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16 October 1997 Edition

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United Irishmen remembered in Fermanagh

Loyalists attack non-sectarian commemoration

by Mick Naughton and Laura Friel

A fire beacon burned on Pottiagh Hill on Sunday night as over a thousand people gathered in the graveyard below to witness Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin plant a Tree of Liberty in memory of three United Irishmen executed by the British almost two centuries ago. Earlier, many of the people attending a commemorative parade en route to the cemetry had endured a series of attacks by loyalists.

Brian McMahon, John Connolly and Patrick Smith were convicted on the word of an informer and hanged in the courtyard of Enniskillen Courthouse on 12 October 1797. History records that pallbearers, who carried the coffins from Enniskillen to Roslea, were met in the Sliabh Beagh Mountains by several thousand people carrying torches to light the way to St.Tierney churchyard where the three martyrs were laid to rest.

``Not only did the United Irishmen have an immediate impact in their own time,'' said Sinn Fein TD Caoimhghlin O' Caolain at the graveside commemoration, ``but their separatist and non-sectarian philosophy is as relevant today as it was 200 years ago.''

A series of events to mark the bicentenary, including a ceili, exihibition and Anniversay Mass, culminatied with a re-enactment of the 22-mile-journey from courtyard to graveyard. ``In the tradition of the United Irishmen,'' said O'Caolain, ''it is our aim, as Republicans, to achieve freedom and unity for our country and our people.''

The inclusive sentiments and spirit of accommodation shown by organisers and participants stood in stark contrast to the animosity and sectarian bigorty displayed by loyalists objecting to the commemoration earlier that day. In a series of furious attempts to disrupt the proceedings, loyalists staged a number of attacks along the Enniskillen to Roslea route.

Shortly after 1pm. around eighty people left Enniskillen courthouse, led by a colour party displaying the flags of the United Irishmen, and pallbearers carrying three symbolic coffins. Although the ethos of the United Irishmen was non-sectarian, commemoration organisers voluntarily re-routed the parade away from the predominantly Protestant village of Maguiresbridge.

But confrontation was the only loyalist agenda. Accompanied by Dunloy Orange Order representative John Findlay and Joel Patton of the Spirit of Drumcree faction, around a hundred loyalists had been bused in from Ballymena and Portadown to ``support'' the hastily constituted `Combined Loyalist Residents of Fermanagh'.

At the junction of Tempo and Dublin Road the parade was halted by the RUC. ``We were told the road ahead had been blocked by loyalists,'' said Sinn Féin Councillor Brian McCaffrey, one of the event's organisers. ``The RUC said they were unable to clear the route.'' Parade organisers decided to avoid any confrontation by leaving the area and re-assembling the parade further along the route at Lisbellaw.

As people attending the parade boarded buses and cars to travel away from the area, loyalists outraged at being deprived of their prey, turned their anger towards the RUC. ``Fenian lovers'' chanted the loyalist mob as an RUC vehicle was ransacked, overturned and burnt.

But it wasn't long before the RUC revealed their true colours in what nationalist marchers have described as an attempt at ``Burntollet mark two''. Following the disturbances in Enniskillen, senior RUC officers guaranteed loyalists would not be allowed to travel to Maguiresbridge until nationalist marchers had bypassed the village.

A mile from Maguiresbridge, the parade was halted by the RUC. ``Buses carrying loyalists were allowed to drive right into the rear of the parade,'' said McCafferty. ''We were effectively hemmed in with the RUC blocking the route ahead.'' Loyalists disembarking from a bus attempted to grab a nationalist at the rear of the parade.

With a high embankment at either side of the road and loyalists already in nearby fields, parade organisers decided to avoid confrontation by travelling by bus and car to reassemble further along the route at Nutfield Crossroads.

``Vehicles were stoned, loyalists were seen noting car registration numbers while others took photographs of people attending the parade,`` said McCaffery. ``In one of the most serious incidents a car was driven at the cofffin bearers narrowingly missing them.''

Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín O Caoláin's speech at the Roslea Martyrs Commemorative function:

``Sensing that their power was slipping away, the British authorities in Dublin Castle ordered a counter-revolutionary strategy. Besides encouraging the growth of Orangeism and the complicity of sections of the Catholic hierarchy and clergy, they launched a campaign to terrorise the people. This involved military suppression on the one hand and judicial suppression on the other.

``The Roslea Martyrs were victims of the latter, convicted of an offence which was commonplace at the time, yet they were singled out to pay the ultimate penalty. Why was this so? Precisely because of the success of the United Irish organisation in their own area, their executions were intended to act as a deterrent to the entire population of the Roslea district. The fact that none of their Protestant comrades were executed alongside them was also part of a deliberate strategy to sow the seeds of suspicion within the ranks of the United Irishmen and to detach Catholics from Protestants.

``As republicans we need to proclaim loud and clear the message of non-sectarianism through positive engagement with Protestants who, tragically, have for the most part been detached from their republican heritage. We need to remind Britian that it bears ultimate responsibility for this sorry state of affairs and for the creation and maintenance of a sectarian wasteland in which the people of Roslea have been forced to live since 1920 without anybody ever asking their consent.''

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