Thomas McElwee row: Sinn Fein under fire for ‘commemorating bomber but not his victim’ - 27-year-old mother-of-three Yvonne Dunlop

Sinn Fein has drawn widespread criticism for commemorating the 30th anniversary of a hunger striker’s death - but not the 27-year-old mother of three who was burned alive in one of his firebomb attacks.

Twenty-three-year-old Thomas McElwee from Tamlaghyduff, about 13 miles west of Ballymena, died in the Maze hunger strikes on August 8 in 1981.

On October 9, 1976 one of his fire bombs killed Yvonne Dunlop, a 27-year-old mother-of-three from Ballymena. She died in a fire bomb explosion in the boutique owned by her father’s clothes shop in the town.

Reference work Lost Lives reports that she was checking a shopping bag left by two girls when the fire bomb went off. She only just had time to shout a warning to her nine-year-old son who was with her, but she herself was unable to escape.

Hunger striker Thomas McElwee's image being carried in a parade.

Her mother said later: “Yvonne knew I would soon be arriving to take over from her in the boutique. She had just gone to the back of the shop when she shouted: ‘There’s a bomb, get out’. Then suddenly the whole place burst into flames. Her son escaped with just his hair singed but my daughter didn’t have a chance.”A list of targets was found in a coat in McElwee’s car. He pleaded guilty to owning the coat and the bomb and was sentenced to 20 years for the murder and another 20 years for possession of explosives.

On Sunday Sinn Fein commemorated his death in a tweet with a video presentation.

“40 years ago today, at 11am, Óglach Thomas McElwee from Bellaghy died after 62 days on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. He was a political prisoner; unbowed and unbroken. This is his story.”

The video narration describes him as “a political prisoner determined to stand up for his comrades and the republican struggle”.

The memory of Thomas McElwee and Francis Hughs is kept alive at Sunday's parade in Drumkeen. (1008cg45)

It added: “Tom was 23-years-old when he died... He came from a close knit family in Bellaghy and was admired by all his comrades as someone who instilled confidence and belief in those around him.

“Tom was a typical young Co Derry man, kind and good natured, full of life and with a craze for cars and stock car racing and also filled with a love of his country and his way of life.”

Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill added: “Today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Tom McElwee after 62 days on hunger strike” and then in Irish - “He died for Irish Freedom”.

The Sinn Fein tweet prompted almost 300 comments while Michelle O’Neill’s prompted almost 60. They were almost unanimously scathing of the fact that the party had airbrushed Yvonne Dunlop - and her son who ran for his life while she burnt to death - out of the story, pressing for explanations as to how this party can unify the island of Ireland.

Thomas McElwee, who died during the Maze hunger strikes.

Unusually, even Sinn Fein supporters were almost entirely silent.

Dubliner 1, a retired Irish soldier, tweeted: “Still commemorating murderers? This particular murderer burnt an innocent woman alive in her shop. Her young son ran from the shop screaming his mammy was on fire.”

Another commenter said: “Michelle, he was in prison for murdering a young mother, not as a so called political prisoner. If you truly want reconciliation, you must stop eulogising this type of individual.”

Yet another made a similar point: “You won’t get any buy in to an Ireland for everyone with tweets like this. Just when SF start to gain ground on the basis they leave the past behind this type of tweet comes out.... read the room.”

An IRA cell in H Block No. 4 of the Maze site near Lisburn, where ten IRA Hunger strikers, led by Bobby Sands, died in 1981. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Alan Athey said: “Michelle, with the best will in the world, how does this help the conversation on a new Ireland? Why have you omitted to mention the real victim in Tom McElwee’s story?”

A Ballymena man called George added: “I remember the day Yvonne died as one of her neighbors - it’s not something you can forget. Is Michelle a mother?”

UUP leader Doug Beattie also hit out at Sinn Fein’s stance.

“Here is the problem with our society,” he said. “The murderer is remembered, not the victim. Thomas McElwee struck a blow for Ireland by burning to death 26-year-old Yvonne Dunlop. His name will forever be linked to that brutal murder regardless of Sinn Fein spin.”

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley also hit out at Sinn Fein’s actions in a statement to the News Letter.

“How on earth could the murder of a young women like Yvonne advance the cause of nationalism and republicanism?” he asked. “No apology was ever given and the person who placed the bomb is now eulogised and praised by modern day Sinn Fein. They talk words of peace and demand respect for their identity, yet they would parade a murdering scumbag like Hunger striker Thomas McElwee who achieved nothing in his pathetic life other than give misery to others and caused this murder of an innocent women.”

Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said he regretted that Thomas McElwee died as he did, “because I do not think anyone needed to die for us to get to where we are today”.

He told the News Letter: “I also accept the right of his family and friends to remember him, but if society is to heal, remembrance must be both honest and respectful. In this case, that means acknowledging he was responsible for the death of Yvonne Dunlop, a young mother of three who was burnt to death by the firebomb Mr McElwee planted.”

There has been a major reaction to the Sinn Fein tweets on social media, with the vast majority slamming the party’s statement.

DUP Belfast councillor Dale Pankhurst said: “Many [are] calling out Sinn Féin’s glorification of IRA murderer Thomas McElwee today. [I am] Sensing a change with many having had enough of similar acts of glorification from a party that sits on the Executive. It’s clear that many from across the community demand it stops. And rightly so.”

Newry UUP councillor David Taylor tweeted: “Thomas McElwee’s actions left 3 young children without a mother - a husband without his wife - changed a young family’s life forever - How would it ever be appropriate to eulogise such an individual - there was nothing heroic about this man.”

Sinn Fein was this morning invited to comment by the News Letter. At 4:30pm it issued this statement: “Sinn Féin regrets the deaths of everyone who died as a result of the conflict, including the tragic death of Yvonne Dunlop. The Good Friday Agreement allows everyone to remember their dead in a dignified and respectful manner.”

Among those jailed for the attacks was McElwee and three other men. Five men and two women were convicted of murder but the sentences were overturned in 1980 by the Court of Appeal which said there was no evidence they knew that death or serious injury was a probable result of their actions.

The court ruled three of them were involved in the boutique bombing and substituted manslaughter convictions instead.

In 1981 people in Ballymena raised £800 to send Mrs Dunlop’s three sons to meet Ken Livingstone, Labour Leader of the Greater London Council, who had met Thomas McElwee’s family after his death on hunger strike. Livingstone had referred to him as “not a criminal but a freedom fighter”.

Mrs Dunlop’s three son’s broke down in tears when Ballymena councillors mentioned their mother’s death while discussing the matters at the London council.

Mr Livingstone said of their tears: “They were quite upset when we were discussing the circumstances of their mother’s death and the children were taken off on a tour of the building. I think it was a mistake to raise this while the children were present.”

One of the Dunlop children said later: “We did not say anything to Mr Livingstone. We were all too upset.”

Kenny Donaldson, Spokesman for Innocent Victims United, stated: “Sinn Fein purports itself to be a fully-fledged political party which supports democracy, which supports equality, which is acknowledging of all pain causes as a result of ‘The Conflict’ - as they refer to it - yet the commemorative film they produced on the life of hunger striker and convicted terrorist Thomas McElwee fails to in any way acknowledge the impact of the actions he committed, which led to the death of a 27-year-old civilian woman Yvonne Dunlop, a young mother of three children who was working in her family’s clothes shop based in Ballymena”.

He claimed Mr McElwee is also linked to many other crimes perpetrated upon security force members and civilians across the South Londonderry area alongside his cousin, Francis Hughes and others.

Mr Donaldson added: “The film is in keeping with other Sinn Fein productions seeks to airbrush away the crimes for which the hunger strikers committed, and which led to their incarceration, these films are designed to propagate the minds of people, particularly younger people, portraying the hunger strikers as heroes, and as martyrs who took on the might of British imperialism and oppression”.

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