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Why Michelle O'Neill thinks that 'outreach' is just a one-way street

Loughgall commemoration shows that Sinn Fein's northern leader prefers IRA hero-worship to community-building, says Eilis O'Hanlon

This weekend, Michelle O'Neill will again take the starring role as republicans gather in Loughgall to mark the deaths of eight IRA members, shot dead by the SAS in May 1987 after attempting to blow up the police station in the Co Armagh village.

It comes just weeks after the Co Tyrone woman marked her coronation as Sinn Fein's new northern leader by attending a commemoration for four IRA men shot dead by the SAS in her birthplace of Clonoe in 1992 after attempting to - you've guessed it - blow up a police station.

Why did the IRA never learn from its mistakes?

More to the point, why hasn't she?

As she faces another barrage of criticism for her decision to attend Sunday's event in honour of the so-called "Loughgall Martyrs", O'Neill only has herself to blame.

Whatever appetite may still exist in Northern Ireland for wallowing in the past, it only becomes truly dangerous when the wallowing is endorsed by political figures who are meant to be leading by example, rather than glorifying violent terrorists to a point where young people who were not even born at the time may well start to think of killing and dying "for Ireland" as a laudable aspiration.

The Loughgall ambush represented the IRA's greatest loss of life in a single incident during the entire Troubles, so it was naturally bound to leave a mark on the republican psyche.

Victims of violence, likewise, must never be forgotten. But the only innocent victims of that attack were brothers Anthony and Oliver Hughes, who were driving home from work at the time and whose car was riddled with bullets. Anthony tragically died of his injuries.

Valid criticisms can be levelled against the SAS operation that night, including the failure not to evacuate the area for fear of tipping off the IRA that the security services were onto them; other civilians could easily have died.

But Sinn Fein's objection to the operation was not because of its recklessness; the republican movement was far more reckless with innocent life in the course of the "struggle" with no more than the mildest slaps on the wrist from the movement's political leadership.

Sinn Fein's only objection is that their comrades came out worse from the encounter. Had Anthony Hughes been killed as a result of IRA action, Sinn Fein would've written him off as collateral damage.

Therein lies the party's muddle-headed thinking on what are euphemistically called "legacy issues".

On the one hand, it demands that an absolute distinction be made between Sinn Fein and the IRA.

On the other hand, it constantly blurs that line, seeking credit for what it regards as the political successes of the IRA, as well as sympathy for loss of life by republican activists. Either the republican movement is one thing, or it isn't. Sinn Fein needs to make up its mind which it is.

Actually, it has. Martin McGuinness's headstone was proof of that. In 1973, the former butcher boy from Derry stood in a Dublin courtroom, charged with terrorist activity, and stated emphatically from the dock: "I am a member of Oglaigh na hEireann (the IRA) and very, very proud of it."

In the last weeks of his life, the former deputy First Minister then approved a headstone which equally proudly proclaimed his membership of the same IRA. Two statements, more than 40 years apart, both bearing the same uncompromising message. Begging the question: what had really changed in the interim?

McGuinness said he wanted history to judge him fairly, but he had a choice about how he wanted to be remembered - and he chose to prioritise his role in the IRA over everything else. His opponents were symbolically given McGuinness's permission from the grave to do likewise.

The same goes for Michelle O'Neill's decision to attend another IRA commemoration. She is making a deliberate decision to prioritise hero-worship of the Provisional IRA over community-building.

Families of the dead have every right to remember their loved ones in any way they see fit. By attaching their name to particular commemorations, however, parties are giving those events their explicit official endorsement.

That has consequences which they're bound to accept, not least of which is that they will continue to be tainted by association.

By repeatedly hitching her wagon to the IRA when it suits her agenda, or helps out in the middle of another divisive sectarian head-count at the polls, Michelle O'Neill cannot simultaneously wash her hands of the IRA when the association becomes less useful.

Like McGuinness, O'Neill is giving her opponents permission to place her on the same continuum.

If she wishes to "own" the IRA's name, she must also own the parts she finds uncomfortable and others regard as heinous, as well as those she considers noble and sympathetic, just as those who applaud the SAS's actions in Loughall should not forget Anthony Hughes.

In that regard, the failure by Doug Beattie, decorated soldier and now Ulster Unionist MLA, to mention in a newspaper column this week that an innocent victim also died that night was disappointing, to say the least.

For O'Neill, this means not only celebrating the IRA when its volunteers fell in what they call "active service", but taking responsibility when it was innocents who died - and there were far more of those than there were IRA members with any cause to feel aggrieved because they got in return what they were happy to dish out to others.

Sinn Fein lectures unionists on the need to reach out to nationalist communities, but appears to believe that the process is a one-way street.

In recent days, Arlene Foster even managed a few words in Irish, God love her. It may have been a small gesture, but it was the right gesture.

O'Neill's continued need to reassure the boys of the old brigade that she has their back by attending every Provo pity party is the wrong gesture, in the wrong place and definitely at the wrong time. Though, perhaps, rather than deploring it, we should see it as an overdue outbreak of honesty.

Michelle O'Neill has had plenty of chances since she assumed leadership responsibilities to assert her identity as her own woman.

Instead, she's been content to play the role of Her Master's Voice, following in the footsteps of her predecessors, rather than striking out on a new path.

At least she is doing it while she's still around to defend her decisions, rather than using a headstone to stick two defiant fingers up at everyone who dearly wanted to believe the republican movement had changed.

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