Seanad Éireann - Volume 144 - 27 June, 1995

Death of Senator Gordon Wilson. - Expression of Sympathy.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: My first duty today is a sad one. I must announce to the House the death of our esteemed colleague, Senator Gordon Wilson. His sudden and untimely death, of which we have just become aware, has shocked and saddened everybody. I understand there will be formal tributes to the late Senator Wilson after a brief interval.

Mr. Manning: On foot of the tragic and heartbreaking news which the Leas-Chathaoirleach has just announced to the House, I propose we stand for one minute's silence and then adjourn until 3.15 p.m. when formal tributes will be paid to our late colleague.

Members rose in their places.

Sitting suspended at 2.35 p.m. and resumed at 3.15 p.m.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: All Senators are now aware of the sudden and untimely death of our colleague, Senator Gordon Wilson. He was nominated as a Member of Seanad Éireann on 10 February 1993 by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Reynolds. Although a [286] Member for a comparatively short time, he made an indelible mark on Irish politics. His unassuming nature, tolerance, cheerful disposition, courtesy, faith and ability to forgive were an example to us all.

Senator Wilson was committed to the achievement of peace in Northern Ireland. There was no more poignant example of the futility of the unnecessary loss of life and of the forgiveness which is necessary if peace is to be achieved and maintained. He missed no opportunity to contribute to debates on Northern Ireland and his speeches were carefully thought out and prepared — an indication of his complete awareness of the sensitivity necessary to encompass and bridge the different beliefs and opinions. He was so aware that the road to peace was a long and slow process. However, what rang through most was his conviction and belief that peace could and would be achieved. Senator Wilson's unassuming and careful disposition and his unfailing courtesy and sincerity won him friends from all parties in both Houses of the Oireachtas.

It is only six months ago that we joined with shock and disbelief to offer our sincere sympathy to Senator Wilson when he experienced a second family bereavement. Again, his courage and faith and his acceptance and strength of character were evident as he came to terms with this further loss. On your behalf and on mine, I shall express to Mrs. Wilson, his family, Julie Anne, Ingrid, Eloise and Judith, our sincere and heartfelt sympathy.

Mr. Manning: Gordon Wilson was a man of nobility. Everything about him was big, generous, Christian and loving. He taught us all how to forgive, how to live together and how to rebuild. He personified reconciliation and he was a harbinger of peace. Gordon Wilson came to prominence at the bleakest moment in the Northern tragedy and at the bleakest moment in his own personal life. He rose above that tragedy through sheer force of goodness, he [287] inspired the world and he gave hope where there had been none. This country and the people, North and South, will always be in his debt.

When Gordon Wilson spoke in this House and elsewhere people listened. They listened because of his ability to be simple, to express profound thoughts and deep feelings in the simplest of language. He always got to the heart of the matter. He was the most charitable of men and yet he was also the most realistic. He had no illusions about his fellow men but he had great heart, great faith and above all great charity.

Gordon was a colleague to all of us and a friend to one and all. He had a warmth and a great sense of humour. He never took himself too seriously, although he knew the work he was doing was serious. He never lost the run of himself or let the media attention go to his head. He never lost his own essential humility and he never took his eye off the essential goal of peace. In his quest for peace, no journey was too long, no group too small or no event too insignificant if he thought his presence could help towards peace and reconciliation. He literally spent himself campaigning and talking to those who would listen, to those who might be moved.

Gordon Wilson was a profoundly honest man. There was nothing soft or soppy about him. If hard things had to be said he said them, although usually with a charm which took away the sting from his real meaning. It is given to few men to leave a lasting mark on the times in which they live. Gordon Wilson did not seek, or never sought such a role, but fill it he did. He spoke for the ordinary decent people who wanted a way out of lives dominated by hatred, bombing and murder and for those people he spoke eloquently, passionately and honestly. His presence did make a difference. History will be kind to Gordon Wilson.

Gordon Wilson was, above all, a family man and today all our thoughts in this House are with his family — his wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and [288] grandchildren. Our hearts go out to them in their suffering. They have suffered too much for any one family.

We will all miss Gordon Wilson in this House. It was a great privilege for all of us to have known and worked with him and to have seen at first hand the difference that goodness can make. May he rest in peace.

Mr. Wright: The first thing that struck me on meeting Gordon Wilson was that even his personal family tragedies left him with no bitterness. He had an overwhelming commitment to peace, reconciliation and forgiveness and he made his own contribution to the peace process by his personal courage and example.

Gordon Wilson regarded his appointment to the Seanad by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Reynolds, as an honour, a platform from which he could advance peace. The logic of his arguments in support of peace was evidenced in his contributions in Seanad debates and at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. By his attendance and dedication he showed his commitment to this House. His availability to the wider audience outside of the Seanad in the Republic of Ireland and the UK was yet another testament to his commitment to peace and reconciliation. I am sure there is no family in Ireland or the UK who will not be saddened by his tragic death today.

On a personal note, it was an honour for me to have known Gordon Wilson and I am sure there is no one in this House who was not touched by his sincerity and humility. By his example he was one of the great Irishmen of this generation. I extend the sympathy of the Fianna Fáil Seanad group to his wife Joan, daughter Julie Anne and his extended family. May he rest in peace.

Mr. O'Toole: It is always sad to lose a colleague, especially somebody whom we hold in such high regard. We first heard of Gordon Wilson after the Enniskillen massacre. From the depths of that destruction, Gordon imbued people [289] with a sense of optimism wherever he spoke. He took upon himself the responsibility of spreading the message and gospel of peace and in doing that, he travelled literally throughout the globe.

Dick Goughan, the Scottish folk singer, penned a line: “Peace won't come by words alone”. Gordon Wilson was the living embodiment of that sentiment. He never stopped working for peace. He was not content merely to speak about it. He went here, there and everywhere, day in and day out, week after week with his simple but powerful message. He was available to all, from the most simple and remote primary school to the most complex and important international conference. He was always there. He looked at the diary, saw a space and filled in the time. He wore himself out seeking a better life for all; there is no question about that. For me as for many other people, his epitaph will be the simple sentence “He lived, he worked and he died for peace”.

I was with him last week at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. He responded to Glen Barr and the discussion as to what we all were. He used the words “I am proud to be an Ulsterman, an Irishman and British.” There never was a conflict for Gordon Wilson. His inclusive nature, bringing together the strands of difference, was his great gift. Where others saw obstacles or barriers, he only saw links and relationships.

In many ways he was the epitome of the true sense of Wolfe Tone's republicanism in his vision of an island with space for Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, all living in peace with each other. His memory and what he sought must be a source of continuing inspiration for all of us. Never were we more in need of such inspiration and a constant focus on peace. We must consider ways to commemorate his memory; the Government could establish an annual Gordon Wilson Peace Prize to focus our attention on his contribution and the need for its continuance.

[290] I never met Mrs. Wilson but she must be, and now needs to be, a woman of towering strength. No words of ours can soften this blow. She is not a public figure and we can only hope that our public sympathy can be complementary to her private grief and that of her family to whom we extend our sympathy.

For Gordon ethnicity was a treasure. The last request he made of me was to establish a meeting between Catholic and Protestant primary school teachers in the North to examine how we might move the peace process forward to include education. We had tentatively arranged 28 August as the date on which to start that process through discussions with the executives of both bodies.

Gordon Wilson was proud to be a Member of the Seanad and that sense of pride brought with it an honour which reverberated through the House. It was good for us that he was here and he felt that response in making his contribution.

On a personal note, his last commitment to me was to give me his word of honour that he would support my motion the last time I addressed the House. I warned him that Senator Manning and Senator Cosgrave would put a lot of pressure on him, and he replied: “When John Bruton was made Taoiseach I went to him and said I was prepared to resign in order to allow him to make his own nomination”. In tribute to both men, the Taoiseach said Senator Wilson should continue as an Independent Member of the House and told him that he could vote in his own way. He told me that he would assert his independence in supporting my motion. He was an honest man and a true friend.

Mr. Dardis: This is a devastating day for this House and beyond. I only heard the news of Senator Wilson's death at 2.30 p.m. today when I was in Kildare. I do not have anything formal prepared but that does not detract from the genuineness of what I have to say. A void will be felt not only here but also outside the Houses of the Oireachtas and [291] beyond our shores because this was an exceptional person. He enriched our debates as well as enriching Irish life. It has been a privilege to know him.

It is a curious irony that such great good came out of such great pain. Were it not for the tragic events at the war memorial in Enniskillen, Gordon Wilson would not have been a public figure nor would he have touched so many people. Perhaps we should reflect on that providence.

He was very committed to the debates in this House on Northern Ireland during which he frequently asked for compassion and understanding that defied the wounds sustained as a result of the barbarity of Enniskillen. The position he adopted bore testimony to Christian charity and forgiveness. He will be a great loss to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation to which he brought the voice of sanity, reason and charity.

Above all, he valued his independence. A fortnight last Saturday he came to the small rural community of which I am a member. Once again, as I have heard him do so many times, he said: “I am here as Marie Wilson's father. I do not speak for anybody; I just speak for Gordon Wilson.” He treasured that independence which gave him an immense authority. He was a man of absolute toleration and great forgiveness.

One thing to which he regularly alluded during debates in this House on Northern Ireland was love. Many times he said that so much could be achieved if people could just love one another. That was his philosophy and that was what he stood by. He described himself as a disciple of Wesley, and Wesley must be proud of him. To come from that great Methodist tradition and to articulate those values so well is remarkable.

Reference has been made to his schedule. It was true that he was always available to everybody from the highest to the lowest in the land, to come and speak to them, meet them and, as he did [292] in this case, come to a small community to bring that message of love and understanding. He touched so many people here and beyond our shores. He bridged communities and has left his mark. His death is a tragedy, but particularly now when his wife has just retired. He was looking forward so much to spending more time with her, and that has been denied her. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to her and the other members of her family. His testimony must be that we carry on the work he did so well. We will not be able to do it as well as he did, but we must attempt in our own small way to do it.

I would like to say one final thing; it is not something I say lightly and it is not something I have ever said about anybody. I have been privileged to know a saint, and I say that advisedly.

Ms O'Sullivan: I have no doubt that in the history of Ireland in this century Gordon Wilson's life will stand out as a light, a beacon and a monument to peace. He was a good man. I do not think there was anything bad in Gordon Wilson. We all knew him very well in this House. It was typical of Gordon that he spoke directly from his own humanity and feeling and he showed his emotion. We are showing our emotion here today, and that is right.

Each and every one of us knew him as a friend. He did not just know a few of us; he knew everyone. It is hard to believe that we will not meet him striding through the corridor with his kind words and humour. He had a very sad and tragic life but, above all, he was a humorous man. Even at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, he always began a serious contribution by saying something humorous and responded in a light and warm way to the people around him.

His commitment to peace was absolute and total. His entire life, certainly since the death of his daughter, was a total commitment to peace. As other Senators have said, he was available both inside and outside of this country to do whatever he could. What he was [293] doing, he did as an individual and from the heart.

Senator Dardis referred to Gordon's Methodism; his life was very much a symbol of that faith. He epitomised that simple, honest humanity and wanting to do your best as an individual for the people around you. He was not afraid to say what would get him into trouble. He said what he believed, both in this House when he spoke about Northern Ireland and in the Forum. If it was not the traditional view of his Unionist friends or his Unionist tradition, that did not bother him. He said it if he believed it. In that way he contributed very much to understanding and to a bringing together of communities. He was proud to be an Ulsterman, to be British and to be Irish. He brought all of those characteristics together to cement people and communities in a way that was stronger than anybody else in this country.

It is very hard to know what to say on behalf of the Seanad to his wife, his daughter and the rest of his family. I do not think anything we say can bring them any comfort but I hope in time they will realise that we, too, have loved him and understand their grief. I join with other Senators in conveying our sympathy to the family.

Mr. Sherlock: When I heard today that Senator Gordon Wilson had suffered a heart attack I hoped against hope that he would recover and, like everybody else, I was stunned to learn that he had died. Over time I got to know the man whose courage and resilience were such an inspiration to us all. His response to the murder of his daughter Marie and the manner in which he spoke of her created a climate of public opinion which I believe led eventually to the ceasefire.

His contributions to the Seanad were worth listening to because they were balanced and informed and his message at all times was that of peace and reconciliation. He travelled the length and breadth of the country and abroad delivering that message. Today we must [294] think of his widow who has already lost a daughter and son and has now lost her husband, Gordon. I join in extending to her my condolences and profound sympathy as well as the condolences of my party, the Democratic Left.

Mr. Cosgrave: Like others I was saddened to learn today of the untimely and sudden death of our colleague, Senator Gordon Wilson. During the last two and a half years he earned the respect and friendship of all sides of this House. In his contributions, particularly on Northern Ireland, he had a simplicity and a brevity which could be an inspiration to us all. He was always very concerned about the peace process and ongoing developments in Northern Ireland. His appointment was an inspiration and his memory will live on long after many of us are gone. As Government Whip I got to know him even better in recent months; given the numerical strength of the Opposition every vote counted. At times I wished that he was taking our Whip because he was very reliable. The Seanad will be poorer for his passing. To his wife, Joan, and to his family, I extend my sympathy.

Mr. Mullooly: I wish to be associated with all the tributes which have been paid to the late Senator Gordon Wilson. I join in the expression of sympathy to his widow, daughter, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Over the last two and a half years, like all Members of the House, I came to know and greatly admire Senator Wilson. As Whip of my party I had occasion to speak with him frequently, particularly during the period that my party was in Government. I never ceased to be amazed at his selflessness, his courage, his great fund of forgiveness and his boundless energy. He was an example and an inspiration for all of us. I cannot recall having ever felt such a sense of shock and sadness as I did today when I heard the tragic news of Senator Wilson's sudden death. He was a man of deep faith. It has been said that he suffered great personal tragedies but these tragedies strengthened [295] rather than weakened his faith. This House has lost a distinguished Member and we, his colleagues, have lost a true and trusted friend. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam.

Mr. Magner: It is not long ago since Members of the House journeyed to Enniskillen to bury Senator Wilson's son, Peter. It is hard to understand the ways of God. This is one of the crucial times when we needed Gordon Wilson to contribute to the peace process. What struck me about going to that funeral was that he introduced me to Mr. Harry West, who was absolutely mesmerised by the respect, affection and the numbers of people who came from the South, as he called it, to be at the burial of Gordon Wilson's son, Peter. By that act alone, he was about the business of cementing relationships between North and South, Protestant and Catholic. It was perfectly obvious in the church hall where we had tea and biscuits that they were quite taken by the fact that we all came from places as far away as Cork, Dublin etc, to pay tribute to Peter Wilson and to honour the family by our presence there. Both of us discussed how we were appointed because both of us were Taoiseach's nominees. He told me about the telephone call from Albert Reynolds which, quite frankly, he could not believe. When eventually he was satisfied that this was a genuine offer from a genuine Taoiseach he had to go away and talk to his family about it. He then said something which I really had not considered. He said that there was a large element of danger in acceptance because it was by no means unanimous in Northern Ireland or in Enniskillen that somebody should accept a post in a House of the Oireachtas. In that respect he proved early on that he was brave and his personal bravery struck me.

I share another claim to fame with him. He said to me one day: “Are you in charge of the Joint Services Committee?” When I said I was he said: “I am tired of walking across the road for a cup of coffee. I am not getting any [296] younger. Would you not get a machine of some description?” Now there is a machine in Kildare House that is, if you like, a little reminder and it was Gordon Wilson who insisted that I put it there so he would not have to travel across the road for his cup of coffee.

He will be sadly missed. It is unusual — and I do not mean to denigrate anybody I have met — to work with such a thoroughly Christian person without any guile or agenda. He was just decent, honest and all forgiveness.

Mr. O'Brien: I pay tribute to Senator Gordon Wilson. I knew him well; he will be sadly missed. He was a man of the utmost integrity and compassion. He was a fine example to the Members of this House and to the communities of North and South. He has left a valuable lesson to us all. He will not be forgotten. His example speaks for itself. He was a man of great courage who came through a great deal of pain and suffering. I know he is now enjoying his eternal reward. I send my deepest sympathy to his wife and family.

Mr. Doyle: This House paid tribute in November 1987 to those who had died in the Enniskillen massacre. Members of the House who were present for that occasion will recall that it was a moving tribute. Little did I know that one of the main figures of that tragedy, Senator Gordon Wilson, would become a Member of this House and that I would get to know him personally.

He was a man of great faith and charity. He also possessed a wonderful gift of love. He was able to stretch out his hand and forgive those who had hurt him most. He was a Christian man. I am sure he will smile now when I try to quote a passage from scripture, the Book of Wisdom, which I believe is a fitting tribute to his memory:

The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the unwise they are seen to have died but they are at peace. Afflicted in many [297] things, in many they were rewarded because God has tested them and found them worthy of himself.

This is a fitting tribute to the late Senator Gordon Wilson. May God have mercy on his soul.

Mr. Lanigan: I join with other Members in conveying my sympathy to the family of Gordon Wilson. A void has been created in this House by Gordon's sudden death.

A void has also been created throughout the land because, no matter where one went North or South, the name of Gordon Wilson was mentioned every time we discussed the resolution of the problems we have had on this island for many years. Indeed, no later than Monday last week I had the privilege, as Mayor of Kilkenny, to discuss the peace process with members of Armagh City Council. During those discussions Gordon Wilson's name continually arose in a positive manner.

Had Gordon Wilson not served in this House there would not have been as many politicians from the North travelling South and vice versa. He created an aura about the peace process that will not be forgotten. He never saw obstacles on the road to peace, but resolutions of problems. He made profound statements in simple language.

People have spoken of the amount of travel he undertook on behalf of various organisations. For example, we were discussing the establishment of a Samaritan's office in Kilkenny one evening and as Gordon Wilson was speaking at the meeting over 1,200 people attended. Many of them had experienced traumas, such as death from suicide. The words he spoke that evening meant a lot to many people who were in difficulty or were perhaps getting into difficulties.

He has honoured the House with his membership. It was a privilege to serve with him. I agree with the suggestion that a Gordon Wilson Peace Prize be established, perhaps through the aegis of the Seanad that he served so well.

[298] Ms Gallagher: Unlike others I knew Gordon Wilson since I was a young child shopping with my mother in his shop in Eniskillen. She always said he sold the best of clothes. When he came to the Seanad I introduced myself and we clicked. As a fellow Leitrimite he shared his memories of places like Manorhamilton, Kinlough and Glenfarne with me.

Inevitably, conversation often turned to Northern Ireland. He had a heartfelt anxiety that peace would remain and that people would learn to live together. We often heard him call in gentle tones for a debate in the Seanad on Northern Ireland when he felt it appropriate to discuss developments. At the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, where I spoke with him only last Friday morning over a cup of tea, he again expressed concern that the political troubles in Westminster might affect the peace process.

Gordon Wilson epitomised the belief that the essence of unity is the acceptance of diversity. He accepted all people equally but never feared to put his Christian values and beliefs first. He expressed his opinions in a balanced but honest fashion and, while he endeavoured to put forward the views of moderate Unionists, he was careful to state that his views were personal ones only. Were there more Gordon Wilsons we would have had peace on this island long ago.

Always conscientious, he sometimes asked me to explain the provisions of certain Bills before the House so that he could cast his vote in conscience. Senator Gordon Wilson ambled through the House with ease, a friendly smile for everyone. He was a gentle giant. May he rest in peace.

Mr. O'Kennedy: I begin by quoting from Senator Wilson's first address to the House as set out in the Official Report, 25 March 1993, Vol. 135, column 954:

I welcome this opportunity to speak today from the heart. I speak [299] knowing that God is good, and that God is love. I speak not in my strength but in His.

Those words would sound strange in the mouth of any other man but they illustrate how much, both in his words and actions, he adhered to the prayer we recite at the beginning of each day: “...that every word and work of ours may always begin from Thee, and by Thee be happily ended...”. In every word and work, Gordon Wilson lived up to that commitment. It is obvious that his commitment to “be happily ended” has been achieved in Gordon Wilson's passing as much as in his word and action. He has left us a great example and a record, not just of his words, but of his actions.

I would now like to quote some of his words which I had the opportunity to consider in the Library earlier. In his first contribution to a Seanad debate on 25 March 1993, Senator Wilson said:

We all have the capacity for good as well as for evil but, more importantly, we have the capacity to change.

He believed that to bring about that change people had to listen and communicate. In relation to the IRA, for whom he had no reason to feel a glowing respect, he said:

I have tried to establish contact with the IRA so that I may speak to them. I am happy to say that they have acceded to my request and I look forward to talking to them.

He was a man who, in his actions, lived up to his words. He believed that to talk, listen and communicate was the basis on which we could bring about the eradication of distrust, violence, prejudice and a new understanding. When we quote Gordon Wilson, as I have, it clearly underlines how unfit any of us is to repeat his words. The words of his deep Christian message sound rather strange when we speak them, much less implement them by our actions. If they [300] do sound rather hollow when uttered by someone like me, that is a reflection on our inadequacy but in no way a rejection of the fundamental truth he was trying to assert.

I began by quoting Senator Wilson's contribution to his first debate. I would like to conclude by quoting his last words in this House on 8 June 1995. Typical of the man, his last words quoted another man. He said:

I will finish with something said in Dublin city last night by the Primate of All Ireland, Dr. Robin Eames, who is perhaps the nearest we have to a visionary in Northern Ireland, if not in the whole of Ireland.

We all respect Dr. Eames but we might disagree and say there was another visionary. Senator Wilson continued:

He urged those involved in the peace process to seek new ways of understanding age old problems and he warned that the cost of failure would be too terrible to contemplate.

He finished by saying “I would say amen to that.”. In his final appeal to his fellow Protestant people in Northern Ireland — theirs is a wonderful tradition of Christianity which he exemplified — he said:

These are decent honourable people, pragmatic to a fault. They are down-to-earth and honest. I can but appeal to them, in love, not to feel frightened. Nobody wants to frighten them; nobody will frighten them.

We know that the impact he has had on our deliberations on the Northern Ireland question, since coming to this House, has done something to reassure Northern Irish people that nobody intends to do anything to frighten them. Gordon Wilson has had an impact on all of us. As the Roman poet said “Exegi monumentum aere perennius” which means “I have built a monument far more lasting than bronze”. If any man ever did, Gordon Wilson did by his words and actions.

[301] Mr. Neville: It was with a great sense of sadness and, indeed, shock that I learned at lunchtime of the death of our esteemed colleague, Senator Gordon Wilson. He will be missed by the House and by those who came to know him over the past two years.

He was a great man; that may sound clichéd but it was never more apt than when applied to our late esteemed colleague. Gordon Wilson was a statesman, a humanitarian, a peacemaker, a great family man and, in his time in this House, he was a great politician. He commanded an unqualified respect from all who knew him. This respect was gained from the obvious sincerity of his contributions, the charismatic dignity with which he delivered his speeches to the House and his great desire for peace. I am glad he had the opportunity to rejoice in this peace. His contributions in the Seanad and at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation expressed the strength of feeling he held for the survival and development of the peace process.

Gordon Wilson survived personal tragedy with great dignity and forgiveness. He turned his personal tragedy on the death of his beloved Marie into a beacon of light for peace and forgiveness. His life after her death was devoted to the task of working for peace. It was with disbelief that we learned of the tragic death of his son, Peter, some six months ago. Members of the House who travelled to be with him in Enniskillen at that time again marvelled at the courage and dignity with which he bore that awful tragedy.

Gordon was a great Christian and, like others, it came from his strong belief, from his Methodism. There was no more Christian man that I have had the privilege to meet. I would like to convey my sympathy to his wife and family.

Mr. McGowan: I join with Members of the House in extending our deepest sympathy to the family of Senator Gordon Wilson.

[302] I had many opportunities to discuss the northern problems over the last two years with Gordon Wilson and I found it very hard to differ with him. I believe his real strength lay in the confidence and respect the Protestant community in the North had in him. No other representative from the North had ever had the total confidence of the Protestant community. Senator Wilson was the first, and we have had many eminent people. That, in itself, was of tremendous value to us here and those of us who had close contact with him could actually get a sense of direction from our consultations with him. I valued our many conversations and the useful advice I received. He had a very sound knowledge of the ultimate solution to our problem on the island.

I join with all of Members of the House in extending our deepest sympathy to the Wilson family. We have lost a major contributor to the peace initiative at a crucial time. I hope he is rewarded for his courage and for his contribution to the peace initiative.

Mr. Townsend: It has been a great honour for me to have known Gordon Wilson and, especially, to have sat beside him for two and a half years. In my view, Senator Wilson was not only a gentleman, he was also a very saintly man. He was an extremely hard worker and a man of peace.

There was another side to Gordon: he was a very witty man. We often had little conversations during the Order of Business. On one occasion, during the visit of His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, I asked him if he had met the Prince on his visit. He said he had but that he would prefer any day to meet his wife, Diana.

At the first meeting of the Seanad after the break-up of the Fianna Fáil and Labour Government, he asked me if I knew what the seating arrangements would be. I told him I did not know but that I would continue, if I could, to sit where I had always sat. He replied he would do the same if it was in order and showed himself to be his own man.

[303] No words of mine can pay adequate tribute to Gordon Wilson and I join with all Senators in extending sympathy to his wife and family. We have lost a great friend.

Dr. Henry: I hope Deputy Reynolds reads what we have said today because he will know what a moment of inspiration he had as Taoiseach when he appointed Gordon Wilson to the Seanad. I came to the Seanad the same day as Gordon Wilson and I spoke about a family link I had with him, although I had never met him. My father had worked for his father in Manorhamilton in the 1920s before the family moved to Enniskillen. This showed what a small country this is. I gave Gordon Wilson copies of some papers which my father had with his father's writing and he was most appreciative.

Unlike Senator Gallagher I did not know Gordon Wilson before he came to the Seanad. It is said that some people have greatness thrust upon them. I wonder what sort of man he was before the dreadful tragedy at Enniskillen when the world saw his tremendous compassion, charity and forgiveness. Having gone to his son's funeral in Enniskillen and seen how he and his family faced another tragedy, I think he was always a great man. It was not something which came to him late in life.

His Christian charity has been mentioned by several Senators. It is splendid that Methodist Church representatives had come to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, into which he put so much work, just before his death. He took a great deal of pride in the contribution he made that day.

One of the nicest things about Gordon, which has not been mentioned, was that he was so charitable he thought the best of all of us. He often said to me what splendid people we all were, which is something we do not often say about each other. It was nice to be considered a splendid body of people by such a very fine person.

[304] The contribution he would now want us to make is towards the New Framework for Agreement. He always got cross if one called it the “Framework Document” and reminded us that it was the “Framework for Agreement” document. More effort than ever will now have to be put into that.

We are greatly in Gordon's debt for all he did, but we will never be able to repay the debt to his widow, Joan. She recently recovered from illness and was on holidays having had to take early retirement from her job as a music teacher in a school. She was looking forward to spending some time with Gordon.

At the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation last Friday, Gordon told me they had had little time together. He seemed driven by bringing forward the peace process. Last week he had to go to London and he did not get time to phone Joan; he had to rush from meeting to meeting and he did not get time to phone her. For someone who has had so many losses in her life, and with her recent illness, it is incredible that she has sustained this further loss. It is difficult to understand how such tragedy can be borne. I am sure she will respond with the same faith with which he responded to their tragedies. I offer my sympathy to her, Julie Anne, Ingrid and the children.

Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: Everybody here was shocked by the death of Gordon Wilson and that shock extends beyond this House, throughout Ireland, the British Isles and beyond. Gordon Wilson was an inspiration to us all. He forced us to be more reflective and thoughtful in our approach to the Northern Ireland question and related issues. His generosity to people, to communities and to the peace process was astounding. The genuine approach he adopted in going to meetings throughout Ireland, England and beyond was most impressive. I often wondered how it was possible to do all he did. Unlike most of us here, he had no political agenda. He was straightforward and he [305] had one Christian principle — to bring about peace on this island. He was driven by the motivation to ensure that peace came about on the island and he did everything possible to ensure that that would happen. He was a humble man, a straightforward honourable man, a man of great integrity and a great inspiration to all of us.

He was a family man. It is unbelievable that only six months ago he suffered the loss of his son, Peter. Now his wife, Joan, and their daughter, daughter-in-law and grandchildren are yet again asked to bear another loss. I remember that night I was going down the corridor of Kildare House and Gordon was standing at the door of his office. I walked by and said: “Goodnight, Gordon, how are you?” and he said: “How could I be?” I asked him what was the matter to which he replied: “My son, my son.” I asked him what was wrong with his son and he said: “Peter is dead. He is under a lorry outside Enniskillen.” I could not believe that this man, who was forced in the past to bear such heartbreak, sadness and grief, was again asked to carry another major burden. Yet I had to be impressed — I was the first person to whom he spoke — by the manner, dignity and grace with which he carried the news and the way he subsequently dealt with making arrangements to get home to his wife, Joan. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to his wife because she has lost Marie, Peter and now Gordon. She recently retired, hoping to spend more time with him here in Dublin and travelling with him. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to her and to her daughter, grandchildren and daughter-in-law. He is irreplaceable. His death is a huge loss to this House, to his family and to the entire community, North and South, and throughout the British Isles.

Mr. Mooney: I do not profess to have known Senator Wilson any better than anybody else in this House but I do know a couple of facts about him. He was proud of his Leitrim heritage, although he never revealed the fact that [306] it was from where he came. I know Enniskillen well and the culture out of which he came. I agree with my friend and colleague, Senator Magner, that accepting the nomination of former Taoiseach, Deputy Reynolds, to this House, was perhaps his most courageous act of all.

It is not always fully recognised or acknowledged in the Republic of Ireland — and my friends and colleagues from the Border counties will testify to this — that Gordon Wilson came from a culture where we are seen as a foreign country and they do not want to have much to do with us. That is an unpalatable fact but it is true. Gordon Wilson, in reflecting on the offer of a nomination to the Seanad, would have been fully aware of all these nuances, yet he accepted the offer. In accepting it, he did not acquiesce but decided that he would use it as a platform to further many of the attitudes and beliefs of his upbringing and of Methodism, which is something with which I am familiar. I grew up in a town where we had three churches — Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland and Methodist. The Methodist church was the nearest to me — I lived across the road from it. All that Gordon Wilson did throughout his life — it was highlighted from 1988 onwards and accentuated even further when he became a Member of this House and was given a national and international platform — was to quote the simple message of the Bible: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” That is Senator Wilson's enduring legacy to this House, the country and the world. He believed that love conquers all.

I express my sincere sympathy to Joan and the Wilson family. As a fellow Leitrim man, I am pleased to have been given this opportunity to pay a small tribute to his memory. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Mr. Belton: I express my sympathy to the family of the late Gordon Wilson. He was a true Christian and a great Irishman. I hope he will be an inspiration [307] to all on this island who strive for peace. May he rest in peace.

Miss Ormonde: I also express my sympathy to Senator Wilson's widow and family. I got to know Gordon well over the past few months, particularly during the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. Last week I could not park my car at Dublin Castle and Gordon tried to direct me into a parking space. However, he confused me. When I told him I could do it myself, he said that all Senators were great at doing things on their own. He said it was great that the lady Senators in particular were eager and anxious to co-operate and to show independence. I asked him if he would be responding to the submissions. He said he did not have to think about what to say because he knew what he wanted. He said that since he was now in the Seanad and he was able to talk to the people in the South, it was becoming easy to reconcile North and South and it would not be difficult to respond to the submissions.

I was shocked when Senator Manning told me about this tragedy. Life is short and death is always in its midst. This should be a message to us all in that while we are here we should use Senator Wilson as our guideline to do whatever we can because we do not know what will happen in life.

I extend my sympathy to his wife, Joan, daughter and daughter-in-law.

Mr. Lydon: Senator Wilson's charity is well known. His ability to forgive after the tragic death of his daughter brought him to public notice. Many people have said it is easy to forgive, but it is not. Senator Wilson was a man who [308] had great charity and love of other human beings.

Senator Taylor-Quinn told me about the death of his son, Peter, on the night it happened. I faxed him a message and I spoke to him the following morning on the telephone. When I attended the funeral, along with thousands of others, he gave me a hug and thanked me for my message which was the first he had received. I do not know how he could remember that in the midst of his grief. As Senator Magner said, he stood with courage while thousands of people shook hands with him and his family. He also looked after people by ensuring they got tea, biscuits and cakes, although his heart must have been breaking at the time.

Senator Magner also mentioned his courage, which is not generally known to those people who do not know a lot about the Six Counties. He took a risk and he suffered as a result. He came under a lot of pressure at times, but he was brave and his courage shone through. He also showed tremendous courage when he said he believed Ireland would one day be united. His work for peace, if it ever led to that, would be a fitting testimony to the man. He impressed and touched all of us in some way and I extend my sincere sympathy to his wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and the rest of his family; God knows they have suffered enough.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: When it is proposed to sit again?

Mr. Manning: It is proposed to adjourn now and sit again tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 June 1995.