“Daddy, I love you very much.” Those were the last words of Gordon Wilson’s daughter, Marie, on November 8, 1987. Both Gordon and Marie had been attending a Remembrance Day parade in the Northern Irish town of Enniskillen when a bomb exploded, planted by the Provisional IRA just behind the cenotaph. Buried under the rubble, Gordon held his daughter’s hand as she drifted out of consciousness. By the time they were rescued, it was too late. Marie was killed. She was just one of the 3,500 lives that were lost over the course of the Troubles.
IRA attacks in Northern Ireland frequently resulted in retaliation by loyalists. On this occasion, however, there was no immediate reprisal. “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge,” Gordon said only hours after his daughter’s death. “That will not bring her back.” In the depths of darkness, Gordon somehow found the courage to plead with the loyalists not to retaliate. At least temporarily, they listened.
Gordon spent the remainder of his life trying to break the endless cycle of violence for good. “I went in innocence to search for what my heart told me might be a way forward. . . . I got nothing,” Gordon reflected. However, seven years after Marie’s death, his seemingly impossible dream of peace began to come true.
Two months after a cease-fire in August 1994, Gordon sat down next to representatives from Sinn Fein in a forum for peace and reconciliation. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Good Friday Agreement was finally passed, when both sides recognized the shared yet often troubled and divisive history of the island of Ireland. Gordon’s contribution lies in the lasting lesson of his remarkable humanity: that there is always hope for peace.
It is a lesson our political leaders desperately need to learn, now more than ever. With every passing minute, another human being in Gaza is killed. Survivors under siege are running out of the basic means of survival. Doctors are performing surgery without anesthesia. Babies are fighting for survival in incubators running out of electricity. In the face of such catastrophic loss, we should be asking one question and one question only: How can we bring about an end to this unconscionable horror?
Regrettably, most people in Parliament and in our media are not interested in this question. Instead, they seek to perpetuate a conversation that shuts down the possibility of peace.
I deplore the targeting of all civilians. That includes Hamas’s attack on October 7, which I have repeatedly condemned in in Parliament, in print, and at every demonstration that I have attended. And that includes the Israeli response; there is no meaningful sense that the Israeli army is avoiding civilian casualties when it drops twenty-five thousand ton of bombs onto a tiny strip of land populated by 2.2 million people. If we understand terrorism to describe the indiscriminate killing of civilians, in breach of international law, then of course Hamas is a terrorist group. The targeting of hospitals, refugee camps and so-called safe zones by the Israeli army are acts of terror too; and the killing of more than eleven thousand people, half of whom are children, cannot possibly be understood as acts of self-defense.
We should not entertain questions from those who have no interest in applying this basic consistency. We should stand up to those who insist on seeing some people as innocent civilians and others as collateral damage. And we should reject hectoring from those whose questions serve to justify the horror unfolding before our very eyes. Ultimately, we do not just have a responsibility to end the bloodshed. We have a responsibility to stop bloodthirsty voices from dictating the terms of debate, and to push back against cynical attempts to distract us from our urgent goal: bringing about an immediate cease-fire.
This week, MPs had the opportunity to vote for this cease-fire. Unforgivably, the majority refused to do so. History will judge those who had the opportunity to stop this massacre, but chose to cheer on war instead. A cease-fire is the most basic demand for an end to the killings — and it is a demand that should be made by any representative that wants to protect civilian life.
A cease-fire is just the first step to the release of hostages, the end of the siege of Gaza, and a just and lasting peace. The next step is a process of dialogue between the people of Israel and the people of Palestine. This requires facilitating a conversation between all parties, which includes people with whom we vehemently disagree, and whose actions we have condemned. This won’t be easy, but what’s the alternative? An endless cycle of occupation, terrorism, and retribution, which leaves Israelis living in fear of hostilities and Palestinians with the promise of indiscriminate retribution.
Any dialogue must put steps in place to give the Palestinian people the right to decide who governs them. Many of the Palestinians I know are no supporters of Hamas, and their democratic voice will never be heard if we obliterate Gaza to pieces. Instead, this will simply embolden and amplify those who become radicalized by the memory of their murdered children. In any dialogue, it’s essential to acknowledge that Palestinians don’t just live in Gaza, but in Israel and the occupied West Bank, too. Palestinians deserve to speak as a unified voice, if they so wish, just as Israelis do.
Peace is not possible without understanding the root cause of its absence. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which bubbled to the surface in 1969, did not come from nowhere. They came from the abominable treatment of the Irish people by successive British governments over centuries. They came from the great hunger of the nineteenth century. They came from the great lockout of 1912. They came from the Easter Rising. They came from the civil war. Just as we have to understand the history of the occupation of Ireland, we have to understand that Palestinians are living under occupation and a system of apartheid.
Without a serious political intervention, this endless cycle of violence will just go on and on and on. In the aftermath of horror, we need voices for peace and diplomacy, not pain and destruction. Voices like Dr Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian National Initiative: “How many more thousands of Palestinian children should die before the world supports an immediate ceasefire? For the sake of Palestinians and Israelis, this war must stop.”
Voices like Gordon Wilson. “Don’t ask me, please, for a purpose,” Gordon said in the wake of his daughter’s death. “I don’t have a purpose. I don’t have an answer, but I know there has to be a plan.” We, too, know there has to be a plan. That plan begins with an immediate cease-fire to stop the further loss of life. And it ends with freedom and dignity for all Palestinians and Israelis, living in joy, friendship, and peace.