Sinn Féin commemoration of IRA hunger striker provokes backlash

Sinn Féin is facing a political backlash for commemorating a dead IRA hunger striker but failing to acknowledge the fate of a young mother who burned to death in one of his bombs.

Politicians from other parties and commentators accused Sinn Féin on Thursday of editing the past and romanticising IRA atrocities during Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

The party posted a video honouring Thomas McElwee last Sunday, the 40th anniversary of his death after 62 days on hunger strike in the Maze prison. The 23-year-old was one of 10 republican prisoners who starved to death while demanding political status.

“Unbowed and unbroken. This is his story,” said a tweet from the party’s official Twitter account. The video called McElwee a kind, brave and good natured patriot who resisted British oppression and inspired people across the world with his sacrifice. Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minister in Northern Ireland, said he had died for Irish freedom.

Critics accused Sinn Féin of trying to erase Yvonne Dunlop from memory. An incendiary device planted by McElwee’s unit engulfed the 27-year-old mother of three in a fireball on 9 October 1976.

The bomb was part of a campaign against commercial targets and was left in a clothing boutique in Ballymena, County Antrim, which was owned by Dunlop’s father. McElwee was convicted of her murder, a verdict later reduced to manslaughter.

Sinn Féin’s tribute was a “heavily edited” version of history that overlooked the victim, said Naomi Long, the Alliance party leader and Northern Ireland justice minister. “Her story matters. It must not be erased.”

Jim Allister, the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice, said the video glorified a murderer and was “beyond sick”. Commentators on social media echoed that accusation.

Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin’s housing spokesperson in the Irish parliament, the Dáil, said all sides were entitled to honour their dead and noted that the Irish state and other parties such as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael commemorated earlier generations of people who pursued Irish independence through violence.

The controversy prompted Daniel Keohane, a senior research fellow at Dublin City University, to withdraw an application to join Sinn Féin.

He had announced the application on Sunday on Twitter, saying other parties were allowing working-class people to be “messed around”. On Wednesday he tweeted his change of heart. “While I share many of the same broad aspirations for reconciliation, unification, and a fairer economy, I’m just not comfortable with commemorating PIRA [the Provisional IRA].”

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