Belfast Telegraph

Fresh start? All Michelle O'Neill offers is same poison with prettier wrapping

By marking the deaths of Provos, SF's northern leader shows she is cut from the same cloth as Adams, says Eilis O'Hanlon.

In days gone by young riders out on their first fox hunt would traditionally go through an informal ceremony known as a blooding, in which the gore of the first animal they ever helped to kill was smeared on their cheeks or forehead like warpaint on a tribal warrior.

Sinn Fein leaders appear to be required to undergo a similar initiation rite, in which they must symbolically bathe themselves in the blood of fallen comrades to convince the old lads down the pub in west Belfast and south Armagh that they're ideologically sound.

For Michelle O'Neill, the party's new leader in Northern Ireland, that meant addressing a vigil last night to commemorate four IRA members shot dead while on so-called active service in her home village of Clonoe, Co Tyrone, in 1992, when the former Minister for Health was in her early teens.

News of the event, organised by the Coalisland Clonoe Martyrs Sinn Fein Cumann, caused consternation, and there should be little wonder at that.

This is the woman who was presented to voters a little over three weeks ago as a new start, a fresh face.

She may have had family connections with republican terrorism - her father was an IRA prisoner and a cousin was shot dead by the SAS in 1991 - but what mattered was that she herself came with no personal baggage. She hadn't been involved in the thick of the violence like her predecessor Martin McGuinness.

She hadn't served time for possession of explosives, like fellow MLA and former favourite for the top job Conor Murphy.

Instead, her entire life had been spent in politics. In that, she was meant to represent Sinn Fein's future.

Now, within a month of being paraded before the media as a shining new star untainted by past history, she is wrapping herself in the IRA's bloodstained colours.

Perhaps the warning bells should have been ringing from the start. Within 24 hours of her ascension to the top of Sinn Fein's northern command O'Neill was giving an online interview in which the only two incidents from the "many dark days" of the Troubles that she actually mentioned by name were the deaths of IRA members gunned down while engaged in terrorist activity.

But she was largely given the benefit of the doubt. She was new to this, they said. She'd be more diplomatic in future about the messages that she was putting out.

Instead, having had the benefit of hindsight, O'Neill has doubled down on her political wager by allying herself even more closely to the Provisional IRA, while insisting, like all other Sinn Fein representatives before her, that it is dirty tricks to associate her party too closely with republican terrorism.

Sinn Fein is not the IRA, and the IRA is not Sinn Fein - that's always been the message. If one of the first official duties the new party leader chooses to perform is celebrating the IRA's dead, then that distinction starts to look again like PR spin rather than reality.

It's up to republicans to prove that the political and military wings are not joined at the hip.

If they're not even going to bother pretending, why should we?

O'Neill has a smart answer to all this, which is that she wants to pay her respects to "all victims" of the conflict. Did I say smart? Make that glib.

This is nothing but a poisonous lie that those who supported violence continually advance for their own self-serving motives, insisting that they suffered as much as anyone, that their loss is as worthy of mourning and commemoration as everyone else's.

It isn't.

Some victims are more worthy than others.

Say that and you'll immediately be accused of introducing a "hierarchy of victims". Good. There should be a hierarchy, with innocent victims at the top and terrorists right down at the bottom.

The four men whose deaths O'Neill marked with honour this week had a choice. They could have tried to win a united Ireland through peaceful and democratic means. They could have put down the Armalite and grasped the ballot box with both hands.

They didn't. On February 16, 1992 they made a deliberate choice to go and open fire on Coalisland RUC station with a heavy machine-gun.

As it happened, they were killed instead while making their escape - the last IRA members to die at the hands of the SAS.

That's terrible for their families, and traumatic for the communities in which they lived. But they are in no way equivalent to, or as deserving of our sympathy as, eight-year-old Kathryn Eakin, who was cleaning the windows of her family's shop in Claudy, Co Derry, when a car bomb exploded in 1972, killing her instantly along with eight others; or headmaster Ronnie Hill, who died after spending 13 years in a coma following the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen.

To put the many hundreds of innocent victims of terrorist violence in the same category as those they murdered is obscene. It's equivalent to burying a serial killer and his victims in the same grave.

The republican movement may believe that it can better get away with the toxic lie that all victims are equal by having it come from the mouth of an apparently personable woman from a younger generation than those who carried out these atrocities. All they're actually doing is passing the sins of the fathers on to the children.

Republicans are the very last people to condemn a hierarchy of victims when they're constantly trying to put their favourite murderers at the top of it.

"We are moving forwards." That was O'Neill's message at Wednesday's launch in Armagh of her party's manifesto for the upcoming Assembly elections.

But this does not feel like moving forwards.

It feels like a step backwards. At least one step, and there's a lot of it about right now.

Arlene Foster's belligerence over the Irish language was another blast from an unpleasant past.

Even the SDLP is playing silly beggars with fantastical talk of joint authority.

It's Groundhog Day, Northern Irish style.

There'll be excuses all-round. The ex-First Minister "has" to put hardliners' minds at ease that she won't sell the unionist community down the river. O'Neill "has" to reassure the old guard that she's not forgotten where she came from, just as Gerry Adams "had" to carry the coffin of the Shankill bomber to jockey the Provos along the path to peace.

It's one excuse after another for what, deep down, they want to do anyway. That's not a break from tradition. It's just a repackaging of the same old venom.

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