A second Sinn Féin TD said they were comfortable with the party commemorating a hunger striker who had been convicted of the manslaughter of a young woman.
Thomas McElwee died 40 years ago after 62 days on hunger strike, having been arrested when a bomb he was transporting exploded. He was later convicted of the murder of 26-year-old shop owner Yvonne Dunlop, who was burned alive when her shop was firebombed. Mr McElwee’s conviction was later downgraded to manslaughter.
A Sinn Féin video tweeted on Sunday paid tribute to Mr McElwee, calling him “good-natured” and “brave”, prompting criticism from other politicians. Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll McNeill said the party “continues to glorify and commemorate murder instead of apologising to victims”.
40 years ago today, at 11am, Óglach Thomas McElwee from Bellaghy died after 62 days on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. He was a political prisoner; unbowed and unbroken. This is his story. pic.twitter.com/YqS2Rx4bwv
— Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) August 8, 2021
Speaking at Leinster House on Tuesday, the party’s housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin said that commemorations in Ireland were complicated.
Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party all commemorate people who actively used violence in the course of the struggle for Irish freedom over the last century and I don’t say that to be glib. I’m just saying this is something that happens regularly.
“But all communities, both in the North and across the island, have the right to commemorate their dead during the course of the conflict.
“That poses huge challenges because if one community commemorates somebody who died – for example in the hunger strike – that can cause pain and grief for the families who were the victims of IRA violence.
“I’m very conscious of that. And I think when we’re organising commemorations, and this applies to everybody, not just to Republicans, we have to try and do it in a way that is sensitive.”
Mr Ó Broin said he was comfortable with the video and has taken part in similar commemorations, but would encourage anyone involved in commemorations to “be mindful” of other communities and families of victims.
“Either we accept that all sections of the community have a right to commemorate and celebrate, or we don’t.
“And if we accept that they do, I believe that right extends, for example, to Loyalist paramilitaries who died during the conflict, to British soldiers and to members of the RUC, as well as the majority of people who were killed, who were civilians.”
Speaking at Leinster House on Monday, the party’s education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said Ms Dunlop deserves to be commemorated.
“Tom McElwee died on hunger strike 40 years ago, the hunger strike was a very significant event in Irish history.
“It is certainly our view that all victims of conflict need to be treated equally, need to be given equal respect and that would apply to Yvonne Dunlop.”
The video and Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill’s tribute to Mr McElwee attracted the criticism of Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie.