9 November 2017

Finding the antidote to extremism


Before the war memorial in Enniskillen became an international symbol of inhumanity, it stood unremarked at the centre of my home town. I passed it countless times, never heeding the 650 inscribed names of my county’s fallen in the Great War. Bouges and Balfours, Cassidys and Clarkes, Gaels and Planters – all minced regardless in that terrible, grinding slaughter. The Cenotaph was just a landmark for directions back then.

But on November 8 1987 – 30 years ago yesterday –  a kinetic freight of pure, murderous spite catapulted this sad monument onto the conscience of the world. An IRA bomb detonated in a building adjacent to the memorial where townsfolk had gathered to remember the dead. Dozens were injured, all buried in a sea of bricks and dust.

While 11 people were torn asunder and over 60 marked for life, I was lying in my bed at Durham University. While I was still oblivious to the unfolding horror, my father, an ambulance driver, was on the scene digging his friends from the rubble with his bare hands. His lifelong friend and colleague, Kit Johnston was among the dead, murdered along with his wife.

I had to go back. I felt the need to stand and bear witness to the carnage. It was so overwhelmingly personal. In some respects, I still haven’t really got over it. Two weeks later, I stood with my parents at the rescheduled parade and all I can remember is a sea of yellow Royal British Legion standards as every branch in Britain poured into our broken wee community in an act of solidarity that still brings a lump to my throat.

Something else came out of that godless day. Gordon Wilson’s words of forgiveness for the cowards who robbed him of his daughter, Marie, were at the time inconceivable to many people in the Protestant community in Fermanagh, then being ravaged by despicable sectarian republican murder gangs. He sat in the glare of the TV lights, carrying his own injuries and in an act of extraordinary grace forgave the sadists who bereaved him.

It’s worth recalling his words – a man who watched his 20 year old daughter die pinned to a fence next to him, helpless to do anything but hold her hand. “I don’t feel bitterness. I prayed for them [the perpetrators] last night. Sincerely.”

I still can’t get my head around these sentiments. Thirty years on as a parent living through our new dark age of extremity, I can’t believe I could ever pardon such grievous wounds. Neither does that magnanimity reduce the legitimacy of other responses from the bereaved. Rage is equally justified.

But back then, his words did light a spark in me. A nascent belief that our obligation to the future must contain more than rage and grief. Gordon Wilson, a big man in every sense of the word, nudged me towards a way of making sense that relied on more than a default rage.

As a result, some years later I became involved with “Enniskillen Together” – a charity set up to create spaces for the town’s Protestant and Catholic kids, then largely unknown to each other, to meet. I helped lead a group of these youngsters on a humanitarian expedition to Romania in the early 90s.  The antidote to extremism is now as it was then – it’s much harder to hate people when you truly know them.

Enniskillen is now a thriving tourist destination – the home of two international literary festivals celebrating old boys from my school, Portora Royal – Oscar Wilde and Sam Beckett. It has surely earned its peace.

The presence in Enniskillen of the Irish Taoiseach at the town’s weekend act of Remembrance is a powerful gesture of reconciliation. Thriving integrated schools allow young people to slough off their old labels and grow together. The old sow no longer eats her Farrow with the same relish. But in my mind’s eye I will see Enniskillen stripped bare of its hard won modernity. And I will bear in mind those dead.

Ian Acheson led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary Michael Gove in 2016