First Minister Peter Robinson described the event to remember republican hunger strikers such as Bobby Sands as “obnoxious” and called on Sinn Fein to stop it from taking place.
Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, said the march “has the full approval of local residents” and said the first minister “makes the mistake of asserting a single narrative of the conflict”.
Both leaders spoke to The Impartial Reporter ahead of this weekend’s march which is expected to attract 27 bands, 6,000 participants and over 10,000 spectators to the small rural village. Palestinian ambassador to Ireland, Ahmad Abdelrazek, will be one of the key speakers at the event and will address republicans on the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The Parades Commission had not made a determination for the parade as this newspaper went to press yesterday but it had categorised it as “sensitive” given the backlash that it has received from unionist politicians and some of the families of those killed by the IRA in Fermanagh during the Troubles.
Mr. Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said the event “should be cancelled”.
“It will be intimidating for people in the locality as well as being offensive to victims who do not want to see people who were convicted of terrorist crimes, held up as some sort of role models. Given that these individuals were in prison for committing horrendous crimes, it takes a warped sense of morality to hold them up as examples for young people, as was the case at last year’s event,” he told this newspaper.
The first minister stated that “no civilised society idolises terrorists who skulked in hedgerows and ditches to murder in cold blood” and added: “I have already announced my desire to see stronger laws governing the glorification of terrorism. This is another example why we need such laws. If Sinn Fein has any respect for victims they will call this obnoxious event off.”
Mr. Robinson said that he had raised his concerns about the event with the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers “as parading is not a devolved matter”.
“I am especially concerned that impressionable youngsters who did not live through the carnage of the Troubles will believe the lie that the likes of Bobby Sands or Francis Hughes were people they should look up to; they were not,” he said.
In response, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams told this newspaper: “Peter Robinson is entitled to his opinion. It is not one that is shared by most nationalists and republicans or by millions of others around the world who see Bobby Sands as a freedom fighter and a hero.
“Mr. Robinson makes the mistake of asserting a single narrative of the conflict. Of course, there is a unionist narrative and republican and nationalists must respect that. But there is also a nationalist narrative, a republican narrative, a loyalist narrative, and a British government narrative. We will get to the truth by laying all of these narratives side by side not by one seeking to dominate and exclude all others,” said Mr. Adams.
He said “it is right” that Sinn Fein celebrate the life of Mr. Sands, a former Fermanagh-south Tyrone MP, “and remember the sacrifice which he and his comrades made on behalf of the other political prisoners”.
“Bobby Sands was my friend. I got to know him better as we started to hold political debates and lectures. Bobby was a very intelligent, committed republican. He was well read and enjoyed political discussions and made up his own mind on the political situation.”
Mr. Adams said the hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981 “was a selfless act by ordinary men and women seeking to improve the conditions of their comrades”.
“It was also a political act in defiance of a British government that was seeking to criminalise the prisoners and the struggle for Irish freedom and independence. The gains won within the prison by the Hunger strikers benefited all prisoners, including loyalist prisoners,” he said.
Aside from politics, victims of the IRA in Derrylin have said they feel like this event will ‘re-traumatise’ them. Asked if he was comfortable with that, and if was prepared to apologise to them for the hurt and distress this has caused, Mr. Adams said: “Republicans have no wish to hurt others. We have made strenuous efforts to ensure that Sunday’s march and rally takes place in a dignified fashion with the full support of the local community.”
He added: “Regrettably there are some unionist leaders who are still fighting the war and see all of these events and issues to be fought over. It’s about one view of the conflict being right and the other wrong.
“If we are to have a shared society based on equality and respect for the rights of others then just as nationalists and republicans accept the right of the Loyal Orders to hold over 4,000 marches each year, unionist politicians have to learn to accept the right of others to celebrate their politics provided we do so in consultation with the community in which the event is taking place.
“In this instance we have done that,” he said.
Mr. Adams explained that on Sunday there will be no on-street drinking, or the flying of sectarian banners, no flag burning and the event “will be conducted in a respectful manner”.
Meanwhile, Kenny Donaldson, the director of Lisnaskea-based victims group South East Fermanagh Foundation, said the families of those killed by the IRA during the Troubles see the event as “an insult to the memory of their loved ones who were brutally murdered”.
Ulster Unionist MLA for Fermanagh-south Tyrone, Tom Elliott said the event “demonstrates the lack of respect from Sinn Fein for innocent victims”.
“They are totally lacking in any compassion for the families of those who were murdered by the IRA, especially the family of Jimmy Graham who was shot dead at the Primary School in the village. Such vulgar triumphalism is like walking over the graves of the dead,” he said.
Like the first minister, Mr. Elliott also raised his concerns with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.
Reacting to calls to stop the parade from taking place, Ms. Villiers told The Impartial Reporter: “It is not something over which I have any power.”
Speaking during a visit to Enniskillen, Ms. Villiers said the march was a matter for the Parades Commission, which operates independently of government and she plays no role in that process.
According to Section 9 of the Public Processions (NI) Act, the secretary of state’s powers to intervene on individual parades “are restricted and narrowly defined” unless an application to review a determination is made by Chief Constable George Hamilton in which case she could potentially revoke the decision by the Parades Commission to allow the march to proceed.
“Whatever it is [the determination] I would urge everyone to comply with it. I know the sensitivities around parading can be very great and this one in particular has caused some significant stress and concern to people in Fermanagh,” Ms. Villiers told this newspaper.
She later added: “This government thinks that efforts to glorify or glamorise terrorism are to be condemned” to which Mr. Adams responded: “Ms. Villiers is entitled to her opinion but given the record of that government in shoot-to-kill actions and state sponsored collusion and repression she cannot speak with any moral authority.”