ULSTER DISPUTE: TWO FAMILIES DRAWN TOGETHER
Castlewellan, Northern Ireland
"Yes," say the families of two recent victims of Ulster's terrorists, there is hope of "bringing peace to Northern Ireland." These two families are themselves perhaps one of the most hopeful signs -- because the Wilsons are Protestants and the Cochranes are Roman Catholics.
Their sons Ricky Wilson and Jim Cochrane worked well together as members of this British provincehs local anti-terrorist force, the Ulster Defense Regiment (UDR). And the two young UDR soldiers were killed together in a terrorist land-mine ambush near their homes in rural Ulster.
Although the two families come from opposite "sides" of the Ulster dispute, the tragedy has brought the Wilsons and the Cochranes together, teaching them how much they have in common.
The 1,000-pound land mine that killed Ricky and Jim along with a third UDR soldier went off with a blast that the Wilsons heard from their nearby home.
Jim Cochrane's father also knew about the attack immediately -- because as a UDR soldier, he was out on patrol himself and his military radio brought an urgent call for help from his son's unit.
Within half an hour the two families learned their sons had been killed in the blast.
The three deaths brought Northern Ireland's terrorist toll to 2,001 killed over the past 10 years -- and brought another responsibility-claiming telephone call from the South Down command of the Provinsional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army. The same IRA unit killed 18 British soldiers in a similar ambush at nearby Warrenpoint last August.
Since the killings, the Wilsons and Cochranes have spent a good deal of time together, both to share their sorrow and to share their hopes.
It's just 13 miles between their homes in the quiet country towns of Downpatrick and Newcastle, set against the dramatic Mourne Mountains. Both homes are small, tidy, warmed with glowing coal fires, and crowded with scores of sympathy cards and letters from all parts of Northern Ireland.
Both the Wilsons and Cochranes live in mixed communities where the local district council is equally balanced between Protestants and Catholics. Both communities have high unemployment -- so that John Wilson travels 35 miles north to Belfast for his job as a mechanical fitter while James Cochrane and his three oldest children all joined the UDR, the locally recruited British Army battalion formed in 1970 specifically to battle the IRA.
Terrorist violence had hit both towns before, most dramatically when two IRA men blew themselves up assembling a bomb in Newcastle. Four more IRA men did the same in Downpatrick.
Mr. Cochrane spoke for both families when he explained why he joined the Ulster Defense Regiment: "I joined to help catch these terrorists and stop this violence. . . . If you want to bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland, everyone should do their best to stop the terrorists."
The one great difference about the Cochranes is that they are Roman Catholics.
Intimidation has forced most Catholics out of the UDR and generally forces them to avoid saying or doing anything in support of the British presence here.
But Irene Cochrane -- half shouting in her effort to hold back her tears -- is not giving in to the intimidation.
Instead she says: "I am proud that my son fought for his country, the country he loved. And I am proud that he died with two Protestant friends. It goes to show that they can enjoy life, make entertainment together, and even die together in a common cause."
Irene Cochrane defied her neighbors by giving her son a British military funeral. And like the Wilsons, she welcomes the promise that came in a personal note of thanks and sympathy from the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins. He promised that the counter-terrorist campaign "shall be pursued with even greater vigor."
Irene Cochrane insists that despite the violence over the years, "there is no division between the people" -- and that despite her son's killing, she feels no bitterness.
She feels the loss of her son, a popular local boy, "has shocked the whole community here. From honest-living people, both those who are not my religion and some who are, I hear the same thing. They don't want this fighting and killing."
She feels others would be convinced that the IRA is wrong "if they could only go and see what's left after these bombs go off, if they could see the hole left in a family that has lost a child."
In her own home 13 miles down the country roads, Catherine Wilson stirred her tea as the rain poured outside. She said simply, "I have no bitterness with my neighbor. It definitely is not religion, it never was religion. . . . I can't blame all Roman Catholics for the IRA."
Sitting in their separate homes, the Protestant and Catholic parents had the same to says about the IRA men who had killed their sons.
"Would you say it was a brave act, hiding behind a hedge and pulling a wire?" asked Mr. Cochrane. "They tell you it is religious and political, but it's just pure gangsterism."
Mrs. Cochrane explained that a group of IRA "godfathers" operating well away from any danger entice confused, unemployed "boys and girls" into the IRA with drink, money, and threats.
"They get these mugs to plant the bombs and pull the trigger. The young ones are not the real culprits, it's the ones giving the orders, and until the godfathers are tracked down there will be no peace."
She knows this story well because it's her own neighbors still being trapped into the IRA.
Mrs. Wilson can't forget that any terrorist relies to an extent on community support -- and seems to have more in Northern Ireland than can be explained by intimidation alone. "The IRA must have a lot of sympathizers," she said.
"Somebody in the area must have seen somebody planting the bomb or laying the wire up the hillside," she explained, thinking of the tip-offs that could be given to the police anonymously over Ulster's "confidential telephone."
But no information has come from Castlewellan, the predominantly Roman Catholic town four miles down the road, the town where her son Ricky and his friend Jim were killed.
Irene Cochrane looks forward to more than tip-offs coming from the local shock stirred up by the ambush.
"If every family could walk the streets without looking behind, if all these organizations are defeated," she said proudly as she held a photo of her son in his UDR uniform, "then we can say thank God that we have reared a son who did his part in bringing peace to Northern Ireland."