Belfast Telegraph

'I've no forgiveness for Patsy's killers... my working with ex-paramilitaries is to do with peace'

Widow of IRA proxy bomb atrocity victim tells of close friendship with former Provo

By Leona O'Neill

The widow of a Londonderry father who died after the IRA strapped him into a van packed with explosives and forced him to drive it to an Army checkpoint says she has been helped on her path to healing by former paramilitaries who have become close friends.

Kathleen Gillespie's 42-year-old husband Patsy died on October 24, 1990.

He had been kidnapped four hours earlier by a masked Provo gang who held Kathleen and their teenage children at gunpoint before forcing him to drive a 1,000lb bomb to the Coshquin checkpoint on the Derry/Donegal border.

As Kathleen prepares to remember her husband on the 27th anniversary of his death, she looked back at that night and to years after the atrocity when a remarkable friendship blossomed between her and a former IRA woman.

"They came into the house that night, took turns guarding us and eventually took Patsy away at midnight. They let him in to say goodbye to us," she explained.

"He said to me: 'I'll be all right girl, I'll be home soon'. They told us that if everyone did what they were told, no one would be hurt. More fool me for believing them.

"They chained my husband to a van loaded with 1,000lbs of explosives and forced him to drive to the Army checkpoint at Cosquin, where it was detonated by remote control.

"Patsy had shouted a warning as he approached even though he knew he could never escape himself, and he saved many lives in doing so."

A shocked and numb Kathleen tried her best to navigate the days after the blast with her children, then aged 18, 16 and 12.

She said that she wasn't able to identify her husband's body - she was told that it was unrecoverable.

"The trauma of the event, the aftermath as a single parent bringing up our three teenage children whilst trying to cope with our loss of an incredible husband and father was extremely difficult," Kathleen said.

"I did not fully believe that Patsy was actually dead, as there was a closed coffin and no actual body to mourn.

"There were days when I couldn't get out of bed until the children came home. I became ill - my doctor told me that a rash that was covering my body was a manifestation of stress and could cause severe problems, including death, if I didn't deal with it.

"I decided to give my stress to God. He has bigger shoulders than I have.

"I became involved with a victims' organisation at Glencree, where I was asked if I would work with ex-combatants.

"It was horrific, I wanted to run out of the room.

"I got terrible flashbacks. I didn't know how I could sit in the same room as ex-IRA men.

"Then I thought to myself, if I am someone who wants peace I have to be prepared to mix with these people, talk to them, listen to their stories, and if I can't do this how can I expect other people in Northern Ireland to do this work?"

Kathleen met and talked with many ex-paramilitaries from both sides, and also ex-Army, police, victims and others who had been affected by the Troubles from Northern Ireland, the Republic and England.

Some 15 years later Kathleen met with Teya Sepinuck, the producer of the Theatre Of Witness project, which brought together voices from the Troubles to tell their stories.

Teya asked her to take part in an all-female show she was working on.

"I found myself in a group of women that involved loyalists, republicans and a policewoman," Kathleen said.

"On the first day we all met we sat in a circle and told our stories.

"I was sitting beside a young woman who said she was previously in the IRA. I looked at her and I thought she looked civil and seemed genuine.

"It was the first time she had told her story and she was crying and crying.

"When she was finished telling her story, she looked at me. I stood up and gave her a hug and told her that everything was going to be all right.

"Since that day we have been really good friends. We have helped each other on this journey.

"Some people can't understand why I can be so comfortable with her and be friends with an ex-IRA woman.

"It's not forgiveness - I have no forgiveness in my body for the people who killed Patsy. I have worked my way around the idea of working with ex-paramilitaries because it is to do with peace."

Kathleen's peace work saw her join the former IRA woman on projects in the US, while they were involved in other European projects along with an ex-UDA member.

The trio have been working closely together with the Warrington Peace Centre, schools, colleges and community and youth groups.

They worked alongside the Jesuit Commons America group to build an accredited peace education programme that has been introduced into a number of refugee camps around the world.

They are also involved in dialogue, storytelling and workshops with community groups of diverse backgrounds from England tackling race, gang-related and white supremacy issues, and are connected to many worldwide peace organisations.

"Here we have opposing ex-combatants, police, ex-soldiers and all religions, all working together and speaking in opposing communities," Kathleen added.

"People like to see us together because of the dynamics. They are really surprised that we can all be in the same room together, let alone be friends.

"We are not doing this to tell people how to be, but to show them that dialogue, brutal honesty and willingness to listen does work and we are proof.

"My friendship with the former IRA woman and ex-UDA man has taught me that ex-paramilitaries are just ordinary people who have done things that they shouldn't have done."

Tomorrow, on the 27th anniversary of the atrocity, Kathleen will leave a display of flowers at the bomb site and visit Patsy's grave in Greysteel, not only to remember him, but the five soldiers who died alongside him.

And she will continue the peacebuilding journey she has been on in the hope that history will never repeat itself.

"I wanted to write on Patsy's headstone: 'Murdered by the IRA'," she said. "But instead I wrote: 'Lord let him be an instrument of your peace'.

"I truly believe he is."

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