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Responses from across the world for shocked community

Published: 25 Oct 2012 15:30

ENNISKILLEN was going from strength to strength during the eighties; it was thriving, it was moving forward and locals were proud of their town. It was quite something to behold; as was the resilience and energy of the people who were all so eager for their community to develop.

Gerry Burns.

"There was, I think, one could say, a broad acceptance that we were making some headway in the midsts of difficult days. The eighties were difficult times but the great thing about people here was that they were able to focus on their identity as Fermanagh people," recalls Gerry Burns, the then chief executive of Fermanagh District Council.

The area itself had been making a lot of progress during the early eighties under the direction of Mr Burns with facilities such as the Ardowen Theatre and the Marble Arch Caves opening, the renovation of the Townhall, the creation of Fermanagh Enterprise and a crafts centre and a whole series of developments throughout the county.

"Things were going really well," explained Mr Burns, "I can recall the council chairman at the time, Dick Thornton, saying to me: 'Gerry, if there is money to be brought into the county, bring it in.'

Then, suddenly and shockingly, in 1987 the town and its people were thrust into the world spotlight for all the wrong reasons following the Remembrance Sunday Bomb.

"Out of the blue it happened. The bomb. It was in my view, a malevolent and cruel deed against a peaceful community; it was so opposed to all that I and many others had been involved in. That's why I was so upset, so hurt, whenever the community was plunged into this terrible infliction," says Gerry Burns, reflecting on the atrocity.

On the morning of November 8, Mr Burns' wife had been admitted to the Erne Hospital with a heart complaint. As Council Clerk he was due at the Cenotaph for the Remembrance Service.

"I was running a little late. Normally I would have parked in the car park beside the old Reading Rooms. This time I parked at the back of the Impartial Reporter office. As I was coming up I waved at Gordon [Wilson] and his daughter Marie. [Ulster Unionist Councillor] Sammy Foster said to me, 'You're looking fit', and just at that, the bomb went off."

The device exploded behind Mr Burns who can recall "the remarkable silence that occurred immediately after the bomb" followed by the cries of the injured.

"What a terrible thing; it is only by the grace of God that I am here because a huge boulder of bricks and cement landed right bang down beside me. If I had moved a couple of inches I would have been killed. I only suffered superficial injuries although subsequently I suffered post traumatic stress syndrome for some time after that."

His concern at the time was wondering what he should do to help.

"I thought, what do I do? I was dazed. I found it very difficult, looking back it was an appalling time, it was absolutely dreadful. I was highly emotional. I remember at the time my concern was to try and ensure that the people who did suffer severe pain were helped in some way. I never thought of what I should be doing for myself. There were 134 people who had to be assisted, there were 11 deaths plus Ronnie Hill later on," he said.

The day after the bomb, Mr Burns decided to start an appeal fund.

"But the appeal fund was not to collect money. It was to give people an opportunity to identity with us. I was inundated with calls from people, delegations from local authorities, government people, I had correspondence from all over the world," he explained.

The appeal fund raised over £660,000 which would be worth several million pounds today.

"In order to distribute the money we had a committee with a pharmacist, a surgeon and a psychiatrist. That appeal fund was not by way of compensation; it was only to recognise in what way we could help people who had suffered pain."

He then formed a committee of clergymen with David Cupples, Presbyterian, Tom McGowan, Methodist, Dean John McCarthy, Church of Ireland, Monsignor Sean Cahill, St. Michaels and the Ulster Unionist Raymond Ferguson and a senior member of the SDLP, Jim Lunny acting as trustees of the appeal fund. Bertie McCaffrey, a former chief superintendent in the police, was appointed treasurer and donations were received from Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, India, Canada, United States, South America and a number of other countries.

The council asked people to sign a book of condolences, but many dignitaries brought books of condolences with them because they had opened them in other parts of Ireland, north and south, and in various cities across the UK, such as Birmingham and Manchester.

"Much of the correspondence I received was from schools in the south, around Dublin and the Midlands of Ireland. I think at that time there was a great revulsion from people in the south, in fact I am certain of that, especially the way in which they travelled here and talked to me about it. I remember being particularly moved from the messages from the schoolchildren. I found this emotionally strong; I remember feeling very conscious of the feelings that they were attempting to express," he said.

The mayors of Limerick, Dublin, Galway and Cork, and the chairmen of most county councils across Ireland appeared in the days that followed to pay their respects. Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles and Princess Diana also visited Enniskillen.

Given the widespread disgust at the bomb, Mr Burns found himself trying to "pull things together".

"It was a time when people felt very sore and some were actually going to seek to find retribution. It required a great deal of tolerance and acceptance. I was faced with a difficulty; we had Sinn Fein in the council and on the other hand we had people who wanted to make contact with the council but not necessarily with Sinn Fein. It was such a sensitive time and all these things had to be done in quiet diplomacy."

However, Mr Burns said the attitude of people from both sides of the community here was impressive because they were "able to overcome their natural resentment".

"We had to continue on as normal as possible and not let this infliction in any way detract away from trying to make a better place to live here in Enniskillen. It could have led to a civil war but it didn't and I am proud in the way this community did find an acceptance and respect within it."

Mr Burns credits the late Gordon Wilson as a man who "produced the necessary leadership to turn people away from revenge or retribution".

"He was quite remarkable. We decided on a permanent memorial - the doves [at the cenotaph] and the living memorial - the Spirit of Enniskillen [a group set up to empower young people]. I was the chair of that and currently vice-president, and that continues; what it is is an attempt to encourage our young adults to be able to tolerate and respect diversity and be leaders in that field. We now have a Gordon Wilson centre in Belfast, too," he said.

25 years on, it is this vision that Mr Burns hopes will continue long into the future.

"I think about that day frequently, I would never forget it. Now when I look around it is good to see so many of our youngsters being able to, and hopefully will continue to, live lives that are tolerate of all of the differences in our society."

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