Day of Reflection: Fermanagh

Newshound links to a story carried in the Impartial Reporter where in Enniskillen there was a Ban on press as Day of Reflection is held behind closed doors.
There seems to have been poor communication and confusion. In Derry RTE were allowed to give full coverage. On Monday Sinn Fein Press office released an “erroneous” statement which seemed to distance the party from, and in fact be critical of the privacy decision in Fermanagh,but by the following day had changed it’s attitude.Article :

Sinn Fein’s Day of Reflection took place in secret last Friday with a ban on press coverage imposed by the Council Chairman.
The event to remember those who had lost their lives in war and conflict was a controversial one. Chairman Councillor Gerry McHugh had received no endorsement from the Council. No Councillors from other parties were to attend the event.

On Friday night, this journalist from The Impartial Reporter was not admitted to the public function in the Chairman’s room at the Townhall after a phone call took place from the front desk to him five minutes before the event was to start. It was made plain that members of the press and photographers were not to be allowed to cover the ceremony.

However, there was press coverage in other instances. RTE gave full coverage to the afternoon Day of Reflection ceremony held by the Sinn Fein Mayor in Derry in its 9 o’clock evening news.

By Monday, it appeared that Sinn Fein was distancing itself from the decision to exclude the press at the Enniskillen event. A press officer for the party said that “it was not Sinn Fein policy not to let press in and in fact we were unhappy that press were not allowed in”.

However, the Clerk and Chief Executive of Fermanagh District Council, Mr. Rodney Connor said: “It was the chairman’s decision that it would be better if the press were not at the function. It was a private function, the Chairman’s function. It was felt it was best that the press would not be present,” he said. Mr. Connor was present in the Townhall on Friday night but did not attend the event.

The next day, Sinn Fein’s press officer then said that his earlier comments had been “erroneous”. “It was the Mayor’s decision to not to have press,” he said.

Councillor McHugh agreed it was his decision to ban coverage. The reason, he argued, was to prevent the event becoming a “media spectacle”. “It was very unusual to keep the press out. I would push for the press as much as possible.
At the Council meeting you would have heard Robert Irvine and different other ones, and at the consultation meeting, say it would be judged whether it was a media spectacle and we would be judged on that. It was very hard for me. I was trying to make this a dignified occasion considering people haven’t been into it so well. At least at the end of it, people could not say it was a Sinn Fein gimmick. In trying to do that, I simply toned it down to a point that at least some of the views were taken into account and they could not say I didn’t take those views into account,” he said.

The choice to hold the event behind closed doors was his own, he reiterated. “It was a difficult decision for me to make. It was because people were going to stand in judgement that we were going to have a big political occasion.

“I could have got airtime all over the place if I wanted to,” he said, but he feared that people would wrongly get the impression that it was to enhance his own position in the media.

Five minutes before the ceremony, there were approximately 15 signatures in the Day of Reflection book that had been set out in the Townhall for visitors to sign.

However, more people than that attended, said the Chairman. “I would say there were at least 40 people there. A lot of people didn’t sign the book. 90 per cent walked past it,” he said. What could have been keeping people away was a fear of being photographed or the “negative approach” to the event from some other Councillors, he said. “That would not have helped numbers,” he commented.

“The idea was to have a dignified occasion, not to have something that was being sensationalist. I got quite a number of phone calls from all directions and sides and it pointed all the time at trying to have a dignified occasion, not to have a big Sinn Fein flag waving approach. I had a lot of apologies from people who might have come along – they were mainly Christmas shopping,” he said.

Asked if the event got cross-community attendance, he said: “I am not sure who everyone was. I went round and spoke to everyone. I certainly had cross-community support outside of this all the way through and apologies came from various churches. Some of them said it was too early but we are still not against it”.

Mr. McHugh unveiled a plaque at the event: “In memory of all those who have lost their lives as a result of war and conflict from or within County Fermanagh”.

Other councillors had been critical of the “hypocrisy” of the party which removed all plaques and insignia from Council property a few years ago now seeing its Chairman unveiling a plaque at the Townhall. “I have not put anything up. It is in the Chairman’s office and I can put anything I like in there as Chairman. I haven’t put it on the wall,” Mr. McHugh said.

The Chairman pointed out there are still a “few odds and ends in terms of symbolism” that were never removed from the Townhall in spite of the Sinn Fein-inspired Council policy. “There is a plaque behind the Chairman’s original chair. Also there are the soldiers on the parapet on the outside of the Townhall,” he said. He said there were no plans to remove them. “There are people in the general public who would point these things out to you. We are not getting into that,” he said.

As to Friday’s event, he added: “I did not advertise it publicly. I did not want to have the kind of numbers that overflowed the Townhall. I kept it to confine the plaque being in my own office and working from there”.

Why play it down? “I did that due to feedback from the community. Robert Irvine is a Councillor I would listen to on occasion. . . That is all I’m saying – we took things into account. I was reaching out to the Unionist population. I wasn’t going to fly in their faces. At the [consultation] meeting the Protestant clergy were very honest about their feelings and you can’t ignore everything that is said,” he said.

The original plans were to have Church leaders playing a lead role in proceedings at the Day of Reflection. This did not happen. “I think there were church leaders there. We did not have speeches other than my own. Again I was trying to row back. I was trying to take account of people’s views”.

There was no music, although it was also originally planned. “Again, there was consultation right up until the last minute and then thought maybe better not. The choir had been booked,” he said.

The Chairman hopes this will be the first of many similar Days of Reflection held in the county. Looking back on Friday night’s ceremony, he said: “I would describe the event as a very good outreach to Unionism. It has challenged people. People have had to challenge themselves. It is a small step but it is probably a bigger step than people realise,” he said.
Issue: 16-12-2004