'We are proud of our freedom struggle,' says Michelle O'Neill at IRA memorial parade

Sinn Fein leader for Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill addresses a memorial event in Cappagh, Co Tyrone Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Deborah McAleese

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill has defended her participation in an event to commemorate the deaths of eight IRA men killed in Loughgall, Co Armagh, in 1987.

The party's leader in Northern Ireland insisted there was no contradiction in commemorating the IRA dead while also reaching out to unionists.

She said republicans "are proud of our freedom struggle".

Ms O'Neill took part in the republican parade on Sunday to mark 30 years since the ambush by elite troops of the IRA men.

Large crowds gathered at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Altmore and paraded to the IRA memorial in the village of Cappagh.

The IRA tried to blow up Loughall police station in Co Armagh in May 1987.

Members of the east Tyrone Brigade loaded a 200lbs bomb into a stolen digger which smashed through the gates of the station.

The SAS was lying in wait and opened fire, killing all eight members of the IRA unit.

An innocent civilian, Anthony Hughes, was also shot dead.

Family members of the dead men carried their photographs to the memorial.

Ms O'Neill's attendance at the event has sparked controversy and provoked anger from IRA victims.

Speaking to the crowd she said she had been criticised by unionists and the media for commemorating IRA Volunteers.

However she added: "Let me be clear. I am an Irish republican.

"Make no mistake about it - I will always remember and commemorate our patriot dead - and each of our fallen comrades who gave their lives for Irish freedom."

She added: "I see no contradiction whatsoever in commemorating our republican dead while reaching out to our unionist neighbours to build the future - Orange and Green together on the basis of full equality and mutual respect."

Ms O'Neill said everyone has a legitimate right to remember their dead without being demonised.

"We are proud of our freedom struggle.

"We are especially proud of our republican patriot dead and each of our fallen comrades with whom we are gathered to remember, honour and whose lives we celebrate here today," she added.

Previously leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, said she was disappointed by Ms O'Neill's decision to attend the event.

Mrs Foster met Irish language students in Northern Ireland in a bid to learn more about the language as part of efforts to restore devolved powersharing with nationalists.

She said: "It is disappointing that when I am trying to make this a shared place for everybody in Northern Ireland that other leaders are doing things that frankly are wrong and backward-looking."