Sinn Fein hunger strike march in Castlewellan an insult to our loved ones, say families of IRA victims
Relatives of IRA victims have accused Sinn Fein of "insulting" their loved ones' memories by planning a major hunger strike commemoration in a Co Down town.
The march, which will be attended by Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, is scheduled for Castlewellan on Sunday, August 5.
It will mark the anniversary of the deaths of 10 republican hunger strikers, including Bobby Sands and Raymond McCreesh, in 1981.
In previous years tens of thousands of republicans have attended the event, which changes location annually.
This year's march in south Down has been condemned by relatives of local victims, who say it is compounding their grief.
Sinn Fein, however, defended the parade, citing its "right" to commemorate the hunger strikers, who it said are "inspirational to those striving for freedom across the world".
But Sandra Harrison, chair of local victims' group Mourne Action for Survivors of Terrorism (MAST), criticised the event.
She said it had brought back the trauma of losing her brother Alan (23), who was killed in Kilkeel 30 years ago.
"It is an insult to my brother's memory. It's distasteful," she said.
"It's very saddening to see that they're glorifying hunger strikers and bringing it back to the fore again. It's gut-wrenching."
Mrs Harrison said the sight of posters erected locally promoting the parade had left her feeling "sickened".
"My heart sank when I saw them. The whole area is busy with tourists and this event just drags the area down," she added.
Mrs Harrison also accused Sinn Fein of "double standards" in its calls for equality and human rights.
"None of our MAST members' loved ones had any rights. No value was placed on their relatives' lives. The victims had no rights," she added.
Her comments were echoed by Sammy Heenan, whose father William was murdered outside his home just five miles from Castlewellan in 1985.
"It's an insult to my father's memory and those who lost their lives in south Down for Castlewellan to be chosen for this," he said.
"This area bore the brunt of a sustained IRA campaign for 30 years. In this constituency almost 70 innocent people were murdered by IRA terrorists.
"It confronts the Sinn Fein mantra of truth, integrity and respect, something they demand themselves but cannot afford to the victims of the IRA in this area.
"This event should not be taking place as it reinforces the trauma of the victims."
He also accused South Down MP Chris Hazzard of displaying further "insensitivity" to victims' families by participating in the commemorations.
The Sinn Fein MP - who was criticised earlier this year for setting up his Castlewellan constituency office in a building named after two IRA men - is to chair a panel discussing a hunger striker documentary being screened on the eve of the march.
"I've challenged him on numerous occasions to condemn the murder of my father, and so far he's refused to acknowledge my requests," said Mr Heenan.
"It exposes the sheer hypocrisy of the republican movement in elevating their own narrative and disregarding the pain and hurt they inflicted on so many people throughout south Down."
Local UUP representative Alan Lewis claimed Sinn Fein was "glorifying" acts of terrorism by attending such events.
"Bobby Sands the bomber, Raymond McCreesh the gunman, Francis Hughes the murderer, the list goes on. The activities of all 10 men are far from heroic, certainly nothing that should be celebrated in a busy town on a Sunday afternoon," he said.
Urging the party to "scale back" on the event and to take down the posters, he denounced Sinn Fein's equality agenda as "hollow" and accused the party of being "tone deaf" to the feelings of victims' families. In response, Sinn Fein hit back at Mr Lewis, saying it would not be "lectured" by the UUP, which "ran a one-party, apartheid state for over 50 years".
"As Alan Lewis will know, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which his party supported, everyone has a right to remember their dead with dignity and respect," said the party.
It added: "The names of the hunger strikers are internationally recognised as an inspiration to all people struggling for freedom, rights, and human dignity."