The most controversial monument in Derry City Cemetery was erected almost 20 years ago by the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP).

Ten feet in height, the sculpture is of a masked man in a paramilitary uniform holding a rifle and was placed there in the year 2000 close to the graves of two INLA members from Derry who died whilst on hunger strike in Long Kesh in 1981.

Since the outset of the Troubles there has been an ever decreasing amount of burials of people from the Protestant community in Derry City Cemetery. After the erection of the republican monument almost two decades ago, unionist representatives have consistently claimed that its presence has provided an additional deterrent to Protestant people paying their respects to their loved ones buried there.

Patsy O’Hara joined the hunger strike on March 22, 1981 and died sixty-one days later on May 22 at the age of 23. From the Bishop Street area, he was born in 1957 and joined the republican youth organisation Na Fianna Eireann in 1970.

In late 1971 he was shot and wounded by a soldier while he was manning a barricade. His injuries meant that he could not attend the civil rights demonstration in the city on January 30, 1972. Instead, he watched as the march wound its way through the Brandywell district. The events of what became known as Bloody Sunday had a lasting and profound effect on him.

In October 1974, Patsy O’Hara was interned in Long Kesh and upon his release the following April, he left the Official Republican movement and joined both the fledgling IRSP and INLA. Two months later, in June 1975 he was arrested and held on remand for a period of six months. He was arrested again in September, 1976 and remanded again-this time for a period of four months.

Two years later, in May 1978 O’Hara was arrested on Dublin’s O’Connell Street under the Offences Against the State Act but was released 18 hours later.

He returned to Derry and in January, 1979 was arrested and convicted of possessing a hand grenade. In January of 1980 Patsy O’Hara began an eight year sentence-this time in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. He became the Officer in Command of INLA prisoners during the first hunger strike in 1980 and when the second strike began in 1981 he joined it.

Patsy O’Hara died at 11.29pm on May 21. His family obeyed his wishes not to have medical staff intervene to save his life. After his death there was very strong evidence that his body had been disfigured-with signs that his face had been beaten, his nose broken and cigarette burns on his body.

The second republican hunger striker from Derry, and the last of ten men to die in 1981 was also a member of the INLA.

Michael Devine was born on May 26, 1954 at Springtown Camp in Derry-a disused US Army military facility used to house those who couldn’t find proper housing. The dire conditions there would eventually become a focal point for early civil rights campaigns on housing and employment.

In 1960, when he was six-years-old, Michael and the Devine family consisting of his grandmother, sister Margaret and his parents Patrick and Elizabeth moved to the recently built Creggan estate.

Michael Devine was also known as ‘Red Mickey’ but not as many believed for his later socialist politics, but simply because of his hair colour. He was educated at schools in Creggan-first at Holy Child Primary School and later at St Joseph’s Secondary School.

The catalyst for Devine’s involvement in republicanism appears to have come from his reaction to the killings of two unarmed Catholic men, Seamus Cusack and Dessie Beattie, in July 1971. He joined the James Conolly Republican Club in Derry that month and like Patsy O’Hara, the events of Bloody Sunday also made a deep impact on him.

When the split happened within the Official IRA, Michael Devine became a founding member of the INLA in 1975. He was arrested inside Northern Ireland 1976 after an arms raid in Co Donegal and sentenced to 12 years in Long Kesh. Devine initially joined the blanket protest in the prison and took part in the 1980 hunger strike which was later called off after the prisoners mistakenly believed that they had won their demands for political status.

When the 1981 hunger strike commenced he again joined it. He was 26-years-old when he died on August 20 that year after 60 days without food.

When the IRSP unveiled placed the monument in Derry City Cemetery in 2000, unionist representatives immediately demanded its removal.

In that year DUP MP Gregory Campbell described the statue as a glorification of terrorism and said it was offensive to Protestants.

“One of the worst terrorist atrocities in the entire history of the Troubles was by the INLA, 12 miles from the city cemetery, in Ballykelly.

“A total of 17 people were murdered by an INLA bomb in the Droppin’ Well bar in 1982. We’re not talking about something remote or some distance removed from the people affected by it.”

The DUP representative said that people from both traditions were laid to rest in the council-owned burial place and insisted that the republican monument would have to go.

“If people want to glorify terrorism and mass murder, it should be done in a place where the general public don’t take exception to it,” he added.

The then Derry City Council said that planning permission had been granted for the sculpture but in light of the row that ensued the city’s engineer was compiling a report on the situation.

A Council spokesperson said that at that time there was no screening of images of headstones or memorials and it was “the first time that there has been any problem of this nature and the situation needs to be assessed fully.”

But, nearly 20 years ago, a member of the IRSP’s executive denied the statue was offensive

Fra Halligan said: “It is a sad day when the dead, who themselves are victims of these troubles, are demonised even in their graves. The monument was considered appropriate for the site-the republican socialist plot for counties Derry and Tyrone.

“We think it is a very fitting tribute to all the hunger strikers and members of our movement who have given their lives.”

In the intervening years, the issue of the INLA monument has remained controversial.

Three years ago in 2016 the subject was at the centre of a debate at Derry City and Strabane District Council that was centred on tourism initiatives at Derry’s main cemetery.

During the debate when Council discussed conducting tours of the burial ground, a DUP representative said that whilst he recognised the tourism potential, people of a unionist background would be put off because of the statue.

Councillor Graham Warke said: “There are members of my family buried in the City Cemetery, as there are many other Protestants’ families.

“I do know many of them find the presence of a 10ft statue of an armed terrorist intimidating. A cemetery is supposed to be a place of tranquillity and reflection, but being overlooked by a sinister statue of a republican terrorist adds nothing to that experience if you are a member of my community visiting the graves of your loved ones.

“A 10ft statue of an armed terrorist isn’t included in my vision of a shared city. I actually think a lot of Catholics who have loved ones buried near this statue also feel uncomfortable about it.

"No one is trying to deny there are not people buried in the cemetery as a result of the Troubles or indeed the two world wars or that their story should not be told as part of our shared history.

"I just think that this statue sends out the message that the City Cemetery is a cold place for anyone from the Protestant community.

"My point is that as long as this intimidating statue is there, the full potential of this project will not be reached."

Responding during the Council 2016 debate, former Independent Councillor Warren Robinson revealed that his uncle, Neil McMongale, a member of the INLA killed by the SAS in Derry in 1983 was also buried in the republican socialist plot.

Mr Robinson said he was involved in the committee that had the monument erected at the cemetery and was shocked that Councillor Warke “decided to make this an issue after 16 years.”

He added that the statue was a product of the recent conflict, and was simply a reflection of what the community in Derry has come through.

“I believe our community has moved on and do not want to become embroiled in the sectarianisation of memorials. No one community should be allowed to dictate how another community remembers their dead,” Colr Robinson said.

“The statue wasn’t designed to be controversial, it was built as a tribute to the men buried in the plot.

“The people of Derry paid for this, they supported the rights of the families to build this memorial at the time and since then.”

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