Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein hunger strike march in Castlewellan an insult to our loved ones, say families of IRA victims

The hunger strike commemoration in Belfast in 2016
The hunger strike commemoration in Belfast in 2016
William Heenan
Sammy Heenan
A poster for the event
Mary Lou McDonald at a republican commemoration in Castlewellan in January

By Gillian Halliday

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."

Bobby Sands' son Robert Gerald holds his mother's hand at the funeral of his father Bobby in west Belfast flanked by Masked IRA men. Picture by Martin Wright
Bobby Sands' son Robert Gerald holds his mother's hand at the funeral of his father Bobby in west Belfast flanked by Masked IRA men. Picture by Martin Wright
Hunger striker Bobby Sands' coffin, flanked by an IRA colour party, leaving his mother's home in Twinbrook.
Tomboy Loudon, Gerry Roche, Denis Donaldson and Bobby Sands pictured in the Long Kesh prison, Northern Ireland.
Hunger strike protesters outside the Dail in Dublin 1981
Hunger strike marchers blocked by gardai as they approach the British Embassy in Dublin
PACEMAKER BELFAST Rioting in west Belfast on the day hunger striker Bobby Sands died in 1981
A man walks past the Bobby Sands mural, in the Falls road area of Belfast
Masked gunmen fire a volley of shots beside hunger striker Bobby Sands coffin, at Milltown Cemetery.
Bobby Sands (seated fourth from left). The Star of the Sea football team.
Hunger striker Bobby Sands funeral procession making its way down Stewartstown Road on Route to Milltown cemetery
Several unionist politicians have called for Maze cells which housed hunger strikers to be flattened
Bobby Sands funeral
1st March 2011. Launch of the Hunger Strike 30th Anniversary Exhibition in the Linen Hall Library, Belfast. Ten republican prisoners died during the 1981 protest inside the Maze Prison. A letter written by Bobby Sands on cigarette paper which was smuggled out of the prison pictured at the exhibition.
Michael Fassbender stars in Hunger, the film about the last six weeks in the life of Bobby Sands
Kieran Doherty died in the Maze prison in 1981 after being on a hunger strike
Former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald pleaded with Ronald Reagan to pile pressure on Margaret Thatcher over the hunger strikes

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.

The Bobby Sands mural on the Falls Road
The Bobby Sands mural on the Falls Road

"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."

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