Grief means so much to Enniskillen

Northern Ireland: Eleven years after Remembrance Day slaughter, a community finds hope for the future
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The Independent Online
THE BRONZE statue of a soldier at the cenotaph in Enniskillen has 11 doves around it in memory of those killed in the Remembrance Day bombing. Behind it is an Orange Order hall and a patch of lush grass that used to be a Catholic church building where the bomb was hidden.

In their place there will soon stand a campus for the University of Ulster, to be shared by Protestant and Catholic students - a symbol of how the town has been healing its wounds since that Sunday in November 1987 when 11 people died and 60 were injured in a bomb that exploded without warning.

Within hours of Saturday's blast 25 miles away at Omagh, some of those who were injured at Enniskillen and others from the town arrived to help.

"We could not be anywhere else but here in Omagh," said one man as the bodies were still being taken to the mortuaries, the injured still being treated. "We shall forever share the same past."

Fermanagh District Council sent a message to Omagh, saying how its people "have a fundamental understanding of the deep hurt, pain and suffering felt by you". And it is those people who have struggled to rebuild a shattered Enniskillen who will be vitally important for the future of Omagh.

Jim Dixon has had 28 operations because of the injuries he suffered in the Remembrance Day attack. "I heard the news and knew that I had to be in Omagh. So I went down there that night and spent two and a half hours, and then also went on Sunday afternoon.

"Obviously I have a certain understanding of what the people in the hospital were going through. They were in shock, hurt and bewildered. I just told them to talk, talk, and talk.

"I won't pretend it's going to be easy for them, you can rebuild the body, but you can't do that so easily to the mind. At Enniskillen we were told that if we just forgive the bombers, that will somehow help.

"But forgiveness is a gift you cannot give to someone who does not have repentance, and I don't think it does make it better."

David Bolton, who worked with victims at Enniskillen, is part of a community trauma team set up for Omagh. The work they have started will, he says, have to continue for a long time. "The dying and the bereaved have been deeply distressed by what they have seen and heard. The scale of human destruction is considerably greater, 28 killed and over 200 injured, and many of the injured are young people who will continue to be a reminder of what happened."

Eleven years on, Enniskillen is a very different place. As well as the medical, psychological and spiritual help, determined efforts were made to ensure the event was not exploited for religious strife, and in fact to make it a basis for breaking down barriers.

Two men who had lost members of their family through terrorism played a instrumental role in this: Gordon Wilson, whose 20-year-old daughter Marie died, and John Maxwell, whose teenage son Paul was killed by the bomb used to assassinate Lord Mountbatten in 1979.

"I'm sure the people of Omagh will go through a similar kind of experience to the people of Enniskillen," Mr Maxwell said yesterday.

The IRA bomber who murdered his son was freed from jail in the Republic earlier this month. At the time Mr Maxwell said that he was prepared to accept the situation if the man had served his time, was no longer a threat and the move helped the peace process. He said: "At the time it was said I had forgiven him, but that was not a word I used."

As well as working to build bridges between the two communities, Mr Wilson and Mr Maxwell helped to establish the town's first integrated schools, one for primary school children and Erne College, which now has no difficulty in attracting pupils and exists alongside two Catholic and two Protestant grammar schools.

Those involved in the process of reconciliation acknowledge it was not easy. Two years before the bomb, Bobby Sands had been voted in as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and expressions of condolence by Catholics were treated with mistrust by some Protestants.

The local Presbyterian minister, the Rev David Cupples, recalls the suspicious atmosphere: "There were some people who said the sympathy was hollow and it wasn't real, given the political background, but I had no doubt whatever that there were very few Catholics who did not feel genuine grief for what had happened." He says that perhaps not all of those who were bereaved are at peace about it "but I think that most of them have reached a certain level of pain that they are prepared to live with".

Martin Callaghan, a Catholic, became involved in cross-community projects, and it brought him into regular contact for the first time with Protestants, and their insecurity and apprehension.

"It is a bit of a cliche, saying that some good will come of it, but I think it did in Enniskillen. I think people stood back and thought, 'Where are we going? What are we doing to ourselves?' and a lot of us began to believe that a political idea simply is not worth this kind of cost."

There was extensive trauma counselling for children at Enniskillen after the bomb. One of those who took part was Paul Douglas, who was 11 at the time. Today, he says that it would never be possible to eradicate what had happened from his mind, but the sessions did help him to adjust better. "It wasn't just me, a lot of my schoolmates felt the same way. Unfortunately, I wasn't very far away when the bomb went off and saw some of what happened. I had the usual symptoms, wetting the bed, having nightmares and not wanting to be alone.

"I am afraid the same thing will happen to a lot of kids in Omagh, especially those who have lost members of their family. I am afraid this is just one of the costs of growing up in Northern Ireland."