Northern Ireland

Attending ‘glorifying events’ normalises terrorist violence, says Arlene Foster

Former Northern Ireland first minister Baroness Arlene Foster has said the attendance of senior members of Sinn Fein at ‘glorifying events’ results in the normalisation of violence (House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA)
Former Northern Ireland first minister Baroness Arlene Foster has said the attendance of senior members of Sinn Fein at ‘glorifying events’ results in the normalisation of violence (House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA)

Former Northern Ireland first minister Baroness Arlene Foster has said the attendance of senior members of Sinn Fein at “glorifying events” results in the normalisation of violence.

Sinn Fein MP for North Belfast John Finucane is set to attend an event billed as the South Armagh Volunteers Commemoration this weekend, which victims’ representatives have said will commemorate the actions of the IRA during the Troubles.

Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said all parties have attended commemorative events, and the event in question has been taking place for more than a decade with little controversy.

He also said that the focus on Mr Finucane’s attendance at the event is “distraction politics” from the DUP, as they continue to boycott powersharing institutions in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Good Friday Agreement 25th Anniversary
Former first minister Dame Arlene Foster said the attendance of senior Sinn Fein members at ‘glorifying events’ normalisates violence (Brian Lawless/PA) 

Lady Foster gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday on the effectiveness of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.

She said the attendance of politicians at commemorative events sends an “alarming message” to young people.

“We’re still struggling with legacy today, and when I see people continuing to glorify some of the things that happened in the ’70s and ’80s today, it’s not just about the past, and it’s not just about remembering our dead,” she told the MPs.

“It is actually about sending a message to young people today, that what happened in the past was OK, and what happened in the past was somehow justified, and it wasn’t justified.

“And whether you are a loyalist paramilitary or republican paramilitary, taking up arms is always wrong, and, therefore, I do get very concerned when senior members of Sinn Fein are involved in glorifying events as we know is going to happen very soon.

“And I think it sends a really difficult message to law-abiding citizens right across Northern Ireland, and sends for me an alarming message to young people in Northern Ireland.

“And we talk about reconciliation, Chair, and the difficult conversations about reconciliation still need to happen in Northern Ireland, and when you see that sort of thing happening, with a Sinn Fein MP going to a glorification – a ‘family fun day’ – it’s wrong, and it has to be called out.”

Alliance MLA warns
Sinn Fein MLAs Conor Murphy and Caoimhe Archibald speak to the media after meeting Tanaiste Micheal Martin in Belfast (David Young/PA)

Lady Foster’s father, an RUC reservist, was shot and severely injured by the IRA when she was a young child, and in her teenage years she survived a bomb that exploded under her school bus which was being driven by a part-time UDR soldier.

Lady Foster also told the committee republican politicians attending commemorative events results in the “normalisation of violence”.

“I hope that in any talks or negotiations, which I won’t be involved in, I hope there is a strong focus on not sending negative messages to the past, to the future, which result in violence, which results in the normalisation of violence and results in people thinking it’s OK to come up and say to a victim ‘Ooh, ah, up the ‘Ra’,” she said, referring to a divisive sectarian chant.

“That’s wrong, and I think we really have a problem around the glorification of terrorism in Northern Ireland, and we can ignore it and it will continue, or we can deal with it.”

Other Sinn Fein politicians, including party leader Michelle O’Neill, have been criticised for attending commemorative events relating to the IRA.

Lady Foster said she would be equally critical of a unionist politician attending an event commemorating a loyalist paramilitary group.

“I have said that very, very clearly – if a member of the Democratic Unionist Party was going along to honour UVF volunteers, I would be equally as outraged as I am about a member of Sinn Fein going along to honour IRA volunteers; it is wrong.

“Now people will say ‘Oh, you met somebody from the UVF in the past’. Yes, I also met somebody from the IRA in the past – doesn’t mean that I’m glorifying what they did.

“Because, let me say this, loyalist paramilitaries are weighing down heavily on loyalist communities in Belfast in particular at the moment, and using power to control those areas and those young people in a horrific way.

“Therefore glorifying these people, whether they’re from the loyalist community or whether they’re from the republican community is wrong, and we have to break that cycle.”

A5 public inquiry
Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy said the focus on the commemorative event in Armagh is a DUP attempt at ‘distraction politics’ (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Murphy said the focus on the commemorative event in Armagh is a DUP attempt at “distraction politics”.

“All parties here have attended commemorative events,” he said after meeting Tanaiste Micheal Martin in Belfast.

“Every single party has attended commemorative events, be that British Army ones, be that in Dublin at the 1916 Rising… all parties have been involved with commemorative events over the last 30 years.

“Everybody has the right and that recognises the fact that everybody has the right to commemorate their dead in a dignified way, and we support everyone’s right to commemorate their dead in a dignified way.

“The particular event that you’re talking about has now been going for, I think, 13 years perhaps, certainly well over a decade; it has been spoken at by MPs, by TDs, by ministers.

“We couldn’t as much as get a local photographer to come along to take pictures at it but the DUP have made of an issue out of it, and then now apparently it’s an issue for the media as well.

“The fact is that I think what we’re in here is distraction politics.

“The real issue here is the fact that public services are crashing around our ears, that the DUP are refusing to go back into the Executive to try and help the rest of us fix the very real problems that people face in everyday lives.

“But, yet, we have a situation now where a commemorative event which has taken place annually for well over a decade and has involved high-profile Sinn Fein speakers is now an issue.”

Alliance MLA warns
UUP leader Doug Beattie described the event in South Armagh as ‘scandalous’ (David Young/PA)

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie, who was also meeting Mr Martin in Belfast, described the commemoration in Armagh as “scandalous”.

“It’s not distraction politics,” he said.

“Everybody absolutely has a right to remember their dead, but they must do it in a respectful way. That respectful way should not be hurtful for those who have given the most – that is the victims who lost loved ones during the Troubles.

“And this commemoration, which is being run like a family fun day for South Armagh volunteers who murdered people purely because of their religion and for other reasons, I think it is scandalous.

“And there’s absolutely no way that Michelle O’Neill can say that this is down to people’s different perspectives of the troubled past.

“To go out and murder 10 men at Kingsmill because they were Protestant is not about people’s perceptions of the past. It was sectarian murder and we need to remember that.”