Pro-life campaigners vow to cause a ‘major headache’ for Sinn Fein

Pro-life campaigners Catherine Sewell (left) and Doris Vincent making their point outside Michelle O'Neill's constituency office in Coalisland in June
Pro-life campaigners Catherine Sewell (left) and Doris Vincent making their point outside Michelle O'Neill's constituency office in Coalisland in June

A group of pro-life campaigners say they are planning to “cause a major headache for Sinn Fein” at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement.

A re-creation of the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon in 1968 is due to take place along the original route this Saturday. But pro-life campaigners say they plan to turn up at the Sinn Fein-organised event in large numbers to protest against the party’s position on abortion.

The coalition of anti-abortion groups, led by the Tyrone Pro-Life Network, has accused Sinn Fein of “hijacking history” and say they will use Saturday’s demonstration to “highlight the pro-life cause”.

Pro-life campaigners from across Ireland are expected to gather in the centre of Coalisland at 2.30pm – a move they claim is “guaranteed to cause a major headache for Sinn Fein” and will be “highly embarrassing” for the party.

“Fifty years after the original civil rights demonstration we now find ourselves struggling for the most basic civil right of all, namely the right to be born,” said Catherine Sewell, a prominent pro-life activist from the Co Tyrone area.

“Abortion is the greatest threat to that right and we intend to be the voice of the unborn on the day of the march.”

Accusing Sinn Fein of “championing a radical pro-abortion position” after the party backed moves to relax the abortion laws in the Irish Republic, she continued: “The original civil rights movement never belonged to Sinn Fein and it doesn’t belong to it now. Why should a pro-abortion party be allowed to hijack history?

“The civil rights legacy belongs to all of us and this is an excellent opportunity to highlight the pro-life cause, which enjoys widespread support in Tyrone and across the north.

“The timing is very fortuitous at this crucial time in the abortion debate.

“We have people travelling from around Ireland to be with us and we expect a large number of local people to join in as the Coalisland/Dungannon area is a pro-life stronghold. We shall not be moved and we shall overcome.”

In June this year a group of anti-abortion protestors staged a demonstration outside the Mid Ulster constituency office of Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader, Michelle O’Neill.

Members of the Tyrone Pro-Life Network, which claims to have strong republican links, said their “silent protest” marked the launch of a “relentless opposition” campaign to Sinn Fein’s “liberal abortion policies”.

The group warned that Sinn Fein “will soon feel the brunt of this at the polls”.

The News Letter contacted Sinn Fein about the accusation that the party was “hijacking history”, however there had been no response issued by the party at the time of publication.

It’s not the first time Sinn Fein has faced such an accusation.

Several prominent civil rights activists who took part in protests and demonstrations in the 1960s and ‘70s have questioned the party’s recollection of the period. Indeed, earlier this year Sinn Fein’s national chairman Declan Kearney was accused of “rewriting history” after he claimed the inspiration for the civil rights movement came from the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership.

• Sinn Fein voted for a shift in its abortion policy at this year’s ard fheis, held in Belfast in June.

Party members gathered at the Waterfont Hall where they backed a motion on the subject put forward by the party’s high council.

The party said its new policy keeps to the recommendations made by an Irish parliamentary committee last December, which had concluded that terminations should be allowed for the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy “with no restriction as to reason”.

Previously, the party position was that it only supported abortion “where a woman’s life, health or mental health is at risk, and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, and in the case of rape or sexual abuse”.

Welcoming the vote, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said “change is coming” and “the north is next” – comments which outraged pro-life campaigners here.