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Depressing and divisive flashback to a time that we hoped we'd left behind

By Henry McDonald

Published 17/07/2015

A few years ago someone close to me died and a number of republican veterans wanted to pay tribute to her. She had been a republican socialist all her adult life, although by the mid-1970s she had been sickened by where "armed struggle" was taking this society.

In her view, the murder and the sabotage was driving Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter further and further apart in a nightmarish reversal of Wolfe Tone's original vision of secular republicanism.

Nonetheless, on the day of her funeral, republicans from several factions wanted to honour this woman and offered to place the Starry Plough flag on her coffin as a nod to her steadfast support for republican and socialist principles.

Her family thought long and hard about the offer and decided to come up with this compromise: her friends could place the flag on her coffin as it left her home in a nationalist district, but once the funeral cortege came close to Belfast city centre, it would be removed, respectfully, folded up and handed to the dead woman's family.

Her children knew that lining up to pay their respects from the city centre to the church for Requiem Mass would be people from every tradition in Belfast, including loyalists and unionists who had come to respect this woman down through the decades.

Because, in life, she had demonstrated the same respect and tolerance, especially for those in the Protestant community, her children felt that the display of a republican socialist emblem on the way to a place of worship would not be appropriate.

That funeral came to mind when watching the video footage of the funeral of Peggy O'Hara, the mother of the Derry INLA hunger striker Patsy and, in particular, the sight of masked men firing shots over her coffin.

Peggy O'Hara was deeply respected within nationalist Derry and won 1,789 votes in the 2007 Assembly elections when she stood as an Independent Republican candidate.

And, although the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness paid a warm tribute to her, it was crystal-clear that Peggy O'Hara opposed the political settlement at Stormont.

Yet, in spite of her own steadfastness to the anti-Good Friday Agreement cause, there still seemed something grossly inappropriate about firing shots over a coffin in the middle of a residential street.

The sight of more masked men this week, this time firing their weapons in the air, is yet another depressing flashback to what we were supposed to have left behind.

The incident also raises questions about the decommissioning of weapons by the INLA several years ago.

Why bring guns out now to honour Peggy O'Hara, who was already being lauded by both political allies and opponents after she died?

Surely the INLA didn't need to put on this display of macho militarism (and, in turn, refocus unionist political attention on what exactly they did decommission) to pay their respects to the mother of a hunger striker?

Because most people - even in the republican heartlands of Derry's West Bank - don't want the guns, any guns, coming back onto the streets again, regardless of whom the firing party is saluting.

Belfast Telegraph

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