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O’Neill insists presence at IRA event not at odds with Sinn Fein new policy on sectarianism

By Brett Campbell

Michelle O'Neill has insisted there is no contradiction between her attendance at a vigil commemorating four IRA men in Clonoe last week and Sinn Fein's new anti-sectarian action plan which she launched yesterday.

The Sinn Fein Stormont leader also accused the DUP of sectarianism as she revealed the party's 'One Community' anti-sectarian charter at its office on the Falls Road in west Belfast.

"Arlene Foster promised it would be a brutal campaign, but she neglected to say it would be a brutally sectarian campaign," she said.

"If anyone is in any doubt about that, they need look no further than the DUPs election campaign."

Sinn Fein believes the robust measures outlined in its 10-point action plan are needed to undermine the scourge of sectarianism for the long-term.

The proposals include the introduction and enforcement of legislation which clearly defines sectarianism as a hate crime.

"Sectarianism is rife in our society and as leaders it's our job to show leadership on this issue.

"We are the only party that has actually published an anti-sectarianism charter and we are encouraging other parties to sign up to it.

"All those who go into elected office should sign up to these principles," she said.

The party is calling for the "clear legal definition" of sectarianism to be given expression in a Bill of Rights and for a 'citizens' anti-sectarian charter' to be incorporated into pledges taken by public representatives who will then be bound to "pro-actively uphold and implement the commitment".

But Mrs O'Neill said she doesn't believe that the proposed anti-sectarianism legislation and public pledge would have restricted her from speaking at last Thursday's IRA commemoration honouring the memory of four men who were shot dead by the SAS in 1992.

"There's no contradiction in wanting a society free from terrorism and me attending a respectful, dignified commemoration to remember four young people who lost their lives at the hands of the British Government," said Mrs O'Neill.

When asked if the proposals would have prevented her from attending the controversial event in her home village of Clonoe last Thursday, Mrs O'Neil said: "No, not at all.

"I attended a commemoration last week of four men who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

"I think we will always have a different narrative on the past, but we need to get to a point where we can all accept or perhaps try and understand everyone's own past."

Assembly candidate and Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney said: "There's no dispute that sectarianism infects the whole of society and it impacts both sides.

"We need collective, far seeing and bold leadership."

Mr Kearney said Sinn Fein had called for a shared culture of commemoration in which all sides are encouraged to remember their dead.

"That needs to be done in a way that is sensitive, considerate and causes no offence," he added.

Mrs O'Neill accused the DUP of failing to show leadership and of patronising their own electorate in an attempt to distract from the 'cash for ash' crisis and questions over how the party funded its Brexit campaign.

"The DUP think so little of their own electorate that they believe that all it takes to distract from their £500m 'cash for ash' scandal or their Brexit dark money scandal is to wave the republican bogey man."

The DUP has since confirmed - in the face of mounting pressure - that they are working to reveal the size of the donation and the identity of the donor who provided the cash to pay for a wraparound pro-Brexit advert in London's free Metro newspaper prior to the EU referendum last June.

The advert is reported to have cost £250,000.

Mrs O'Neill said that Sinn Fein is serious about driving out sectarianism and also warned that project fear politics can quickly become project hate on the ground.

"If any other party was being subject to such vicious sectarian attacks, it would be rightly condemned. There is no acceptable level of violence when it comes to Sinn Fein or anyone else," she said.

On Monday night a car belonging to an election agent for Kieran Maxwell, a Sinn Fein Assembly candidate in North Down, was destroyed in a petrol bomb attack in Bangor.

And the new Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland and Assembly candidate for Mid Ulster claimed the DUP's approach to politics has failed to provide leadership for a society still emerging from conflict.

She said: "This is no longer a one party state dominated by unionist misrule, this is a pluralist island for pluralist people.

"Sectarianism has no place in any modern society or political party and the DUP need to come to terms with that reality."

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