Sinn Fein is straddling peace and violence in its Londonderry bomb response, say unionists

The scene outside the court house on Bishop Street, Londonderry after the bomb explosion on January 19. Picture Lorcan Doherty '/ Press Eye
The scene outside the court house on Bishop Street, Londonderry after the bomb explosion on January 19. Picture Lorcan Doherty '/ Press Eye
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Sinn Fein has been accused of sending out the signal to dissident republicans that “their actions are justified” by appearing to have “withdrawn” its condemnation of last Saturday’s car bombing in Londonderry.

Unionists have heaped criticism on the party, with DUP MP Gregory Campbell saying it is sending “mixed messages” over the attack, and that when it comes to violence and peace Sinn Fein is still trying to “straddle both sides of the fence”.

Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Lorcan Doherty / Press Eye

Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Lorcan Doherty / Press Eye

It comes after Derry City and Strabane District Council only just managed to pass a motion on Thursday condemning the bombing, in the face of Sinn Fein opposition.

The party initially issued a statement last week saying it “condemned” the explosion, and yesterday regional leader Michelle O’Neill joined Foyle MP Elisha McCallion (below, left and right respectively) at an anti-violence protest in the city.

But when it comes to the council vote, DUP Foyle MLA Middleton said Sinn Fein’s failure to condemn all violence “does nothing but send a message to those involved in dissident activity that their actions are justified” – adding there are “big questions” for the party leadership.

Sinn Fein meanwhile accused rivals of trying to “play politics”.

CCTV image showing the fireball after the detonation of a car bomb outside the courthouse on Bishop Street, Londonderry on Saturday

CCTV image showing the fireball after the detonation of a car bomb outside the courthouse on Bishop Street, Londonderry on Saturday

Sinn Fein had proposed a motion at a full council meeting on Thursday which spoke of the need to “oppose” the attack.

The Sinn Fein councillor who proposed it, Sandra Duffy, said she had hoped to achieve a unanimous vote by using the word ‘oppose’ rather than ‘condemn’ (meaning that it might have made it acceptable even to hardline independent republicans on the council).

Independent nationalist Sean Carr, formerly of the SDLP, said the Sinn Fein motion was “very weak”, and so instead tabled an amendment clearly condemning the bomb – as well as all past violence.

Sinn Fein opposed this (alongside a number of independent republican councillors, who comprise a voting block of four on the council) with the result that it only narrowly scraped through, 19 to 18, thanks to the casting vote of the city’s SDLP mayor.

Independent councillors Gary Donnelly and Paul Gallagher had already declined to condemn the car bomb attack when invited to do so by the News Letter earlier this week.

Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill yesterday attended a rally organised by trade union leaders to oppose “all paramilitarism” in light of the bomb blast outside Londonderry’s Bishop Street courthouse on Saturday, which police believe was the work of “the New IRA”.

The rally drew an estimated 100-or-so people according to the Press Association.

Alongside Ms O’Neill at the rally was Elisha McCallion.

Just days earlier Ms McCallion had been asked on BBC Radio Foyle if she would echo the words of her “inspiration” Martin McGuinness, who famously said violent dissidents are “traitors” to Ireland.

She shied away from the question, instead describing them as having “no mandate”.

The DUP group leader on the council, David Ramsey, said: “Something I said last weekend that the only positive coming out of all this was the unity in condemning what has happened. But now Sinn Fein seem to have withdrawn from that.

“The introduction of this form of republicanism to the council by these independents is driving a wedge. Sinn Fein are being forced to adopt more extreme positions and it is damaging the good relations.”

East Londonderry DUP MP Gregory Campbell said of the vote: “It just sends a mixed message if people are trying to straddle both sides of the fence. On the one hand they [Sinn Fein] are saying that they condemn the violence but on the other hand they say there are circumstances in which we don’t condemn it.”

Fellow DUP man Gary Middleton said: “It is disgraceful that Sinn Fein councillors failed to condemn all violence... With the Sinn Fein councillors in Londonderry falling short in their condemnation of the bomb, there are big questions for the Sinn Fein leadership.”

And TUV leader Jim Allister said: “The actions of Sinn Fein councillors last night will leave many people thinking about what exactly the relationship is between so-called dissidents and the political wing of the ‘mainstream” IRA.’”

Sinn Fein said in a statement: “The Sinn Fein motion was a genuine attempt to reflect the strength of feeling that clearly exists in Derry about what happened last week. It’s unfortunate that others sought to play politics by conflating that with the conflict in the past. We all know there are differing narratives about the past. That will always be the case but Sinn Féin is working to build a better future.”

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