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Obituary: Gordon Wilson

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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.