Wednesday 16 April 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 when the couple got engaged in 2003, there were whispers. "There were people saying, 'His father was murdered by the IRA, what's he thinking of, marrying a Catholic?' No one said it to my face, but I've no doubt it went on."

The wedding was, the couple agree, a wonderful occasion. It was the first time many of Sharon's family had been inside a Protestant church -- and the first time some of Stephen's family had met a Catholic priest. "It really did bring people together in a very positive way," says Sharon.

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."

The irony was that after Samuel took early retirement, the danger seemed to have receded. In the months leading up to his death, he was at home while Gladys was out working. It meant he had more time to spend with his sons -- as well as Stephen, there was his older brother, Keith. "It felt like things were getting calmer, that we were going to all be okay," says Stephen.

Remembrance Sunday was always a big event in Enniskillen. "That Sunday, dad put on his best suit, as he always would for an occasion like that. And I remember that I, being 18, insisted on wearing a leather jacket I'd bought. They said at the hospital that the jacket saved my life because it was padded and it protected me from the blast."

Stephen and Samuel were standing near the cenotaph, waiting for Keith to join them. Gladys was at the cathedral getting ready for the ceremony there. "Keith was delayed getting up to us -- if he'd been on time he'd have been caught in the blast too," says Stephen. "So it was just me and Dad standing there. I remember a policeman had just walked past and nodded to my dad and I'd turned to ask who that was. It was the last thing I ever said to my dad."

The bomb, says Stephen, felt like being pushed forward by a terrific force. He lost consciousness for several seconds and came round to see his father dead beside him. He remembers a few seconds of eerie silence before pandemonium broke out. "There were injured people, dead people, everywhere," he says. "I was walking round in a daze, severely concussed. Eventually, someone put me into a police minibus and took me to hospital."

Meanwhile, at the church, Gladys was frantic to find out what had happened to her husband and sons. "Someone went down to find her and told her that dad was alive, but I was dead. She was taken to the hospital and it was only when she got to the ward and saw me that she found out the truth."

Stephen was discharged from hospital late that night. "I remember Keith drove us home; I was in the back seat, Mum in the front. Mum turned to us and said, very strongly and very clearly, 'I don't want either of you boys doing anything stupid.' She was afraid we were going to try to retaliate for dad; she thought we might get caught up with the loyalist cause. She didn't want innocent Catholics to suffer the way we were suffering -- she thought that was totally wrong."

Stephen never toyed with getting involved in terrorism, but did still hope to follow his father into the RUC. But when he applied a year or so after the bomb, he failed the medical. "I wasn't fit enough any more. Mum was against me joining. She said she'd lost a husband to the Troubles, she didn't want to lose a son as well."

Today, Stephen and Sharon live outside Enniskillen, in a beautiful rural area of Fermanagh. Sharon works in the town centre; Stephen, who had to give up work in an electronics factory, is at home. In the aftermath of the explosion, he was thought to be one of the lucky ones -- he seemed to have got away with minor injuries. But in the weeks following the blast, he developed psoriasis linked to the extreme trauma he'd experienced, which has developed into a painful arthritic condition.

Over the last few years, Stephen's health has deteriorated, and both his and Sharon's mothers have died. But the couple live in hope of better times, as they always have. Their dream is to have children they can bring up free of violence and hatred.

Their children won't be raised as Protestants, says Sharon, and they won't be raised as Catholics. They will be brought up in both denominations equally and taught to value the principles that unite the two churches, not the dogma and politics that divide them. "We go to my church one Sunday and to Stephen's church the next, and that's the way we'll carry on once we have children," she says.

"We'll send them to an integrated school because education is where it all starts. And we'll teach our children that it's people themselves -- not their religion and not their politics -- that matter most of all in life."

Irish Independent

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