Michelle O’Neill speaks her mind at tribute to slain IRA gunmen

New Sinn Féin leader attends memorial in Clonoe for volunteers shot dead by the SAS

If the wreath-laying ceremony at the spot where four IRA gunmen were shot dead was a test for Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Féin's new leader in Northern Ireland, then it is fair to say she passed it.

In the tiny Tyrone village of Clonoe, her home town, brightness flowed from the chancel windows of St Patrick’s Church, the result of a spotlight illuminating an altar display celebrating St Valentine.

Otherwise, the large church car park was mostly in jet-black, wintry darkness. A small plaque, gradually being hidden by an expanding memorial fir tree, gives the IRA version of the events of 25 years ago last Thursday.

At 10.40pm that night, it says, a lorry carrying a number of IRA volunteers entered the car park and was ambushed by undercover soldiers of the SAS, the Special Air Service special forces unit of the British army.


When the lorry came to a halt, Paddy Vincent was dead at the wheel. "Barry O'Donnell and Peter Clancy were shot down as they attempted to escape," says the plaque, adding that the fourth man, Seán O'Farrell, was "gunned down" in front of the chapel. Two others were wounded but their presence is not recorded.

What the plaque does not reveal is what had happened beforehand.

First, the lorry had been hijacked and stolen. Then the IRA gang drove it to Coalisland police station which they sprayed with machine gun fire before escaping, only to run into an obviously well-informed ambush.

About 150 of the men’s family friends and former comrades arrived in the car park shortly the 8pm commemoration, where the guest speaker was O’Neill, her first such outing since succeeding Martin McGuinness, her scheduled attendance the subject of much unionist criticism.

Relatives of victims of IRA violence in east Tyrone expressed their dismay and loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson did not let the opportunity pass to point to O'Neill's family connections to the IRA and that this week, a cousin, Gareth Doris, had been convicted of laundering fuel.

‘Brave volunteers’

As the crowd moved towards the fir tree, battery-powered tea lights were distributed. In front of the tree, a Tricolour stiffened in the breeze. Two wreaths lay on the ground beside it, ready to be laid at the memorial.

The attendance comprised mostly late middle-aged men, contemporaries presumably of the four gunmen, some wives and partners and a handful of younger people. O’Neill, striking in the darkness because of her bright pink blouse and long blonde hair, appeared relaxed, at ease, smiling and chatting amiably, as one would expect her to be among friends and neighbours.

Linda Dillon, outgoing Sinn Féin MLA for Mid Ulster and candidate for re-election, welcomed everyone to the remembrance of "our four brave, young volunteers" and called for the laying of the wreaths.

The first, a dome-shaped display of white chrysanthemums, orange roses and green sprigs of leylandii, was on behalf of the organisers, the Coalisland/Clonoe Martyrs Sinn Féin Cumann.

O'Neill, striking in the darkness because of her bright pink blouse and long blonde hair, appeared relaxed, at ease, smiling and chatting amiably

"And on behalf of Óglaigh na hÉireann," said Dillon, employing the IRA's name for itself but actually the formal title of the Defence Forces.

A man, Hughie Quinn, wearing a tweed peaked cap and quilt jacket, picked up a wreath of laurel leaves decorated with a Tricolour ribbon and, with a pronounced, clipped military precision, walked to the tree, placed the wreath on the ground, stood to attention, bowed his head and stepped back into the crowd.

Sad night

“I was born here, I live here,” said O’Neill starting her address. “I knew these four fellows individually. Four great lads . . . ”

This was a sad night for the community which had come together to remember sacrifice, she said. She remembered the night of their deaths “so clearly”.

“I can certainly remember the pain and the hurt and the sorrow and the shock, most of all felt by the families but by the wider republican community,” she said.

“These were four ordinary young men who faced extraordinary challenges and they responded in defence of their community and also of their country.

“They never went looking for war but it came to them. There are some who would say that we have no right to remember or honour them. We have absolutely every right. Everyone, it doesn’t matter who you are, has the right to remember their dead in a respectful and in a dignified manner.”

She repeated the tried-and-tested Sinn Féin line about there being “no hierarchy of victims”.

“Republicans recognise that,” she said. “The past will always be a contested space. There’s no single narrative to any single conflict, anywhere in the world, or at any time in history. Republicans understand that and accept it. We are committed to building bridges, to heal the hurt of the past and to build a better future for all of our children.”

‘Death squads’

The refusal of the British government to accept this was the cause of the North’s current problems, she said.

“They don’t want the world to know about the death squads, about shoot-to-kill, about the torture and the full extent of collusion. They don’t want the world to know what they did in places like Clonoe. But we will overcome that because republicans today are every bit as determined as Seán, as Peter, Paddy and Barry were.”

There's no single narrative to any single conflict, anywhere in the world, or at any time in history

The coming months and years “will shape of our island and our struggle for a generation to come”, she said. “But republicans have never been afraid of challenges. These four young men that we remember tonight weren’t afraid of any challenge. They faced it head on.”

The crowd approved. The war was fought, we remember our dead, we are building for the future.

A young woman, Alanna, played a lament on a tin whistle; another, Aoife, sang “I’ll love you still in old Clonoe”; Colm led the singing of Amhrán na bhFiann.

And so they dispersed, a few lingering to chat with the local star. This weekend, they will be out canvassing for her, a seamless thread of continuity between past events in the church car park and battles to be won in the polling station.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times