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Begley's 'hand of friendship' a charade, say unionists after new MP's hunger strike eulogy

 

By Suzanne Breen

Unionist politicians have hit out at the new Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone for attending a hunger strike commemoration in her first public engagement.

The DUP and Ulster Unionists accused Orfhlaith Begley of hypocrisy for her presence at the event a day after she said she wanted to extend the hand of friendship to unionists in the constituency.

Ms Begley attended a commemoration last Saturday to mark the 37th anniversary of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands' death.

After her election to Westminster the previous day, the new MP said: "This is a new chapter for West Tyrone. I will reach out with an open hand in friendship to our unionist neighbours.

"I will work to seek resolutions rather than recrimination. I will work to build bridges. I will do so as part of a vibrant, growing and dynamic party under the new leadership of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill.

"I am hugely excited by that, because this can be a genuinely new era for Irish politics."

Speaking at the hunger strike commemoration in Dromore the next day, she said that she drew her inspiration from the 10 republican prisoners who died in the H-Blocks.

"The sacrifice and courage of the 1981 hunger strikers has inspired me to continue on the journey for Irish freedom," she told the crowd.

"The hunger strikers, and everything they represent, continue to be an inspiration to us all."

Listing the names of the hunger strikers along with some of the 1916 leaders, she continued: "They are the people who set the moral compass for the rest of us to aspire to today.

"I am spurred by their heroism. We will live in the Irish Republic that our comrades sacrificed their liberty and their lives for in the H-Blocks."

Ms Begley ended her oration by saying: "Tiocfaidh ar la."

She was the main speaker at the annual commemoration in Dromore, which saw bands march from St Patrick's Hall to a memorial stone in Church Street. DUP MLA Tom Buchanan branded her speech "totally disgraceful" and claimed it showed that Sinn Fein's reconciliation gestures weren't genuine.

"During and immediately after the election, Sinn Fein tried hard to give the impression that it was reaching out to unionists and was less hostile to the unionist community," he said.

"But actions speak louder than words. We can clearly see how insincere Sinn Fein's pretence of friendship was, with Orfhlaith Begley's attendance at an event which glorified murderers."

Mr Buchanan continued: "Sinn Fein can talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk. They can't help harking back to the old ways by commemorating IRA killers.

"It is no surprise to me and they should just drop the pretence of feigning to be something they are not.

"The unionist community can see through their hypocrisy."

Local Ulster Unionist councillor Chris Smyth, who contested the West Tyrone by-election along with Mr Buchanan, accused Sinn Fein of double standards.

"Orfhlaith Begley's presence and speech at this event exposes the facade of Sinn Fein's unionist outreach for what it is," he said.

"Ms Begley has not lived up to her own words. She has a choice - to stand by her commitment to building bridges with unionists or to admit that she's not interested. Sinn Fein can't have it both ways." Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United said: "Ms Begley speaks of the hunger strikers as 'heroes' but the facts are very different.

"The 10 men were each incarcerated for serious terrorist criminal offences committed against their neighbours, Protestant, Roman Catholic and dissenter.

"In her recent acceptance speech after becoming West Tyrone's new MP, Orfhlaith Begley spoke about 'building bridges', 'reaching out to unionism', 'living together in a reconciled future'.

"What sheer and utter drivel that was. Normal service has been resumed in West Tyrone."

Mr Donaldson claimed that rather than being "a new face", Ms Begley's "words and the attitudes are the same old, same old" from her party.

Sinn Fein had not responded to requests for comment by the time of going to press.

The new West Tyrone MP was elected comfortably, with over 16,300 votes and 47% of the poll.

Mr Buchanan, her nearest rival, was 8,000 votes behind.

The by-election was called following the resignation of Barry McElduff amid fury after he posed with a Kingsmill loaf on his head on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre in January.

Belfast Telegraph

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