Naomi Long: Commemorating terror undermining GAA’s good work

Justice Minister Naomi Long has accused Sinn Fein of “crossing the line” in terms of commemorating the republican dead and insulting victims.

By Henry McDonald
Friday, 4th March 2022, 3:30 am
Updated Friday, 4th March 2022, 8:04 am

The Alliance Party leader also criticised a Tyrone Gaelic sports club for hosting a memorial service for IRA members shot dead by the SAS, claiming it had damaged the GAA’s cross-community outreach programme in Northern Ireland.

Ahead of Alliance’s annual conference on Saturday, Mrs Long also said she believes that the IRA’s ruling structure – the Provisional Army Council – continues in some form to exist.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mrs Long said she understood the concerns of many people about the prospect of Sinn Fein taking over the justice ministry after the Assembly elections in May.

PACEMAKER BELFAST 16/12/2019 Alliance Party Leader Naomi Long . Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Referring to the recent controversy about Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill attending the IRA commemoration inside the grounds of a Coalisland GAA club last month, the justice minister said: “I have always been very clear that whilst we respect everyone’s right to remember those who have passed away and died during the Troubles there needs to be sensitivity, particularly from those in party political leadership with respect to the impact on victims.

“I think there is a line that needs to be drawn between marking that someone has passed and the right of families to remember their dead, and glorification of terrorism. And I think that line has been crossed by Sinn Fein on a number of occasions in a profoundly unhelpful way.”

The Alliance leader said locating IRA memorials on the premises of GAA clubs undermined efforts to make gaelic sports more inclusive.

“When it comes to memorialisation in GAA clubs it causes me concern because I have seen the very positive cross-community work that the GAA are doing right across the community and the efforts that they are making to make the GAA more inclusive to a much wider range of people.

“I know it’s a very devolved matter for individual clubs but unfortunately when people see these kind of memorials being launched that are highly political and associated with a particular club I think it undoes a lot of good work that the GAA are doing.

“It has always been our view that politics should be kept out of sport as much as possible. Unfortunately the location of memorials of this kind that are contentious at GAA clubs doesn’t make it easy for the GAA corporately to engage on a more inclusive cross-community basis.”

Asked if the IRA’s ruling Army Council still exists, the justice minister said: “I can only go by the assessments that are given to me because I have no inside knowledge of that. But the assessments that have been given are that if the ‘Army Council’ still exists it is not planning or acting in a way to carry out terrorist activities. This is the assessment that is pre-existing.

“But I believe that all of those legacy structures of all paramilitaries should go. There should be no need for any ‘Army Council’ if there is no ‘army’ and no ‘war’.”

On the prospect of a Sinn Fein justice minister, Mrs Long said: “I understand people’s concerns and I think those concerns are shared by many of the electorate irrespective of their political background with regards to a number of parties who play fast and loose with justice, and who don’t take a consistent position on the matters relating to the rule of law. Parties need to be clear that they are fully committed to the rule of law.”

While Brexit has increased demands from nationalists for a border poll Mrs Long said a constitutional plebescite was “not in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland”.

She said: “We believe strongly that we need to engage about the future of Northern Ireland whatever the constitutional outcome might be but the primary focus has to be on what is good for Northern Ireland... And if we are going to talk about a United Kingdom or a united Ireland then surely to have either working well we need to focus on uniting the people of Northern Ireland first.”

The Alliance leader said the party was looking forward to the Assembly elections and has put multiple candidates in a number of constituencies “where we believe gains can be made”.

She added that Alliance was now the main party for the growing numbers who define themselves as ‘Neither’.