The moving story of the conversation that Gordon Wilson had with daughter as they both lay under the rubble after the horrific 1987 Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, and the way that he reacted to his terrible loss had a huge impact on Northern Ireland. It was key moment in the long road to peace that followed.
Gordon Wilson founded the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust, a project that aimed to foster understanding and respect across the community divide, aiming at the young people who would eventually lead, guide and inspire the methods, modes and development of true reconciliation. His words, his vision and his belief that change was possible was his real legacy to the young people of Northern Ireland. A full generation passed through, were trained and given voices by the young people who led the scheme into first decade of the new century. Their work will continue, despite the setbacks and the new mechanisms, the Spirit of Enniskillen will live forever, as a beacon of hope to those who pray for a new path to guide a child, a family or a nation out of darkest conflict. Of course, one of the strengths 21st Century scheme, was that it allowed young people to fuel the dynamism, lead the dialogue and to stretch beyond the initial direction imagined. Empowerment. Energy. Engaging in making a meaningful difference.
I am a veteran of the scheme. I still remember getting my, ‘Dear Denvir letter,’ acknowledging that I had successfully navigated my way through the interview. It must have been my fabulous answer to the question, ‘Do you speak a foreign language?’ My answer, ‘Well I can ask for a ham sandwich in French.’ They sent me to Germany. My English explanation of my French must have been as bad as my actual French. I may have put on an ‘Allo Allo,’ accent.
Most of what I remember of our 1991 trip to Germany was Disco orientated. Let me explain. By the early 1990’s in Northern Ireland, time had already moved on, the music scene had moved on again, but sadly, the Troubles remained. In the early 90’s, during my university years, Northern Ireland would witness more horrendous terrorist related atrocities. In Germany, our group left the Troubles at home. That was a clear recipe for dance. I don’t say this flippantly. One of the key aims of the original scheme was to take a cross-community group of young participants away to a different context and give them an opportunity to engage in conversation about controversial issues in a ‘safe space.’ Again, in the early 1990’s, as it was in the late 1970’s, young people were already mixing and dancing together in multiple clubs, letting their feet engage with the Indie, Grunge and emerging Rave scenes. I was in my post-Metallica, meaningful Cure phase, before I settled on Country. The Spirit of Enniskillen Bursary allowed young people to come together in this ‘shared space,’ before allowing participants to engage on those issues that divided. It was a truly groundbreaking scheme.
I am probably one of the few from the 1991 cohort who kept their evaluation report on the experience. What did I say? I said that the best characteristic of the scheme was that it, ‘supplied a safe environment in which to discuss controversial issues with the other side. Certain discussions that our group had in Germany would have opened a few eyes. By promoting this sort of discussion, the scheme is perhaps helping to lay the foundation for greater peace in the future, in which the opposing politicians also find it easier to have talks.’ ‘The scheme allowed a certain trust to develop between members in the group, a trust that allowed discussions to become more open and honest.’
I went on to give my first thoughts on German unification. ‘In talking to the East Germans, certain things took me by surprise. Number one was how the East Germans praised the Communist system for it’s social policy, for example, having more Kindergartens. To me, this was unthinkable, as I didn’t think that Communism had any good aspects, however, I think that it is unlikely that the people in East Germany would sacrifice their new found freedom for more Kindergartens.’ This insight made me laugh.
Our group all agreed that contraception and abortion were not issues that should be determined by religious leaders. Very radical in 1991. We all agreed that Ian Paisley’s politics should be a spent force. We were a bit premature on this one. ‘The vote for the monarchy got a 6/2 defeat, with a couple, including myself, not really caring if there was a monarch or not.’ This comment also made me laugh.
I advocated the following in 1991. There should be ‘surgical strikes’ against the cancer of terrorism, to remove it from society, by force. My attitude was changed by the group. ‘I believe now, that such an out and out policy against terrorist groups would perhaps only serve as a means of propaganda for them, increasing their support, rather than defeating them.’ I laughed again.
Then, the crux, a group of seventeen year old students from Northern Ireland agreed in 1991, ‘Through all of these discussions, one idea was raised that could perhaps be used very well in Northern Ireland. Integration. Through full primary and secondary integration, members of both communities could mix from an early age, thus stopping that, ‘mental barrier,’ being created between them. Perhaps this is where the Government should invest it’s money!’ I found it really interesting that we were all agreed on this a full generation ago. We were visionaries, seven years before the end of one part of the story, but equally, pointing towards what will come, at some point.
What happened to our group? Well. We still haven’t located Kerry Crawford. One of our friends has cycled across the US with the Velaroos!!! We are all good friends. As I am me and I am allowed to do this occasionally, but not in public, I am really proud of everyone!!! It is hard to believe that I am now in my 20th year of teaching. I have been involved in inter-community work for 18 years. This door wouldn’t have opened without the Spirit of Enniskillen Project.