A controversial commemoration event for IRA members in South Armagh, at which Sinn Féin MP John Finucane is scheduled to speak, will go ahead, Northern Ireland’s First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill has said.
Ms O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s vice-president, said Northern Ireland had a “complex history” and the lives of people from every section of the community were affected.
Speaking to The Irish Times in Washington, she said: “I think that we all have a right to remember our dead. And it’s important that while we do that, we ensure that we properly try to find ways to deal with the past, and we also keep looking towards the future and building a better society. And I’m wholeheartedly committed, as is John, on both a personal political way, to reconciliation and to healing the wounds of the past. And to keep focusing on building a better future and delivering the promise of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement.”
Tánaiste Micheál Martin was among those to criticise Mr Finucane’s planned attendance at the commemorative event for IRA members this weekend.
Mr Martin said Sinn Féin “need to ask themselves some hard questions in respect of legacy as well”.
He was speaking to media in Belfast on Wednesday after meeting with representatives of political parties amid the ongoing Stormont deadlock.
There has been no functioning government in the North for over a year due to a boycott of the powersharing institutions by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over its opposition to post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Speaking after his discussions with Mr Martin, Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy criticised the controversy around Mr Finucane’s attendance at the event in Mullaghbawn this Sunday, branding it “distraction politics” led by the DUP.
Mr Finucane, whose father, the solicitor Pat Finucane, was shot dead in front of him and his family in their home by loyalists in 1989, will be the main speaker at the event, billed as the “South Armagh volunteers commemoration”.
Mr Murphy told reporters on Wednesday that the commemoration had been running for almost 13 years and received little publicity until now. He added that everyone had “the right to commemorate their dead in a dignified way”.
But the Tánaiste dismissed comments that the row was being used as a “distraction” from the political impasse.
“No, it’s not distraction politics, to be fair to all concerned. I don’t believe he [John Finucane] should attend,” he said.
“I’ve met with victims across the board, victims of security violence, victims of the Provisional IRA, victims of loyalist violence. They’re all seeking details, information, closure… And if we want the victim-focused legacy process, Sinn Féin needs to ask itself some hard questions and needs to deal with this once and for all. Because they can’t ride two horses in relation to this, in terms of on the one hand looking [for] legacy actions by the British army or the RUC but on the other hand not really doing anything to make sure that we have some degree of detail in terms of horrendous attacks carried out by the Provisional IRA.”
It was Mr Martin’s first trip to the North since last month’s council elections in which Sinn Féin made history by outpolling the DUP and replicating its success in last year’s Assembly elections.
Mr Martin said “the people have spoken” and that Ms O’Neill is “certainly entitled to become the first minister”.
Ms O’Neill is this week meeting a range of senior figures in Washington, both in the Biden administration and on Capitol Hill, including the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.
She told The Irish Times the British government’s ambition for a trade deal with the US was a “leverage point” that politicians in Washington could use to encourage it to pursue the restoration of the Northern Ireland executive.
Ms O’Neill said she expected British prime minister Rishi Sunak would hear a clear message on a visit to the city this week that there needs to be strong partnership working with the Irish Government and a plan for the restoration of Stormont.
Her visit came in advance of that of Mr Sunak who will meet US president Joe Biden in the White House on Thursday.
She said she had briefed people at her various meetings on the results of the recent local elections in Northern Ireland which saw Sinn Féin returned as the largest party.
“It is very clear from that election coming on the back of the Assembly election that people want the executive restored.”
Ms O’Neill maintained there had been “no evidence that the British government is bringing any kind of urgency to achieving a restoration of the executive”.
She said she wanted to appeal to the Biden administration and the politicians on Capitol Hill and to impress upon them that the British prime minister “needs to hear a very strong message” from Washington.
She said she was pretty confident that Mr Sunak would be urged that there should be “strong partnership working with the Irish Government”.
“I think that there are opportunities at hand with the British-Irish intergovernmental conference – the meeting of the two governments that is going to happen on June 19th.”
“So I think there’s an opportunity there to send a very strong signal that both governments are working in partnership [and that] the British government actually has a plan for the restoration of the executive.”
Ms O’Neill said she was aware Mr Sunak would be raising economic issues with the Biden administration and that the British side were “obviously very interested” in a trade deal with Washington.
In recent years, leading US politicians including former speaker Nancy Pelosi had made clear there would be no free trade agreement with the UK if London took any unilateral action that undermined the Belfast Agreement.
Ms O’Neill suggested this could also be a point of leverage for politicians in Washington to press for the restoration of Stormont.
“The strength of the message from the US, the intervention has been very effective in terms of urging the British governments to adhere to role of co-guarantor of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement. And I suspect that that will be what we will hear more over the coming 24-48 hours.”