Belfast Telegraph

Why the bye ball for Sinn Fein over 1957 IRA attack commemorations?

By Nelson McCausland

Today at 3pm, members of Sinn Fein will gather for their annual wreath-laying ceremony in memory of Sean South and Fergal O'Hanlon, two IRA men who were killed during a terrorist attack on Brookeborough RUC barracks on New Year's Day 1957.

Sean South was from Limerick and O'Hanlon was from Monaghan town and the raid was part of the IRA campaign that started in 1956 and petered out in failure in 1962.

There are annual commemorations in Fermanagh, at the Brookeborough raid monument at Altawark crossroads, between Roslea and Brookeborough, and in Limerick and, of course, with the number of splits in republicanism, there will be other commemorations by some of the smaller republican groups.

Last year members of the Matt Fitzpatrick and Sean MacDiarmada 1916 Societies staged a separate commemoration in Fermanagh and Republican Sinn Fein had its own commemoration in Limerick.

Such occasions highlight the splintering of republicanism.

The event they commemorate involved 14 well-armed IRA men, who set out to blow up the police station and murder the policemen in it.

However, they failed and two of the IRA men were killed, South and O'Hanlon.

The bodies of the two men were taken secretly across the border into the Irish Republic and this was followed by "a week of all but national mourning".

Across the Irish Republic there was a latent sympathy for the IRA and vast crowds lined the streets as South's funeral cortege made its way to Dublin.

Many local authorities in the Republic, including Dublin City Council, passed resolutions of sympathy with the families of the IRA men.

At midnight on January 4, 1957, 20,000 people, including the mayor, waited in Limerick for the hearse of Sean South and, the next day, 50,000 people attended what was an IRA funeral.

Within a week, the song Sean South had been written to glorify the IRA man and had appeared in the Irish Catholic.

Sean South became the most famous figure of the 1956-62 campaign.

South has been described as "the very embodiment of the Catholic nationalist ideal, a Gaelic scholar, a fervent Catholic, a nationalist writer, an officer in the FCA (the part-time section of the Free State Army) and IRA volunteer".

He was, indeed, deeply religious and had been a member of Maria Duce, an ultra-right-wing Roman Catholic organisation led by Fr Denis Fahey.

It was stridently anti-Protestant and anti-Semitic and its general secretary said that: "Catholic states should suppress non-Catholic sects (ie Protestant Churches) as inimical to the common good. Such intolerance of error is the privilege of truth." (Irish Times, March 17, 1950).

South established the Limerick branch of Maria Duce and, between 1954 and 1956, he published a series of articles in support of Maria Duce in the Gaelic League newspaper, Rosc.

The paper was established to promote the Irish language, but was happy to open its pages to the promotion of such an extremist organisation.

Now, almost 60 years after the attack on Brookeborough, Sean South is still commemorated by Sinn Fein. Of course, it ignores what would be, for it, the more awkward aspects of its dead hero.

Just as it ignores such awkward facts as IRA collusion with the Nazis during the Second World War.

If any other political party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, or the Dail, organised an event to celebrate someone like Sean South, the media would be hammering at the doors of the party offices, demanding answers to their questions.

Party leaders would be doorstepped, or summoned into television studios to be interrogated. So why does that not happen to Sinn Fein?

Why do the media not demand answers to the hard questions about such commemorations? How does commemorating Sean South relate to the Sinn Fein slogan about "an Ireland of equals"?

It is only when the media start to ask such questions that Sinn Fein will start to consider the wisdom of perpetuating such celebrations.

  • Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

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