Thursday 18 December 2014

Across the divide

Stephen Gault saw his Protestant father killed by an IRA bomb at Enniskillen 25 years ago. Joanna Moorhead meets him and his wife, Sharon -- a Catholic

A moment after the blast hit them, Stephen Gault knew his father was dead. Seconds earlier they had been standing side by side in the street chatting. Now they were lying on the ground, pressed up against some railings.

"The top of dad's head wasn't there any more," says Stephen. "I knew he had gone."

The time was 10.45am, the date was November 8, 1987 -- Remembrance Sunday -- and the place was the cenotaph in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.

Stephen's family were Protestants. Both his parents were in the security forces -- his father, Samuel, who was 49, had retired two years earlier from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and his mother, Gladys, then 47, was a serving member of the Ulster Defence Regiment. Suddenly, at 18, Stephen was fatherless. His life, and those of his family, had been ripped apart by an IRA bomb.

Stephen is now 43. The injuries he suffered that day mean he is in almost constant pain and is unable to work. At this time of year, as Remembrance Day gets closer, he tends to feel much worse, physically and psychologically. This year, as the 25th anniversary approaches, it has hit harder than usual.

But there's one bright light in Stephen's life -- his wife, Sharon. "She's the most loving, caring woman in the world," says Stephen. But Sharon, 32, is also a Roman Catholic and making their marriage work, across the religious divide of Northern Ireland, has been a kind of microcosm of the peace process that has changed the face of the province in the years since that day in Enniskillen when 11 people were killed and 63 were injured.

Stephen doesn't remember exactly when he discovered that the young woman he had met at the town golf club was a Catholic. The funny thing was, he says, that his mother was beginning to despair that he'd ever find anyone at all. "I was in my early 30s, still living at home. After dad died, Mum was alone, and I knew I had to be there for her. But she was desperate for me to meet someone. She used to joke that she wouldn't even mind if I found myself a Catholic."

For her part, Sharon had no idea of the history of the man she was getting close to. "I was born in the Republic, and at the time of the bombing I was living in Surrey," she says. "We moved to Enniskillen in 1991 because it's where my mum came from -- I remember our friends in England thought we were mad because everyone knew how bad the Troubles were."

In Enniskillen, Sharon enrolled at a Catholic school. "The communities were quite separate, so most of the people I knew were Catholics," she says. After school she got a job with a fashion retailer, but when a friend asked her to help with her catering business at the golf club, she was happy to lend a hand. "That's where I first met Stephen," she remembers.

As their relationship progressed, she learned that his father was dead but didn't know the circumstances.

"One day, when we'd been going out for a couple of months, he said, did you know I was standing beside my dad when he died? I thought it must have been a traffic accident; but then he mentioned the cenotaph and it all clicked into place."

She says she's glad, though, that she didn't know about Stephen's history when they were first together. "I think I might have overcompensated for being a Catholic, especially when I met Gladys," she says. "But by the time I found out, we were already friends."

Stephen says Sharon's faith made no difference to the way he felt about her. "Too many lives have been ruined by people in Northern Ireland putting religion first," he says. "I was determined not to do that. When I met Sharon, I saw the person she was, not the church she went to."

But there was, of course, somebody missing: "I'd have so loved my dad to have been there," says Stephen. "I always looked up to him, I thought the world of him. I'd love him to have met Sharon -- he'd have adored her.

"When I was growing up, I didn't see as much of him as I'd have liked because he was station sergeant -- at the first sign of any disturbance, he'd have to go straight into work."

Going to work -- for Gladys and Samuel -- was always potentially dangerous. As members of the security forces were continually targeted by the IRA, there was a constant need for caution. "If we were going out to the shops or for a drive, my parents would always check there was no bomb under our car."

Irish Independent

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