Reasons to reflect on our darkest day

Published: 25 Oct 2012 15:30

The 8th of November, 1987. 10.43 a.m.

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It was a split second in time that had widespread ramifications over the 25 years we have gone through since.

That was the exact point in time that an IRA bomb exploded at Enniskillen Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Belmore Street, killing 11 people and injuring 63 more - some so grievously that they are still suffering physically. A 12th person, local Headmaster Ronnie Hill, died after lying in a coma for years.

In the late 1980s, Northern Ireland's Troubles had been raging for almost two decades and throughout that time got steadily worse. Death and destruction were all to commonplace.

Even by those standards, the attack on innocent civilians engaging in a solemn act of remembering their dead marked a new low.

Like a huge rock tossed into still water, the effect of the horror moved out in concentric circles. At the centre the dead and injured, then their friends and families, then the local community, wider society in Ireland north and south, the politicians and paramilitaries, the British and Irish Governments and world opinion.

It was certainly Enniskillen's darkest hour, and one of Northern Ireland's deeply darkest days.

For a whole generation of people under 30 now, it may be hard to fully grasp the context of what life was like in 1987. Ordinary life of work, school, play and family life somehow continued against a backdrop of bloody violence.

Bombs wrecked town centres as well as taking lives. Policemen and soldiers were ambushed and killed as "legitimate targets". Combatants in paramilitary groups were killed. And innocents on both sides were caught up in a "dirty war."

Fermanagh had suffered with many deaths in Border areas in particular. Enniskillen, however, had been relatively unscathed - there had been a number of deaths of police officers and some destruction of property, but compared to the rest of the county and indeed Northern Ireland, the county town had fared better than most and the cordial relationships between the two communities largely survived.

On Remembrance Sunday, 1987, Enniskillen was catapulted into the world spotlight.

The town had raised two British Army regiments, the Inniskilling Fusiliers and Inniskilling Dragoons, hundreds of years ago, and the military links continued in the 20th century.

Names of Protestants and Catholics who served in World Wars were engraved on the town's War Memorial where about 1,000 people gathered each year for a Sunday morning act of remembrance.

The night before, an IRA unit had crept into the Reading Rooms, a creaking building opposite the memorial and planted a bomb.

Seventeen minutes before the planned 11 am act of remembrance, the bomb exploded bringing the walls of the building crashed down on a group of spectators standing on the footpath.

It was a scene of utter devastation.

Throughout that Sunday, the names of the dead began to emerge to a stunned local populace.

Wesley Armstrong, a 62-year-old British Telecom engineer from Chanterhill, and his 55-year-old wife, Bertha.

Ted Armstrong, who was 52 and from Derrychara, was a full-time Reserve policeman who was off duty.

Sammy Gault, a retired RUC Sergeant of Benaughlin Park. He was 49.

William Mullan, then 74, had own a chemist in Darling Street; he died alongside his wife, Nessie Mullan, 73.

A third married couple perished alongside each other. Kit Johnston, a 71-year-old retired ambulance driver, and his 62-year-old wife, Jessie, a retired nurse.

The youngest victim was Marie Wilson, a nurse just 20. She was the daughter of Joan and Gordon Wilson, a local draper who was with his daughter when she died.

Another retired nurse, Georgina Quinton, 72 from Killyvilly.

And local evangelist, Johnny Megaw, who was 68.

All described later as "the salt of the earth", ordinary, respected, decent local folk.

As the shock waves reverberated throughout a week of funerals in the town, stories began to emerge of how the people died, and how others survived though badly injured.

The atmosphere locally was a mixture of highly charged emotions, deep sadness, dark foreboding - and a sense of disbelief.

The world's press and media descended. Visitors came to offer condolence and support, including community leaders north and south as well as Royalty in the Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles and Diana. The words of Gordon Wilson in a television interview, when he said he prayed for the bombers, struck a chord.

The Remembrance ceremony, of course, had not taken place and it was decided to re-arrange it weeks later. This time it was attended by the Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, and her Northern Ireland Secretary, Tom King.

As time move on, however, inevitably the spotlight moved elsewhere and the victims directly affected and the community generally were left to pick up the pieces. Some of them are still doing it.

What was clear, though, was that although "Enniskillen" would now become a byword for an atrocity as well as a geographical location - like many other places in Northern Ireland - something deeply significant happened here.

It was an act too far. The Troubles had sunk to a level abhorrent to many hardened by previous violence.

It is no coincidence, for example, that when Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness ran for the Irish Presidency last year, it was Enniskillen that southern commentators often used to attack his IRA past.

The bombing also had an impact, it would seem, on Republicans and is thought to be one of the factors in bringing those within the movement who favoured a strategy to move into negotiations to the fore.

No one event can ever have been a turning point, but there is no doubting that the awfulness of what happened at Enniskillen 25 years ago played a major role in eventually bringing about the new political dispensation that exists now in Northern Ireland.

While society has moved on, however, what is revealing in the interviews in the following pages of this newspaper with many people who were directly affected is the way lives continue to be blighted.

Some of them are still suffering physically. Some haven't moved on mentally and feel that they haven't had closure or, indeed, justice. A quarter of a century on, at this anniversary it is a sobering thought and their stories should be told. It is a reminder of how difficult it will be to deal with our past.

Other people involved have, of course, moved on. So has the town of Enniskillen and society throughout Northern Ireland which is undoubtedly a better place than it was in 1987.

An anniversary such as this, which will be marked formally in two weeks, is a time for us all to reflect on where we have come from and how we can move forward.

Please God, future generations will never again sink into the abyss which resulted in the evil which visited Enniskillen on that awful day.

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