Is it ever really okay to forgive terrorist atrocities?

The 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bombing raises questions over the ethics of forgiveness

Out of horror can come extraordinary humanity and grace. The Enniskillen bombing is remembered as much for the IRA's murder of 11 people as the forgiving response of one of those caught up in the atrocity.

In a moving interview just hours after he had been pulled from the rubble, Gordon Wilson explained to the BBC how his daughter Marie had died clutching his hand, her last words: "Daddy, I love you very much."

Wilson went on: “But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life.”

In those few phrases, a gently-spoken Methodist draper exposed the futility of the IRA’s terror campaign. After all, what was the point of bombing if people didn’t hate you in return?


Wilson's Christian response was echoed this week by Stephen Ross, who suffered horrendous injuries in the bombing. Ross told The Irish Times, he felt no anger: "My prayer is that those who planted the bomb or played a part in supporting it publicly acknowledge what they have done and seek God's forgiveness."

While both men spoke of the healing effect of forgiving in their lives, the virtue of mercy is more difficult to justify in a political context.

Wilson’s words had little effect on the IRA: a final ceasefire was not declared until 1997.Wilson met the Provos himself in 1993, and was bitterly disappointed by their intransigence, admitting later he was “perhaps naive” to engage with them. That encounter, combined with Wilson’s acceptance of a seat in the Seanad, turned him into a traitor in the eyes of many unionists.

Was he right to forgive? The question still lingers 30 years on, and is given fresh currency by the political impasse in Stormont.

Dr Geraldine Smyth, a Belfast-born expert on conflict transformation, says forgiveness can play a part in delivering peace and reconciliation but it was not "the lynchpin".

“Forgiveness is a very loaded concept; it comes primarily I think from a religious background, and it suggests something more than human. It suggests something self-transcending. You cannot force it and you cannot manage it.”

‘No moral duty’

As people experience trauma differently, it may be impossible for some people to forgive, she notes, and she rejects the idea of a moral duty to show mercy. “It doesn’t necessarily bring release in psychological or emotional terms but one thing is sure: Without forgiveness the world would be madder than it is. There needs to be some larger horizon than the natural instinct for revenge.”

Smyth is a trained psychotherapist and a Dominican nun, as well as an adjunct professor at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin and a board member ofHealing Through Remembering, Northern Ireland.

She argues there is always a “relational context” to forgiveness, and this was evident in Wilson’s reaction to Enniskillen. In the intimate, final moments with his daughter he spoke her name three times and she voiced her love for him, and “that powerful bond of relational love, and expression of unconditional love, maybe released some kind of self-transcending power in himself to be more than the perpetrators – to break out of the cage of instinctive revenge that might otherwise have encased him like the rubble did.

“To me the relationship was the key. So I feel angry at people who say: ‘Aw, he was naive’, or ‘he hadn’t really processed his anger’ . . . Who are we to judge? People process their grief and bereavement in mightily different ways.”

Philosophical approaches

In his book On Forgiveness, former Anglican bishop Richard Holloway highlights the paradoxical nature of mercy. While forgiveness may release the victim "from the treadmill of the past", it is also a kind of "madness" that goes against "every good and natural impulse" to punish evil.

In her recently published Anger and Forgiveness, Martha C Nussbaum goes further, invoking Nietzsche to argue that Christian forgiveness contains "a displaced vindictiveness and a concealed resentment" (although the main thrust of her book is to criticise the polar opposite response – rage, which she describes as a "social disease" in the United States).

Smyth admits that mercy can seem irrational, or a subversion of justice, but she says: "To me that begs the question: What rationality and whose justice?" Borrowing a phrase from French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, she says, "strict equivalence is not always possible". The criminal justice system cannot bring someone back to life, and in any event it may be less effective than restorative justice in giving some healing to victims.

Here, she highlights the important role of apologies. “I think we can’t overestimate the power of symbolic gesture, provided it comes out of a perceived authenticity.” She cites as “very good political examples” Willy Brandt’s kneeling down on Polish soil when he visited Warsaw in 1970, and David Cameron’s unconditional apology and acknowledgment of wrongdoing for Bloody Sunday on behalf of the British government in 2010.

IRA apology

How does the IRA's apology for Enniskillen compare? It wasn't until 1997, two years after Wilson's death, that Gerry Adams made a formal statement on behalf of the republican movement, saying he was "deeply sorry" for what happened. "But I think we can only have a guarantee of a peaceful future when we tackle the root causes of the conflict and when we resolve them," he added.

Sinn Féin politicians resent being reminded of the party’s links to the IRA but Smyth says “sometimes people need to be reminded”. The passage of time is “too short” to start consigning events to history.

“Sectarianism and cultural division goes to the very heart of the paralysis, the repeated stalemate situations,” in the North, adds Smyth. She cites a “lack of connection” between the “elite actors” – chiefly the political parties – and other agents in society, from community groups and businesses down to people at grass roots who are “labouring to survive”.

One dimension of this is a refusal to address legacy issues, with former members of the British security forces as well as ex-paramilitaries on both sides frustrating inquests and inquiries, thereby adding to the trauma of survivors. “This is a problem with a lot of survivors in the North, and in other places,” says Smyth. “There is nobody that they can talk to about it; there is nobody that will give them an explanation, even if it’s not an apology.”