Irish Folk Hero Confronts `The Troubles' as His Own Man

One man's extraordinary forgiveness led to his appointment as senator

`I BEAR no ill will," said Gordon Wilson after the death of his daughter Marie in a Provisional Irish Republican Army explosion six years ago.

"I bear no grudge. 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.... It's part of a greater plan, and God is good. And we shall meet again."

Mr. Wilson's words to a television reporter made this rural shopkeeper a household name. The hearts of millions of viewers in Ireland, Britain, and abroad were touched by the directness and the poignancy of his sentiment.

Wilson has kept a low profile since then, but now he's back in the headlines.

Such was the enduring impact of his response to terror that in February, Wilson was asked unexpectedly by Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds to fill one of the 11 appointed seats in the nation's 60-member Senate as an independent, nonparty member. After not a little prayer, Wilson says, he accepted.

In late March, Senator Wilson asked publicly - through the pages of the Sunday Times of London - for a private, face-to-face meeting with the Provisional IRA. His motive, he says, was not politics or self-aggrandizement. He wanted to confront the IRA "as a human being to human beings," and to ask them to consider achieving their objective of a united Ireland by nonviolent means.

Senator Wilson met two IRA members, a man and a woman, early last month at a secret destination. Throughout the meeting he held a book about his daughter to give him moral strength, but the talks were fruitless. A saddened Wilson told reporters the next day that "Their [the IRA's] position is entrenched. I did not feel that I had achieved anything, and it may have been naive of me to believe that I would."

He was criticized by some politicians who thought he had given credibility to the IRA by talking to them, but other powerful voices rallied to his defense. John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which backs Irish unity by peaceful means, said, "He showed himself to be a man of deep, deep Christian charity and tolerance." The Very Rev. Dr. Jack Weir, who had met the IRA face to face in 1974, said, "I wish there were a thousand Gordon Wilsons, even 10,000."

Though drained physically and emotionally by his encounter, Wilson regained strength quickly, and recently returned from a speaking tour in the United States. His friends say that he has the ability to shake off criticism and the courage to do what he believes is right, including putting moral pressure on the IRA.

His role as an Irish senator is less a legislative or political job than it is a bully pulpit. He receives thousands of letters from all over the world, including a number from IRA members now in prison. Even Queen Elizabeth II singled him out for a special mention in her Christmas message several years ago. "I represent no one," Wilson says, "I speak as Marie Wilson's dad."

Austin Currie, an elected member of the Irish Parliament who represents a Dublin constituency, says, "Senator Wilson made a quite extraordinary impact in Ireland, North and South, when he made his first statement in 1987. People remembered him, even though he chose to adopt a low profile. He comes across to everyone as a very sincere man who is not tied to any party or any political viewpoint."

The manner of Marie Wilson's death in 1987 is still vividly remembered. Gordon and Marie, a student nurse, went to the Cenotaph in their home town of Enniskillen, just north of the Irish border, to share in the annual November commemoration of the dead of two world wars. It was a scene being repeated all over the United Kingdom on that solemn day of remembrance. Suddenly, an IRA bomb meant for the security forces ripped through the crowd of civilians waiting by the Cenotaph. Ten people died, and many oth ers were badly injured.

"The wall collapsed," Wilson recounted on TV, "rubble all around us and under us. I shouted to Marie, `Are you all right?' and she said `Yes'.... She found my hand and said, `Is that your hand, Dad?'.... We were under six feet of rubble.... Three or four times I asked her ... she always said `Yes, I'm all right'.... 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."

Some two hours later, Marie died at the local hospital. Her father recovered slowly from a shoulder injury. He and his wife, Joan, and their two grown children, Peter and Julie-Anne, avoided publicity.

Why did he decide to accept the Prime Minister's appointment?

"It was time for a change," he confided to a friend. "This has given me a new lease on life. My intention is to speak primarily for myself, using the kind of words that I normally do, and be my own man."

"The bottom line is love," he says. "There's nothing more I can say."

* `Marie: A Story From Enniskillen,' by Gordon Wilson, was written with Alf McCreary.

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