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Watch: Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill attends vigil for four IRA men killed by SAS

By Adrian Rutherford and PA

Sinn Fein's new leader in Northern Ireland has marked the deaths of four IRA men shot dead by the SAS in 1992 at a commemoration event in Clonoe, Co Tyrone .

She addressed the vigil in memory of Patrick Vincent, Sean O'Farrell, Peter Clancy and Barry O'Donnell.

The four were ambushed at St Patrick's Church minutes after they had attacked Coalisland RUC station with a heavy machine gun.

Ms O'Neill said there should be no hierarchy of victims as she clutched a candle in memory of those who died in a churchyard in the town.

Around 150 people attended the ceremony, including relatives of the dead, which organisers characterised as dignified.

Relatives of the dead held candles and a lament was played on a tin whistle.

The Irish tricolour and a plaque marked the spot where the deaths happened.

Ms O'Neill said: "These were four ordinary young men, who faced extraordinary challenges.

"And they responded in defence of their community and also of their country.

"They never went looking for war, but it came to them. It is a sad night for us as republicans and we come together 25 years later to remember their sacrifice, to remember that night, how we all felt."

She added: "I can certainly remember the pain and the hurt and the sorrow and the shock, most of all felt by the families but also by the wider republican community."

She said republicans and everyone else had every right to remember and honour their dead in a respectful and dignified manner.

"There can be no hierarchy of victims. Republicans recognise that.

"But it is the refusal of many within political unionism and the British state to do likewise that goes to the heart of many of the problems that we face in the political process."

The event was organised by Coalisland Clonoe Martyrs Sinn Fein Cumann.

Ms O'Neill said the past will always be a contentious place.

Michelle O’Neill attends a vigil for IRA men who were killed by the SAS at St Patrick’s Church in Clonoe on 16th February 2017 . (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Michelle O’Neill attends a vigil for IRA men who were killed by the SAS at St Patrick’s Church in Clonoe on 16th February 2017 . (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)

"There is no single narrative to any conflict anywhere in the world or at any time in history.

"Republicans understand that and accept it.

"We are committed to building bridges, to heal the hurt of the past and to build a better future for all of our children."

She said the British Government was still "blocking" the legacy mechanisms of the Stormont House Agreement to deal with thousands of unresolved killings and injuries during the 30-year conflict.

"They don't want the world to know what they did in our country.

"They don't want the world to know about the death squads, about shoot-to-kill, about the torture and the full extent of collusion.

"They don't want the world to know what they did in places like Clonoe, but we will overcome that because republicans today are every bit as determined as Sean, as Peter, Paddy and Barry were."

The event was organised by Coalisland Clonoe Martyrs Sinn Fein Cumann.

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But the appearance of Ms O'Neill, an election candidate in the area, has caused anger.

Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott said: "This just demonstrates that it is not easy for the leopard to change its spots.

"Sinn Fein is still determined to glorify terrorists, which is unfortunate to those in society who want to move away from the past."

Michelle O’Neill attends a vigil for IRA men who were killed by the SAS at St Patrick’s Church in Clonoe on 16th February 2017 . (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Michelle O’Neill attends a vigil for IRA men who were killed by the SAS at St Patrick’s Church in Clonoe on 16th February 2017 . (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)

Mr Elliott said it was a clear attempt by Sinn Fein to shore up republican support ahead of next month's election.

A Sinn Fein spokesperson said earlier on Tuesday: "Michelle O'Neill will be the main speaker at a commemoration in Clonoe on Thursday at 8pm to remember the 25th anniversary of the deaths of four young republicans shot dead by the British Army.

"This commemoration will be carried out in a respectful and dignified manner to remember the four local young men and to importantly show community solidarity with their families, friends and neighbours."

However, victims of IRA violence in the east Tyrone area spoke of their anger at the event.

John Eaglesham, whose father Jock was murdered outside Rock Primary School near Pomeroy, said: "It is not appropriate for the leader of a political party to be acting in this way.

"This woman is going to stand up and pay tribute to these men, saying they are good people, despite knowing well they were out to try and commit murder."

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Mid Ulster Democratic Unionist election candidate Keith Buchanan said: "Sinn Fein have talked repeatedly about respect over recent weeks, but once again we see a lack of respect for the victims of IRA terrorism."

Ulster Unionist candidate Sandra Overend said Ms O'Neill's presence at the event stood in "stark contrast to her words of reconciliation".

"It is only to be expected that republicans would wish to remember their dead, but Michelle O'Neill's presence at such an event is hardly sending a signal to the unionist community that she is some kind of new departure for Sinn Fein."

Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister accused Ms O'Neill of "glorifying the appalling bloodthirsty actions" of the IRA.

"I think it is appalling," he said.

"I think it is dancing on the graves of the innocent victims of the IRA yet again by a Sinn Fein leader and glorifying those terrorists who met their just deserts at the hands of the SAS in 1992."

Victims campaigner Kenny Donaldson said: "Michelle O'Neill is being promoted by some as the face of a new Sinn Fein which is about the future and a break from the past.

"The reality is very different.She has already made a range of comments concerning her affinity with and support of the terrorist campaign waged by the Provisional IRA.

"Her own family were heavily immersed in terrorist activity and she is set to speak at a commemoration event to four members of the east Tyrone-Monaghan brigade of the Provisional IRA killed by SAS forces.

"What does Michelle O'Neill have to say to the families of those innocents who were murdered by this brigade?

"Is she prepared to deal with the hurt and injustice visited upon these families?"

The attack on Coalisland RUC station took place on the evening of February 16, 1992.

The IRA gang had mounted a machine-gun on top of a hijacked lorry.

They opened fire on the station before driving away waving an Irish tricolour.

When they reached the church car park at Clonoe, a few miles away, the SAS were lying in wait, killing the four men. Two others were wounded. The ambush prompted speculation about an informer in the IRA's ranks.

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Ms O'Neill is from Clonoe and has previously spoken about how she was affected by the ambush and the "harrowing" impact it had on the community.

In a video interview last month, she said: "I think the Troubles really impacted on our community. I think that when I look back to some of the times that stand out to me, the Clonoe ambush where four local young fellas - really young people - lost their lives in that time.

"It was a harrowing period for our community and I think that for me it really had a massive impact - especially when you think back through the years and look at all the things that happened right across Tyrone.

"Different things, I suppose, impacted on different people at different times.

"The Loughgall ambush happened and eight people lost their lives and that was a truly harrowing time for the local community."

The Clonoe ambush was the last time that IRA members were killed by the SAS in Northern Ireland.

During the funeral services for O'Donnell and O'Farrell in Coalisland, the parish priest criticised the security forces' actions.

He appealed to republicans to replace "the politics of confrontation" with "the politics of cooperation".

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