Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill has urged those who were angered by her attendance at an IRA commemoration to understand that she has a different perspective on the past.
She said that forging reconciliation relied not on everyone agreeing to the same narrative of the Troubles, but on people respecting that different opinions on the conflict will always exist.
As well as defending her appearance at the event in Co Tyrone, Mrs O’Neill also backed party colleague and law lecturer Peter Doran who has faced criticism for not condemning the IRA murder of another legal academic during the Troubles.
Martin McGuinness’s successor at Stormont said reconciling the region’s divided communities was a "top priority" as leader.
"I was 17 when the conflict came to an end and I have been involved all my adult life making peace and bringing society forward," she said.
"That’s the job that I intend to do. I intend to carry on the reconciliation work because it is key and vital for our society. I intend to be so committed to that.
"That’s what leadership is - to drive that forward and take yourself into uncomfortable conversations and into uncomfortable places just to have those conversations that we need to have."
Mrs O’Neill was the main speaker at an event in her home village of Clonoe last Thursday to mark the 25th anniversary of the deaths of four IRA men shot dead by the SAS in 1992 when they were ambushed after carrying out a machine gun attack on a police station.
Unionist politicians and relatives of IRA victims denounced her attendance, claiming it undermined her pledges to work for reconciliation.
"Everybody has a right to remember their dead no matter who you are or what your political perspective is," said Mrs O’Neill.
"We all have a different narrative and we’ll always have a different narrative and people have a different perspective on the past.
"Our job is to respect that difference, we won’t agree on the narrative of the past but we can agree to accept that everybody has a different narrative and then we can start to build the bridges of the past and try to make a better future."
She said her attendance at the Clonoe commemoration should not have come as a "surprise".
"I am a republican, that’s not a secret," she said.
"I did know these young fellas personally and I know their families and friends and I know the community they came from, so I don’t think people should be surprised I was there."
The Mid Ulster election candidate added: "There is no hierarchy of victims - nobody’s grief is more than anyone else’s and everybody deserves to be respected."
The Sinn Fein leader said Mr McGuinness had led the way in terms of reconciliation.
"I am certainly going to carry on the good work that Martin has already embarked upon," she said.
"I believe it is the job as a leader to take yourself out your comfort zone and to try to reach out the hand of friendship.
"We need to deal with these issues that are in our society and make sure we try and bring everybody with us and make a better future for everybody.
"So reconciliation is key and for me that’s one key priority for me as a leader."
Lagan Valley Sinn Féin candidate Mr Doran, a law academic at Queen’s University in Belfast, last week declined to condemn the 1983 IRA murder of rising Ulster Unionist politician and Queen’s law lecturer Edgar Graham. Mr Doran instead expressed "profound sorrow" at Mr Graham’s death.
Mrs O’Neill defended her party colleague’s position.
"I regret we had any loss of life, I regret that there was a conflict and I recognise everybody’s hurt and suffering and nobody’s is any different, everybody feels the same pain and hurt whenever they have been bereaved in a conflict," she said.
The Sinn Féin leader added: "I think Peter has answered it - he has said he had profound sorrow. His position would also be that he regrets all loss of life in the conflict."