published Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Queen begins North Ireland trip, to meet ex-IRA chief

SHAWN POGATCHNIK

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland (AP) — Queen Elizabeth II arrived Tuesday in Northern Ireland to celebrate the British territory's hard-won peace in a town that suffered one of the IRA's worst massacres — and inspired its greatest moment of Christian forgiveness.

The monarch's planned meeting Wednesday with former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness comes the day after her visit to Enniskillen, where a no-warning IRA bomb in 1987 killed 11 Protestant civilians and wounded 63 others as they commemorated British dead from the two world wars.

Widespread revulsion at the Enniskillen slaughter spurred McGuinness and other IRA chiefs to begin sounding out peace terms with Britain. That quarter-century journey is to end with a Belfast handshake.

But first the queen is highlighting the impressive resilience of Enniskillen, whose British Protestant and Irish Catholic residents long avoided succumbing to the worst of Northern Ireland's sectarian passions. The pretty lakeside town, renowned for its fishing and its easy-going civility, barely featured in the conflict before that terrible Sunday morning in November 1987, when an IRA bomb beside the town's war memorial buried a crowd of Protestant families in rubble — and one of its survivors moved the world as he described saying goodbye to his dying daughter beside him.

"She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, 'Daddy, I love you very much.' Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say," a bloodied Gordon Wilson, an Enniskillen draper, said hours after the bomb killed his 20-year-old daughter Marie, a nurse. "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 shall meet again."

And of her IRA killers, he said: "I will pray for these men tonight and every night."

Wilson later met IRA commanders face to face to appeal for a cease-fire. Enniskillen's peacemaker died of a heart attack in 1995 aged 67, but others who survived the carnage that day, some maimed for life, are to meet the queen privately Tuesday.

Church bells from Enniskillen's neighboring Protestant and Catholic cathedrals pealed together for hours in jubilant cacophony as several thousand people, mostly Protestants and waving Union Jack flags, lined the narrow sidewalks of the town's Church Street for the queen's arrival. Some had arrived before dawn and came prepared for heavy rain.

They faced a longer-than-expected wait as fog and wind forced the queen's entourage to abandon plans to arrive at Enniskillen's small airport. Instead she landed at the main Royal Air Force base in Northern Ireland 65 miles (105 kilometers) away and faced a final journey by helicopter. More than 700 dignitaries from across Ireland waited inside the town's packed Protestant cathedral.

It is her 20th trip to Northern Ireland since ascending to the throne in 1952. Her visit officially is to celebrate her 60th anniversary as monarch, but it is highlighting dramatically improved times in this long-turbulent corner of the United Kingdom following paramilitary cease-fires in the mid-1990s, the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998 and the 2007 formation of a stable Catholic-Protestant administration to replace British rule from London.

Despite the continuing threat from small IRA factions still plotting gun and bomb attacks, her trip was announced weeks in advance, a radical departure from the previous policy requiring a media blackout until her arrival.

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