Backlash after O’Neill says there was ‘no alternative’ to conflict during Troubles

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Johanna Geron/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Johanna Geron/Reuters

Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s first minister designate, has sparked a backlash in Northern Ireland for saying there was “no alternative” to the IRA’s armed campaign during the Troubles.

O’Neill suggested the Irish Republican Army, which killed about half of the 3,600 people killed during the 30-year conflict, had no choice but to shoot and bomb until the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

“I don’t think any Irish person ever woke up one morning and thought that conflict was a good idea, but the war came to Ireland,” she told the BBC in an interview broadcast this week. “I think at the time there was no alternative, but now, thankfully, we have an alternative to conflict and that’s the Good Friday agreement.”

Unionist politicians and victims’ rights groups accused O’Neill of ignoring historical reality and justifying mass murder.

“There was never a justification for violence,” said Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist party. “Even in Northern Ireland’s darkest days the overwhelming majority of our people respected democracy, the rule of law and – where they felt passionately about a particular cause – took part in peaceful protest. Sinn Féin can pretend there was no alternative but they are condemned by the facts.”

Kenny Donaldson, a spokesperson for the victims’ group South East Fermanagh Foundation, said perceived or real grievances never legitimised the murder of one neighbour by another.

Colin Worton, who lost his brother Kenneth in a massacre of 10 Protestant workmen in 1976, said the IRA had ignored peaceful alternatives in its campaign for a united Ireland. “For 30 years the IRA was wedded to the bomb and the bullet, and Sinn Féin is still trying to justify it. I don’t think they’ll ever change,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.

The controversy is a setback to Sinn Féin’s efforts to distance itself from the Troubles, and broaden its electoral base, without renouncing the IRA. O’Neill’s reference to the IRA having “no alternative” was a fleeting comment in an otherwise conciliatory interview.

“My narrative is a very different one to someone who’s perhaps lost a loved one at the hands of republicans,” she told the BBC. “But we need to be mature enough to be able to say that’s OK, we’ll have to agree to differ on that one, but let’s make sure that the conditions never exist again that we find ourselves in that scenario.”

Sinn Féin emerged as the biggest party in May’s assembly election, positioning O’Neill as first minister if power sharing is restored at Stormont.

The wide-ranging interview about her life and influences touched on O’Neill’s experience as a single mother. There was praise and sympathy for her disclosure that people at her Catholic school in County Tyrone had “prayed over” her when she became pregnant at 16.