Obituary: Gordon Wilson

After the 1987 Poppy Day explosion in Enniskillen two images flashed around the world. The first was the fact that an IRA bombing had killed 11 Protestant civilians as they gathered on Remembrance Day; the second was Gordon Wilson's almost superhuman display of Christian charity and forgiveness.

Wilson and his daughter Marie, who was a nurse aged 20, were buried in rubble by the explosion. He survived and she did not. His broadcast account of lying in the debris holding her hand was one of the most poignant and affecting moments of the quarter-century of Irish troubles.

Wilson died yesterday in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, at the age of 67, after being suddenly taken ill. He will go down in Irish history as the man who, after his daughter's death, recounted that her last words to him were: "Daddy, I love you very much." And he summoned the strength of character to add: "She was a great wee lassie. She was a pet, and she's dead. But I bear no ill-will, I bear no grudge."

The savagery of the IRA bombers, the tragedy and futility of Marie Wilson's death, and Gordon Wilson's personal victory over bitterness mean that in Ireland the Enniskillen attack will never be forgotten.

In the aftermath he received a tribute from the Queen and was voted Man of the Year by the BBC's Today programme, ahead of Terry Waite and Mikhail Gorbachev. He said then with characteristic modesty: "I'm not worthy of it. The others are very important people. I'm not in their class. I'm just an ordinary guy."

Later he wrote a book, Marie, and did what he could for the cause of peace. He attracted Unionist criticism in 1993 when he accepted an Irish government invitation to become a member of the Irish Senate, where he made a number of heartfelt contributions.

Some months later more controversy followed when he asked to meet the IRA, in the hope that a personal appeal might reach them following the Warrington bombing in which two young children died. But he reported sadly: "They listened, but they made no change in their position. Perhaps it was naive of me to imagine that because it was me they would. I went in innocence to search for what my heart told me might be a way forward. I got nothing."

By August 1994, however, the IRA campaign had ceased, and two months later Gordon Wilson sat alongside Sinn Fein representatives in the forum for peace and reconciliation in Dublin. His appeal for continuing peace brought a standing ovation.

After Marie's death Wilson said: "Don't ask me, please, for a purpose. I don't have a purpose. I don't have an answer. But I know there has to be a plan. It's part of a greater plan, and God is good."

In fact, Enniskillen can now with hindsight be described as one of the turning-points of the troubles. The deaths of Marie Wilson and 10 other people had crucial repercussions for republicans, for they put an end to Sinn Fein hopes of expansion, especially into the Irish Republic. An IRA spokesman admitted that the outer reaches of republican support were "just totally devastated".

The incident helped initiate a rethink within the IRA and Sinn Fein, and that in turn led to the debate which eventually produced last year's ceasefire. Over the past year Gordon Wilson may have had the comfort of reflecting that the tragedy of Enniskillen planted a seed which, years afterwards, helped his country move from war to peace.

David McKittrick

Gordon Wilson, draper, peace campaigner: born 1928; member, Irish Senate 1993-95; member, Forum for Peace and Reconciliation 1994-95; author of Marie: a story from Enniskillen 1990; married (one daughter; and one daughter and one son deceased); died Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh 27 June 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence