A former Sinn Fein MLA has hailed a Catholic priest for refusing to allow his premises to be used by the party due to its stance on abortion.
Francie Brolly told the News Letter he expects the reported move to bar Sinn Fein from St Patrick’s hall in Coalisland will now be echoed in other parishes too, and he praised Father Eugene O’Neill for having “led the way”.
It comes after the Irish News reported today that a planned Sinn Fein meeting in the hall had been axed.
The report quoted from an email attributed to Father O’Neill, which said the cancellation was due to Sinn Fein’s “recent behaviour regarding the abortion debate” – adding that, in any case, as a charity his parish “is not legally permitted to use church property for any political activity whatsoever”.
The local Sinn Fein branch – called the Coalisland/Clonoe Martyrs Sinn Féin Cumann – said on its Facebook page the meeting had been for Michelle O’Neill to speak to “the wider republican family in east Tyrone to bring everyone up to date on the recent progress in Stormont and towards Irish unity”.
However, on Thursday evening the same Facebook page announced the meeting had been “postponed for a later date due to conflict in Michelle’s schedule”, making no reference to any cancellation by the parish priest.
Irish musician Francie Brolly (Sinn Fein MLA for East Londonderry from 2003 until 2010) had quit Sinn Fein in 2018 due to its drift towards a pro-choice position – something it formally adopted as mandatory policy in its June 2018 ard fheis.
Aged 82, he (along with wife Anne, a former Sinn Fein councillor), is now a member of anti-abortion republican party Aontu.
He said the Sinn Fein explanation – that the meeting was postponed due to a scheduling issue – was an attempt to be “clever”, since it could not use the hall anyway.
Mr Brolly told the News Letter the clash between party and church has been “a long time coming”, adding “all the churches should be more vocal in supporting the right of the unborn to live”.
Asked if he believes Sinn Fein can now be expected to face similar rejections in each and every parish, Mr Brolly said: “I’d have thought that’s very likely now this question has arisen... I’d imagine now Father O’Neill has kind of led the way, probably the whole question of giving Christian church buildings to political parties is going to be looked at.
“It’s very interesting Father O’Neill has made this very strong statement, by doing what he did and saying what he said.”
It is not the first time a Catholic chapel in the area has been slated for use for political ends.
In 2017, as one of her first acts as Sinn Fein’s regional leader, Michelle O’Neill attended an IRA commemoration in the car park of St Patrick’s Church in Clonoe, close to Coalisland in Co Tyrone.
Mr Brolly said that despite the divergence of Sinn Fein from the church’s teaching, he nonetheless expects many Catholic voters will continue to “go against their religious beliefs to vote for Sinn Fein for various other reasons... fundamentally to keep the DUP down”.
When it comes to the idea of him standing as an Aontu candidate, he said he had “too many birthdays” too go down that route – adding his younger wife is also not likely to stand.
Efforts were made to get comment from both Sinn Fein and the Catholic church on Friday.
The party did not respond.
Meanwhile Father O’Neill could not be reached directly, and a woman at Armagh cathedral referred the News Letter to the Catholic communications office in Dublin, which did not reply.