past and building future successes. According to the CAIN Web Service, more than 50 percent of Northern Ireland residents attend church regularly, a figure substantially higher than almost every other European nation. This means churches are presented with the chance to lead entire communities past division and prejudice. “Churches have a great opportunity to contribute to the spiritual strand of peacemaking because spirituality can transform individuals and society as a whole,” McMaster says. “Both Protestants and Catholics can rediscover the Gospel in a creative way, but that will require a huge theological renewal. The vehicle will be less at the church leadership level and more at the grassroots. Church people involved in local communities are putting theology into practice in a transformative way that can influence church leaders. The lay movement will challenge and empower leadership to develop new, more relevant practices that can help Ireland change for the good.”
Lights in the Darkness
One area that Irish churches have already made substantial progress in is youth ministry. Many families in Northern Ireland saw churches as safe havens for their children that would keep them away from the cycle of violence, and youth programs continue to effectively reach out to those who are too young to be haunted by shootings and bombings. McMaster believes that this work is vital to the future of reconciliation in Ireland. “A lot of church youth work went on during The Troubles, and it stressed the value of equity, diversity and interdependence,” he says. “Young people have a greater awareness of these values than previous generations, and they’re disillusioned with sectarianism. A lot of youth groups ask their members what they want Ireland to be like in 2020, and thinking of the future in this way has empowered young people to dream. They want to build a different Ireland that is built on a peaceful foundation.”
A small percentage of the younger Irish generation continues in the faith traditions of their parents, but most are pursuing nontraditional Christianity in an effort to distance themselves from the sectarian horrors that blighted previous generations. “Lots of young people don’t want to be labeled Catholic or Protestant and have said to the churches, ‘A plague on both your sectarian houses,’” McMaster says. “They’ve moved away from organized religion, but they haven’t abandoned their faith. They’re trying to articulate a new approach to faith—a faith that is action-based, that builds relationships, that cares about justice and the poor. It’s not a faith that’s based on dogma and rigid belief systems. What the apostle Paul says about faith working through love appeals to them. Their faith is more about practice than theological orthodoxy.”
Outside of the Protestant and Catholic church systems, many independent organizations are working to bring young people from all religious and ethnic backgrounds together. Youth Initiatives offers seven youth work projects in poor areas of Belfast that include summer camps, service projects and creative arts performances. The Spirit of Eniskillen, based at the Gordon Wilson Center in Belfast, offers a four-stage peer learning program that is run by former participants who volunteer. Attendees meet with youth from other war-torn areas such as Bosnia, Croatia and the Middle East to learn about reconciliation in other parts of the world. After being equipped with conflict-resolution and communication skills, the participants go to schools across Northern Ireland to pass on the message of peace.
McMaster is confident that a new generation of faith in Northern Ireland will continue to follow the example of Gordon Wilson, creating a positive counter-testimony of reconciliation that lays to rest the legacy of violence, hatred and mistrust that has plagued Ireland for so long. “In Ireland, as in most conflicts, there have been individuals and small groups who have had alternative faith visions that are candles in the darkness,” he says. “The flames grow brighter and spread until they fully illuminate the dark. That’s what true faith is; it’s not violent or divisive. People in Ireland, particularly younger generations, are beginning to recognize the value and authenticity of this sort of faith, and it’s leading to widespread reconciliation.”