History

Enniskillen bombing

8 November 1987

On Remembrance Sunday in 1987, thousands made their way to the memorial in the centre of Enniskillen to pay their respects to the war dead. At 10.43am, a bomb exploded killing eleven and wounding 68.


The political ramifications of the bombing were significant. After admitting responsibility, the IRA lost much of its international support.


The political wing of the Republican movement, Sinn Féin, resumed talks with John Hume, leader of mainstream nationalist party the SDLP, that would sow the seeds of the modern 'peace process'.



Photo: The aftermath of the Remembrance Day bomb in Enniskillen (Pacemaker Press Intl)

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More information about: Enniskillen bombing

"'Daddy, I love you very much'. Those were the exact words she spoke to me, and those were the last words I heard her say". Gordon Wilson was speaking shortly after the death of his daughter, Marie, who was killed by the Provisional IRA bomb at the Cenotaph in Enniskillen on Sunday 8 November 1987.

As the explosion ripped the heart out of the town, it killed a further ten innocent bystanders. Five of the victims were women, and there were three married couples among the dead. All of those killed were Protestants, and all but one (a police reservist) were civilians.

Sixty-three others were injured in the blast, including thirteen children. A twelfth victim, Ronnie Hill, died in December 2000 after spending 13 years in a coma as a result of injuries sustained in the bombing.

Why?

Situated close to the border with the Republic of Ireland, Enniskillen was an easy target that offered the terrorists a ready escape route. The timing of the attack was also significant, coming in the wake of some major setbacks for the IRA. These included the killing of eight IRA men by the SAS during an attack on a police station in Loughgall and the seizing of a huge arms shipment from Libya.

Condemnation

The bombing was widely condemned. The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, said that "there should be no hiding place in any country for these people" and described the bombing as "a desecration", "utterly barbaric" and "a blot on mankind". The Irish Taioseach, Charles Haughey, stated: "The culprits must be utterly repudiated and brought to justice."

International condemnation included official statements from Russia and, significantly, Libya. Under the rule of Colonel Gaddafi, Libya had provided the IRA with support and a steady supply of weapons, including the plastic explosive used in the bombing of Enniskillen. A Libyan Press Association statement said: "Libya is aware of the difference between legitimate revolutionary action and terrorism aimed at civilians and innocent people. This action does not belong to the legitimate revolutionary operation."

The scale of this condemnation prompted the IRA to release a statement the following day expressing their "deep regret" at the results of the blast. At the same time, they claimed the bomb may have been detonated by the army scanning high frequencies in a security operation prior to the Remembrance Day parade. This claim was later admitted to be false.

It also transpired that the IRA had targeted the village of Tullyhommon, 20 miles from Enniskillen, on that Remembrance Sunday. The bomb at Tullyhommon was four times the size of the Enniskillen device. Had it exploded, members of the Boys' and Girls' Brigades would have been caught up in the carnage.

Retaliation and reconciliation

Loyalist paramilitaries were intent on retaliation - but were largely dissuaded by the words of Gordon Wilson in an interview broadcast the following day. "I have lost my daughter, and we shall miss her", he said, "but I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie, she loved her profession, she was a pet. She's dead, she's in heaven, and we'll meet again."

Some of the victims did not share Gordon Wilson's sentiments about the bombers and were frustrated that the media focused almost solely on him. Yet Mr Wilson's words touched many hearts at home and abroad. They also effected a spirit of reconciliation among the people of Enniskillen when fear and confrontation might just have easily taken hold.

A fortnight after the bombing, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher joined seven thousand others for a second Remembrance Day service at the war memorial in Enniskillen.

Turning point

The IRA lost support worldwide immediately after the Enniskillen bombing. Crucially, the Gadaffi regime in Libya withdrew their support and with it the supply of weapons and ammunition that had been planned to sustain the 'Long War'. The leadership of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the republican movement in Northern Ireland, sought greater engagement with mainstream politics.

In Enniskillen itself, the Catholic community put pressure on the SDLP (the mainstream nationalist party) to stop its policy of supporting Sinn Féin for the posts of chairman and deputy chairman on the Fermanagh District Council. The SDLP were forced instead to support unionist candidates. The move helped to improve community relations, as did the work of the 'Enniskillen Together' group, set up to further the cause of reconciliation in the area.

Perhaps the most significant political consequence of the Enniskillen bombing was the resumption of talks between the SDLP leader John Hume and Gerry Adams. In his role as leader of Sinn Féin, Adams had condemned the bombing and resolved to step up the republican movement's involvement in electoral politics. Although Hume received little support for the move, it paved the way for formal talks between the two parties and the beginnings of the 'peace process' that would eventually lead to the cessation of violence and the Good Friday Agreement.