Wilson, Paddy (Patrick Gerald) (1934–73), Northern Ireland politician, was born 19 August 1934 at 50 Fleet Street, Belfast, the youngest of seven children of Edward Wilson, tram driver, and his wife Ellen (née Kearney). He was a sheet-metal worker and trade union shop steward until he was intimidated out of his job at the start of the Troubles, and began his political activities as a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In 1966 he stood unsuccessfully as an NILP candidate for Belfast corporation against Gerry Fitt (qv) (1926–2005) in the Dock ward, facing clerical opposition. He subsequently struck up a friendship with Fitt: he resigned from the NILP to join Fitt's Republican Labour Party (RLP) and became his closest political associate, serving as his election agent in Westminster and Stormont elections. Fitt later said: ‘Apart from Anne and the family there was nobody closer to me’ (Ryder, 218).
In 1967 Wilson was elected to Belfast city council for the Dock ward, and he remained a member of the council (representing the SDLP from 1970) until his death. As a councillor he was particularly well known for campaigning on behalf of old-age pensioners and other disadvantaged groups; at one point he learned sign language in order to communicate with a deaf and dumb family in his ward. He enjoyed significant cross-party popularity, and after his death the NILP councillor Erskine Holmes said he had believed Wilson would eventually be the first non-unionist mayor of Belfast (Ir. Independent, 27 June 1973).
In 1969, after failing to secure the RLP candidacy for the Belfast Central constituency in the 1969 Stormont elections, Wilson was elected to the Northern Ireland senate. Fitt subsequently expressed regret at not having supported Wilson's candidacy for the NI house of commons because, ‘in the trying days ahead I would have had a trusted ally rather than the Trojan Horse Paddy Kennedy [qv] turned out to be’ (Ryder, 133–4).
On the formation of the SDLP in August 1970, Wilson was listed as one of the seven founding members who made up the new party's executive. He was initially placed in charge of the party's Belfast offices. Tensions soon reemerged between the Belfast labourist members of the new party and those whom they regarded as excessively middle-class and ‘green’ nationalist. In January 1972 Fitt and Wilson caused some controversy by attending a Belfast city council meeting in defiance of the party's policy of boycotting local government. (Had they not done so, they would have been disqualified and their seats filled by co-opted unionists.)
In May 1973 Wilson was reelected to Belfast city council, but failed to secure a nomination for the forthcoming Northern Ireland assembly elections. Although it was announced at the time that he had chosen to focus on his council work, he had in fact been blocked by rivals within the SDLP Falls Road branch because of personal and ideological differences. Fitt stated that after this setback Wilson told him that when the assembly elections were over they should leave the SDLP and revive an independent labour party.
On Monday 25 June 1973 Wilson was nominated as a Belfast city council representative on the new health services board by unionist and alliance councillors. After his death this was described as a sign of his popularity and a promising cross-community gesture; however, Fitt (unexpectedly absent from the meeting) later claimed that other SDLP councillors had refused to nominate Wilson.
Wilson adjourned to nearby pubs with some friends. At 11.25 p.m. he left McGlade's pub with Irene Andrews, a protestant civil servant and ballroom-dancing enthusiast to whom he had offered a lift home. Some reports claim the car was followed to the pub by loyalist killers who had been tailing Wilson for some weeks in the knowledge that he did not carry a gun and would be a vulnerable target. Wilson had stated this in public several times, telling one journalist: ‘I could not sleep at night knowing I had shot somebody's son or husband or father’ (Lost lives, 372). Paddy Devlin later claimed Wilson once told him: ‘Sure who would want to do me harm? I'm not important. I'm everyone's friend’ (Devlin, 194–5). If Wilson actually said this he was somewhat naïve; some months before his death he was attacked by a mob of loyalist women outside Belfast City Hall, escaping with minor injuries. The murderers later claimed they had not followed Wilson but identified him after stopping the car; this may be self-serving, although Fitt came to believe it.
In the early hours of 26 June 1973, in a disused quarry on the Hightown Road on the outskirts of north Belfast, Wilson (who put up a struggle) was stabbed thirty-two times; his head was nearly severed from his body. Andrews was stabbed nineteen times and her body mutilated. Forensic scientists discovered several non-fatal lacerations were inflicted before death as a form of torture. Wilson's murder aroused widespread horror and condemnation because of its particularly vicious nature, Wilson's affability and affinity for cross-community labourist politics, and the implications of the murder of an elected representative.
Wilson and his wife Bridget had one son, Paul. The family moved to Britain two months after Wilson's death; Paul Wilson later said: ‘Although my mother's death was in 1996 she really died on June 25, 1973. The day my father died my mother died with him’ (Lost lives, 373).
The Ulster Freedom Fighters, a recently established cover name for the UDA, claimed responsibility, alleging the murders were retaliation for the recent killing of a boy with intellectual disabilities by the Official IRA. UDA members later claimed that it was a ritual killing, part of a deliberate strategy of spreading terror among the catholic community. Although Ian Paisley (qv) suggested the IRA might have been responsible and the IRA claimed the murders had been carried out by the British army, it was soon widely believed that the perpetrators had been led by the UDA activists Davy Payne (d. 2003) and John White. Both men were interned soon afterwards. After their release they were repeatedly arrested and interrogated; White eventually confessed and in 1978 was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders.
After his release White became active in loyalist politics, and during the 1990s he was one of the most prominent representatives of the Ulster Democratic Party (the UDA's political wing) in peace negotiations. This brought back memories of Wilson's murder; one prominent SDLP figure, when asked whether the involvement of Sinn Féin in peace talks was insensitive to the sufferings of the families of IRA victims, replied: ‘We all have to make sacrifices for peace. Do you think I enjoy sitting across a table from a man who carved up one of my party colleagues like a butcher carves up a sheep?’ (personal knowledge). When White visited 10 Downing Street as part of a UDP delegation on 22 July 1996, Paul Wilson issued a statement protesting: ‘All I can think about when I see that man is how my father must have fought for his life’ (Lost lives, 373), and Fitt had to be physically restrained from going to Downing Street to protest. Paddy Wilson is commemorated (as is Jack Barnhill (qv)) on a plaque at Stormont outside the old senate chamber.