Unionists are piling pressure on Sinn Féin MP John Finucane to withdraw from a commemoration of IRA Volunteers who died in the conflict as part of their unending campaign to depict Irish resistance to British rule as “terrorism”.
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill has said that Mr Finucane will attend the South Armagh Volunteers commemoration this weekend because everybody has a right to remember their dead.
“That was a core part of the Good Friday Agreement,” she told RTE radio.
“So let’s be respectful of the fact that we all have a different lived experience and perhaps even a different perspective in terms of how things have unfolded over the years.
“But let’s be respectful of each other and let’s be mindful of all those people that lost their lives.”
Efforts to criminalise the Provisional IRA’s armed struggle began under the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who worked to remove political status from IRA prisoners in the late 1970s.
Ms O’Neill has herself been criticised in the past for attending events commemorating IRA Volunteers. She said there is a “complex history” in the north of Ireland and there was a need to be respectful of difference.
“Many people lost loved ones throughout the course of the conflict and all those losses of life mean there’s a family that are grieving at the heart of that.”
Ms O’Neill said while trying to “heal the wounds of the past”, it is important to keep “eyes towards the future”.
“Let’s keep looking towards the future, let’s keep mending hurt of the past, let’s keep trying to build a better society for us all to live side by side and be respectful of our difference.”
As a child in 1989, Mr Finucane witnessed a British death squad sledge-hammer down the family’s front door and burst into the kitchen where they were eating Sunday dinner. Mr Finucane’s father Pat was shot 14 times in the head, neck and chest, killing him outright, while John, then aged 8, his brother and sister Katharine hid under the table.
Last week Mr Finucane welcomed the new British monarch, King Charles and his wife Camilla, to a newly created ‘Coronation Garden’ in Newtownabbey, County Antrim. It was one of the party’s numerous meetings with King Charles — Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment which killed 14 innocent people on Bloody Sunday — including the coronation itself, which have angered elements of Sinn Féin’s support base.
But to unionists in both parts of Ireland, the party is being hypocritical by “glorifying terrorism” at commemorative Volunteers – despite themselves often directly endorsing the memory of notorious loyalist sectarian killers.
Former DUP leader Arlen Foster accused Sinn Féin of holding a commemoration “and making it sound like a fun day out for all the family”. Her comment was echoed by Ulster Unionist leader and former British soldier, Doug Beattie. Both have taken part in countless memorial events for British forces in Ireland.
They were also supported by Fianna Fail leader and 26 County Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin, who said Sinn Féin “cannot ride two horses”.
“I think the idea of endeavouring to, in some shape or form, celebrate or glorify horrible deeds of the past is not the way forward,” he declared, despite himself recently attending IRA centenary commemorations.
Sinn Féin has argued that by attending Armistice ceremonies in Belfast and laying wreaths at Remembrance Sunday ones in Dublin, it has reached out, but that there is still no reciprocal understanding for commemorations of those who died for freedom in the North.
Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy argued that the controversy was being artificially generated and was a unionist attempt at “distraction politics”.
“Every single party has attended commemorative events, be that British Army ones, be that in Dublin at the 1916 rising, all parties have been involved with commemorative events over the last 30 years,” he said.
“Everybody has the right and that recognises the fact that everybody has the right to commemorate their dead in a dignified way, and we support everyone’s right to commemorate their dead in a dignified way.
“We couldn’t as much as get a local photographer to come along to take pictures at it but the DUP have made of an issue out of it, and then now apparently it’s an issue for the media as well.
“The real issue here is the fact that public services are crashing around our ears, that the DUP are refusing to go back into the executive to try and help the rest of us fix the very real problems that people face in everyday lives.”