St Mary’s teacher training college criticised for terrorists’ ‘tributes’

Canvasses commemorating IRA and INLA members at St Mary's teacher training college in Belfast during a community festival in August
Canvasses commemorating IRA and INLA members at St Mary's teacher training college in Belfast during a community festival in August

A display commemorating IRA and INLA terrorists at a teacher training college in west Belfast has been branded “shocking” and unacceptable in a publicly funded facility.

The exhibition, at St Mary’s on the Falls Road, was staged as part of the Feile an Phobail (community festival) in August.

A tribute to Patsy O'Hara was among the displays at St Mary's

A tribute to Patsy O'Hara was among the displays at St Mary's

It included images of hunger strikers, and tributes to IRA members shot dead by the security forces, stitched on to several large canvasses.

A group of Protestants from Co Down had attended the college for a cross-community event and were shocked to see the display in a room close to the entrance lobby.

One of the group, who is a member of the Orange Order, told the Orange Standard publication, he was “absolutely astonished” to see such an exhibition erected inside a publicly funded educational establishment.

“Terrorists were being glorified as some sort of freedom fighters, it was very intimidating,” he said.

Part of the display at St Mary's college in Belfast in August

Part of the display at St Mary's college in Belfast in August

“It is baffling that a facility offering training to tomorrow’s teachers, who are role models for the younger generation, can justify such material as somehow acceptable.

“If you flipped the coin and this was a loyalist exhibition [on university premises] people would be up in arms. But because this is in the heart of west Belfast it is thought to be satisfactory,” he added.

Among those being commemorated on the wall-mounted displays were hunger strikers Patsy O’Hara and Kevin Lynch, as well as Gerard Harte – one of three IRA members shot dead by the SAS as they attempted to murder an off-duty UDR man at Drumnakilly, Co Tyrone in August 1988.

St Mary’s issued a statement pointing out that an exhibition by families of terrorist victims was also in the pipeline.

It said: “Integral to the college’s mission is an ongoing commitment to promote community engagement and dialogue.”

It went on to say: “Féile an Phobail are pleased to provide any genuinely interested party with details on both exhibitions.”

However, Peter Weir of the DUP said: “The environment where those who shape young minds in our society must be neutral and free from such provocative paraphernalia, and this should not be permitted in such an establishment.”

The Mnister for Employment and Learning, Dr Stephen Farry, said: “I am conscious of the importance of all third-level institutions having shared and inclusive environments and would expect the management of the institutions to take this into account in the wider decision-making process.”

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the college said it hosted a variety of events and debates, including those involving the chief constable, a leading member of the Orange Order and both republican and loyalist former prisoners.

It said: “During the festival there was a series of talks and debates, as well as exhibitions, on the campus.

“One of the exhibitions was the ‘Remembrance Quilt’, which is a project organised by Relatives for Justice, and it has been on display for many years in public spaces, both locally and abroad.

“There was also an exhibition entitled ‘In the Footsteps’, organised by the Pat Finucane Centre, which comprised pairs of shoes that symbolised the lost lives of a variety of people associated with ‘the Troubles’.

“Neither exhibition was dedicated to any particular group or section of our society, nor did they ‘honour’ anyone.

“It is disappointing that a highly selective view of the content misrepresents the purpose of the exhibitions.

“Integral to the college’s mission is an ongoing commitment to promote community engagement and dialogue, and only this week St Mary’s has agreed to a request from the South East Fermanagh Foundation to have their Memorial Quilt displayed at the college.

“Féile an Phobail are pleased to provide any genuinely interested party with details on both exhibitions.”