INTERVIEW / Saintly to a fault?: He had been bombed, bereaved and is now shunned in the street. Cal McCrystal met a man who made enemies by talking peace; Gordon Wilson

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The Independent Online
GORDON WILSON has converted his late daughter's bedroom into a study for himself. Near the window, where Marie Wilson's bed used to be, is a desk with a fax machine, a telephone, postage stamps and papers neatly stacked. The window overlooks the school where Marie dreamed of becoming a nurse. The school blocks one's view of Enniskillen town centre where Marie's nursing career ended in the IRA's Poppy Day massacre in 1987. In the converted bedroom, Gordon Wilson lights a cigarette and opens a window to let the smoke drift out. He fiddles with the answering machine. He tries unplugging the fax. Two days after his secret meeting with the IRA he seems on edge; tired, hoarse, baffled. Behind him on the bookshelves are hardback copies of his biography, Marie (60,000 copies sold).

Here on a rain-drenched hill above County Fermanagh's island-town, one wonders how it has come about that Gordon Wilson, hailed so recently a hero, praised by the Queen for his forbearance, voted BBC Radio 4's Man of the Year for his uniquely forgiving nature, is today branded a 'fool'?

In the town, people keep their eyes on the wet pavements and withhold their opinions on yesterday's hero. A few are less reticent - James Dixon, for example. As upstanding, God-fearing Protestants in retirement, Gordon Wilson and James Dixon seem similar. Both were victims of the 1987 bombing, in which Mr Dixon lost his handsome looks and sturdy agility, and Mr Wilson lost his daughter.

But Mr Wilson's meeting with IRA members, and failure to talk them out of further violence, has driven them apart. 'I'm not here to run Gordon Wilson down,' Mr Dixon says. 'He's a nice, decent, terribly misguided man. The IRA made a fool out of him.'

Mr Wilson responds to the criticism. 'I know there are people who don't agree with me,' he says. 'Some see me as a Catholic-lover. Others say to me, 'Gordon, why don't you just play some golf]' But I have something inside me that drives me to do something.'

THE WILSON stock can be traced to Scottish settlers who went to the north of Ireland in the 17th century. Gordon Wilson was the eldest of a family of four. He was born in 1927 in Manorhamilton, a small town in County Leitrim just south of the border, where his father was a draper. The family moved to Northern Ireland in 1946. The eldest of his three sisters married a Methodist minister. Another married a Kent surveyor. 'We were a happy family, but money was by no means plentiful.'

The family was devoutly Methodist. Mr Wilson says part of his character was formed at Wesley College, the Dublin boarding school, where he was sent in 1939. In the same year his father took the lease on a shop in Enniskillen, moving the household there seven years later when the Second World War was over. In his youth, Gordon Wilson seems to have been captivated more by the south of Ireland than by the north: he turned down an offer to leave his Dublin college for Enniskillen's Portora Royal School. When he did leave, he received a letter from his headmaster suggesting that he 'con sider medicine as a career'. Instead, he ended up in his father's shop.

In Northern Ireland, he was 'shocked' by what he found 'in terms of religion and politics'.

Enniskillen has the distinction of being the only town in the British Isles to have raised two regiments - the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. And while Portora school produced some non-aggressors (among them Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and the Rev Henry Francis Lyte, author of Abide With Me), the area's hard reputation goes far back; the island of Enniskillen was named after the wife of a Celtic chieftain, Balor of the Mighty Blows.

'In Manorhamilton the Protestants were in a minority compared to the Roman Catholic population, but in the Enniskillen area they were in roughly equal proportions.' Mr Wilson was shocked by 'the harsh and biased words' of local politicians and declined to get involved. 'Perhaps it was fear or lack of guts on my part not to confront this, but I wanted to be friends with everyone as far as I possibly could.'

LAST WEEK'S mission to the IRA underlines the difficulty in satisfying all. What he may have done is divide Ulster Protestants. While the division between Protestants and Catholics has been delineated in blood, differences between brands of Protestantism have usually been quieter. Mr Wilson's IRA meeting, some Protestants suggest, will lead to the murder of Protestants. A Unionist Party MP has accused him of betraying the Unionist community.

Mr Wilson takes a long time to answer his doorbell. He says he is exhausted by the week's events, which have included a press conference. He would rather not be interviewed. But his desire not to offend leads to an invitation to come in out of the rain. He is loathe to be photographed, then agrees to stand in the downpour to do so. We are soon upstairs in his study where a framed prayer hangs on a wall: 'The voice of God was heard today / In the wake of Satan's deed / That was designed to silence men / And rob them of their creed.'

Let us assume that he is devoid of vanity; that he has high personal courage, is distinguished by the fidelity and zeal with which he devotes himself to his duties as a citizen, believes in the wrongfulness of all conflict, and is perfectly ready to endure public obloquy for his belief. Let us assume, in fact, a saint.

A conversation with Mr Wilson does little to undermine the assumption. He does have a personal and insuperable aversion to the taking of human life. It appears to be an instinct so deep, so much part of his nature, that he cannot submit to its violation - scruples which are the note of a civilised society. Yet a few streets away, James Dixon, another scrupulous man, is sceptical.

In his view, the Pope 'is involved in the IRA up to the hilt'. By going to see members of the IRA, therefore, Gordon Wilson is having truck with the Pope. If this seems a touch fantastic, Mr Dixon goes on to challenge the famous conversation between Mr Wilson and his dying daughter under the Poppy Day rubble in 1987.

According to Mr Wilson's account, 'I then felt somebody holding my hand. It was Marie. She said: 'Are you all right, daddy?' and I said yes. I asked her if she was all right and she said yes. I asked her this question four or five times. She was crying all the time. When I asked her the fifth time if she was all right she said: 'Daddy I love you very much' . . . Those were her last words.'

Mr Dixon who shared the rubble, will have none of it. 'Under all that dust can you imagine hearing anyone whispering sweet nothings, with the screams and roars of people going on. It's just a lovely story.'

It seems hard that Mr Wilson should be criticised for acting what he believes to have been the part of a good citizen. Certainly, there has been resentment of the media attention he received after his 1987 statement: 'I have lost my daughter, but I bear no ill will . . . Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life . . . 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.' But Mr Wilson's appointment, in February, to a seat in the Irish Senate created even greater antipathy.

He entered the upper house of the Irish parliament on the invitation of the Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, who is constitutionally entitled to nominate 11 of the Senate's 60 members. It was a controversial step, particularly in the eyes of Ulster Protestants seeking to deny Dublin any say in Northern Ireland's affairs. But although he holds a British passport, Mr Wilson is 'proud to call myself an Irishman'. Few mainland Britons realise that he was born in the Republic.

The bigotry that Gordon Wilson encountered as an apprentice draper does not seem to have been diluted. In his early days in the shop, Protestants would refuse to buy knitwear made in the Republic, while Roman Catholics turned away material with a Union Jack label. 'Life was a tightrope but you got on with what you were doing.'

The tightrope snapped: his daughter died; he temporarily lost his memory; the business suffered (it recently went into voluntary liquidation). Fellow- Protestants snubbed him. '(They) saw my going into the Irish Senate as selling out my . . . heritage and being on my way to Rome,' he says. 'But I accepted the Senate seat as an independent, someone who is not involved with any political party and with no political axe to grind.' Even moderate Unionists, such as his own MP, Ken Maginnis, were critical. 'He was certainly less than sympathetic when he said that my attitude to Unionism was equivocal.'

Across town, James Dixon explains that he, too, was born in the Irish Republic. He also has met members of the IRA, one of whom had been instructed to blow up Mr Dixon's garage/factory. '(The IRA man) phoned and said, 'Jim, I've got to see you. I have a job to do on your premises. Jim, I'll do it on Sunday when you're not there.' '

Then why vilify Gordon Wilson? 'I am not a vindictive person,' Mr Dixon says. 'I don't dislike anybody except those who kill . . . They should be executed. I just don't believe anyone should forgive the IRA.' In the most troubled part of the 'island of saints and scholars', the 'saint' - misguided or not - is not suffered gladly.

(Photograph omitted)