Kenny Donaldson, spokesman for Innocent Victims United, was speaking after Ms O’Neill attended the unveiling of a monument to three IRA men who were members of Clonoe O’Rahilly’s GAA club, in Coalisland on Saturday.
East Tyrone Ógra Shinn Féin tweeted several photos of the launch, one of which included party vice president Ms O’Neill, mooted by some polls as a likely first minister after May’s Assembly election.
The tweet said: “Today the Clonoe O’Rahilly’s erected a monument dedicated to their club members Óglach Peter Clancy, Óglach Hugh Gerard Coney and Óglach Brian Campbell who lost their lives while on active service in the struggle for freedom.”
Mr Donaldson said his organisation is trying to encourage Protestants and unionists to look at GAA “in its widest context” and see what it means for many people in terms of sport and identity.
“However, events like today don’t help in challenging perceptions,” he said.
“The presence of Michelle O’Neill at the unveiling of this memorial will also again raise the question for many; how could she ever perform the role of first minister – Northern Ireland’s symbolic head of state?
“Peter Clancy, Hugh Gerard Coney and Brian Campbell were not heroes, nor were they martyrs,” Mr Donaldson added. “They were part of an insurrectionist movement; the objective being the overthrow of the Northern Ireland state and which included the murder of neighbours.”
According to Troubles reference work ‘Lost Lives’, 19-year-old IRA man Brian Campbell was one of two members to approach an arms cache which was being staked out by the SAS at Clonoe Road in the town in 1983. After the two men pulled out an Armalite and a shotgun, it said, they were challenged to halt, but instead turned their weapons on the soldiers, who opened fire.
Peter Clancy, 19, was one of four IRA men killed in 1992 by the SAS. The IRA hijacked a lorry and mounted a heavy duty 12.7mm Russian-made Degtyarev machine gun on it, which they then used to attack Coalisland police station. When they reached the car park at St Patrick’s Church to meet their supposed getaway cars, the SAS were lying in wait and opened fire.
IRA man and internee Hugh Gerard Coney, 24, was shot by soldiers as he attempted to escape from Long Kesh prison in 1974. Soldiers told the inquest they had shouted up to eight warnings to stop.
Mr Donaldson added: “These men may have played Gaelic games but this is not the issue, they are being remembered by their Gaelic club – Clonoe O’Rahilly’s – for their identity as members of the Provisional IRA hence the language ‘Vol’ and ‘Fallen Gaels’.
“Once again sport and politics have become entangled, what message is being sent out to today’s generation? Do the GAA leadership condone wilful misuse of their games for this political purpose?”
The East Tyrone Ógra Shinn Féin tweet prompted almost 80 comments, almost all of them critical.
One said: “Really reaching out to their unionist neighbours. Way to go Clonoe.” Another said: “Active service? They were sneaking around in bushes hoping to catch some defenceless person.”
A third, Sean Kennedy, added: “Remind me again how celebrating dead terrorists persuades unionists of the merits of a united Ireland?”
TUV West Tyrone candidate Trevor Clarke said Sinn Fein has run a series of events during the last month where representatives were prominent in commemorating terrorist attacks, including the event attended by Michelle O’Neill at Clonoe.
The News Letter invited Sinn Fein, the GAA club, GAA Ulster and the all-Ireland GAA organisation to respond. None of them offered any comment.
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