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O'Neill under fire for victims comment at vigil for IRA men

By David Young and Brian Hutton

There was a strong reaction yesterday to Sinn Fein Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill's appearance at a vigil for four IRA men killed after they attacked a Co Tyrone police station in 1992.

At the commemoration in her home village of Clonoe, near Coalisland, Mrs O'Neill said there should be no hierarchy of victims as she held a candle in memory of the dead men.

But Philip Smith, the Ulster Unionist Party's Assembly candidate for Strangford, said there should be no equivalence between the victims of terrorism and terrorists.

"Thirty-nine years ago the IRA bombed the La Mon Hotel. I simply cannot accept that the people who were murdered that night, and who had no say in their fate, are in any way equal to terrorists who chose to join an illegal organisation and who also chose to set out to try to murder police officers," he said.

"No amount of clever phrases or hand-wringing can disguise the fact that the victims at La Mon were entirely innocent, and the dead at Clonoe were terrorists."

He added that if Mrs O'Neill was serious in her remarks about wanting no hierarchy of victims, "she would be well advised to spare a thought for innocent victims like those at La Mon, rather than those who set out to commit murder".

Speaking for the SDLP, the party's justice spokesman Alex Attwood criticised those who wanted to "address the past on their own terms".

"Comments from the DUP that there should be one law for British soldiers and another law for others, or comments from Sinn Fein on a hierarchy of victims, should not distract anyone from what the fundamental impediments are to addressing the past and those who are responsible," Mr Attwood said.

Mid Ulster DUP Assembly candidate Keith Buchanan said that Mrs O'Neill was only interested in speaking to "a narrow republican base".

"At the same time Michelle O'Neill is commemorating terrorists, Sinn Fein have made no secret of their desire to see the persecution and prosecution of soldiers and police officers," he said.

"These are the priorities being advanced by Sinn Fein during this election campaign, instead of health, education or the economy."

Meanwhile, in Dublin Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams insisted that a hard border dividing Ireland was inevitable as a result of Brexit unless special EU status was secured for Northern Ireland.

Mr Adams said that the Irish Government's refusal to back widespread calls to negotiate a special status was "a grave mistake".

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