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Would-Be Peacemaker Has Many Silent Enemies in Hometown With PM-Northern Ireland

March 26, 1993

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Many people call Gordon Wilson brave for demanding face-to-face talks with the Irish Republican Army, which killed his daughter five years ago.

But the retired Protestant businessman’s most courageous step may have been to defy his own neighbors - people who believe that IRA bombers deserve an eye for an eye, not the forgiveness he offered them.

″I know my decision to speak with the IRA will anger many people who misunderstand me,″ Wilson said in an interview with The Associated Press.

″But as I have said since the day they (the IRA) took away my daughter, I must follow God’s law, not man’s. He teaches us that we must forgive those who trespass against us.″

On Thursday, the IRA accepted the invitation for talks that Wilson made after an IRA bomb killed a 3-year-old boy in England last week. When they meet, Wilson said he hoped to persuade IRA leaders to end their 23-year war against British rule of Northern Ireland.

Many Protestants have never forgiven Wilson, 65, for taking the media spotlight after the IRA bombed a war memorial service in November 1987, killing 11 people and wounding 60. His 20-year-old daughter, Marie, died while holding his hand under the rubble of a collapsed wall.

As a devout Methodist, he felt it right to forgive the IRA, rooted in Northern Ireland’s Roman Catholic minority. ″I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge,″ he said at the time, in an interview that gained world attention.

Though Wilson may be admired in Dublin and London, in the rolling lakeland of County Fermanagh many people think he’s out of line.

″A lot of people here are fed up with Gordon Wilson,″ said Bert Johnston, 56, a furniture upholsterer and member of the Protestant-based Democratic Unionist Party, which staunchly opposes talking with the IRA.

″There is nothing to be gained from talking to the men that butchered his daughter,″ Johnston said. ″Wilson is just throwing the IRA a lifeline.″

The Rev. Ivan Carson, a Methodist minister in Enniskillen, said criticism was inevitable.

″Some people also fear for Gordon, that by talking to the IRA he is leaving himself vulnerable,″ Carson said. ″In this country people can shoot you and dress it up in political language.″

Like most locals, the minister felt Wilson would not make headway with the IRA.

″Gordon is trying to achieve a conversion - a fundamental change - in their philosophy of killing,″ Carson said. ″If anyone can do that he can, because he has the faith. But I would not be too optimistic.″

Pauline Leary, a reporter at the weekly Fermanagh Herald, read mostly by Enniskillen’s Catholics, said she could understand Protestant suspicions.

″The Protestant community has suffered terribly at the hands of the IRA, so it is understandable that they would find it too hard to forgive,″ she said.

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