Former Irish defence minister Eamon O’Cuiv last night said he was deeply sorry if his comments about prison officer David Black’s murder had caused offence.
At the weekend unionists reacted with fury to the TD’s comment that the prison authorities’ treatment of dissident republican inmates was a contributory factor in the killing.
In comments made during a Dail debate, but given wider publicity by the Sunday Times at the weekend, he said that there was “cause and effect” between the prison regime which led to protests and Mr Black’s murder.
Although the former Fianna Fail deputy leader had stressed his abhorrence at the murder, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said the comments were “beneath contempt”.
DUP MEP Diane Dodds said they were “quite disgraceful”.
Last night Mr O’Cuiv spoke of his regret at how those comments have been viewed by many unionists.
The News Letter contacted Mr O’Cuiv yesterday afternoon about the issue.
After being interviewed about his comments, Mr O’Cuiv then later phoned back to say that he had read the official Dail record of his speech and it did not make clear that he ran out of time, meaning that he had been cut off as he began to speak about Mr Black’s murder.
“I can understand how people could misinterpret what I said there but I would have thought that if somebody had read the rest of it in context it was clear where I was coming from because I’d spent so much time talking about recognising identity, non-confrontation, people sitting down together and getting to know each other — I mean, it’s not exactly dissident talk, is it?”
The former Fianna Fail deputy leader added: “I apologise if any offence was given. It was certainly never my intention.
“The last thing I would ever, ever want to do is cause any offence to the Black family. I can assure you that I’m not saying this as some kind of political talk; I genuinely think about them very, very frequently because it just weighs on my mind that lots of people could have done a lot more.
“What would worry me is that if we had worked even harder than what we were doing, it might never have happened. And that’s not to condone what happened.”
In his original speech in the Dail, Mr O’Cuiv — a grandson of the Republic’s founding father, Eamon de Valera — spoke about the need for nationalism to understand unionism and dismissed “the idea that some day we will wake up and all unionists will think the tricolour was the greatest flag in the world and that they would somehow turn on their own identity”.
He also repeated his suggestion that a united Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth.
But it was the final section which caused controversy: “Trying people for what occurred prior to the peace process is wrong and always seems to be on the one side...however, we must not forget that a decent and honest prison officer is now dead.
“David Black was murdered because of the refusal on the part of people in authority to deal with the issues that resulted in a dirty protest that lasted 18 months. One can see the cause and effect.”
Last night Mr O’Cuiv said that if people believed he was inadvertently encouraging anybody to violence he would be “very, very upset because I’m totally opposed to violence of any type”. But he added: “Not supporting violence is not enough. I have worked actively to try to persuade people away from violence.”
Stressing that he did not in any way condone Mr Black’s murder, Mr O’Cuiv said that he had a fear when the dirty protest was ongoing “that something terrible might happen...when I heard of the death of an absolutely innocent man, I had a very deep horrible feeling because my worst fear had come true, that somebody would do something totally wrong and totally unjustifiable.
“But to say that there was no link between the two I think would be simplistic.”
Asked if he believed dissident prisoners had a legitimate grievance about their conditions, he said the filth of a ‘dirty protest’ and “the willpower to see it through for so long would seem to indicate that there had to be some deep-rooted issue there”.
He denied that dissident republicans would simply have viewed any member of the security forces as a so-called legitimate target, pointing out that Mr Black was the first prison officer murdered for 20 years.
He said that of all the deaths in Northern Ireland, the murders of solicitor Rosemary Nelson and Mr Black “affected me most intimately and personally and that I’d have thought about most over the years because in both cases I would ask myself if I had personally done enough; one on each side of the spectrum; poles apart in terms of their background...I didn’t know David Black but I was close to that situation and we were working on it and Rosemary Nelson had contacted me saying her life was under threat before she was killed.”