A war of words is better than war

On Tuesday next, less than three weeks on from the death of journalist Lyra McKee, in Derry, talks will begin formally to resurrect Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration.

The key players will be the leaders of the North’s five main political parties: the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists, and the Alliance Party.

Many politicians in Westminster, Belfast, and Dublin are not optimistic, but history has shown us that, when it comes to momentous change in times of strife, they are not the ultimate decision-makers.

Public revulsion, shame, and horror matter more than the egos of politicians.

If the 30-year bloodshed in Northern Ireland has taught us anything, it is the power of ordinary people, all over Ireland and Britain, to shame their politicians into effecting change when they reflect on the murder of someone they can empathise with.

During the Troubles, the cycle of violence on all sides appeared to be endless.

Shootings, massacres, and random bombings became a part of everyday life from the ’70s to the ’90s, but some stand out: The Dublin and Monaghan bombings by so-called Loyalists in 1974; the Miami Showband killings of 1975, the murder of two British soldiers by an IRA lynch mob in 1988; the Milltown Cemetery massacre the same year; the Shankhill Road bombing, when three generations of one family were wiped out, after an IRA bomb exploded in a fish-and-chip shop.

One of the worst atrocities was the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing of November, 1987, in which 11 people were killed. One of them was Marie Wilson, a 20-year-old nurse, who died clutching the hand of her father, Gordon.

His immediate response to her murder — “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge” — was reported worldwide. In a BBC interview within hours of the bombing, he spoke of the IRA bombers: “I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”

As historian Jonathan Bardon recalled, “No words in more than 25 years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.”

Mr Wilson went from being an ordinary draper, known only in Enniskillen, to being a member of the Seanad and an extraordinary peace campaigner, known the world over.

Even the Warrington bombing of 1993 did not stop his peace campaign. When he died, in 1995, the New York Times devoted an obituary to him, and his words still resonated in the wake of the IRA’s last murderous effort, in Omagh, in 1998.

As the DUP and Sinn Féin, and other parties in Northern Ireland, prepare to meet, they could do worse than draw inspiration from the words of Gordon Wilson.

They might also take a moment to reflect on the lives — and untimely deaths — of two young women, Marie Wilson in 1987, and Lyra McKee in 2019, and honour their memory by ensuring that the current political void is filled.

It is also essential that constituents tell their politicians not to stop talking until an agreement has been reached.

The talks may be fractious and ill-tempered, but talks there must be. Better a war of words than the real thing.

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