At the weekend, Sinn Féin recorded its highest ever Red C opinion poll result having attained 30pc first preference support. However, instead of basking in positive headlines, the party was mired in controversy.
A tweet by Laois Offaly TD Brian Stanley confirmed the regular charges of some opposition parties that once you scratch the surface of Sinn Féin, what you find are apologists for IRA violence.
“Kilmicheal (1920) and Narrow Water (1979) the 2 IRA operations that taught the elite of d British army and the establishment the cost of occupying Ireland. Pity for everyone they were such slow learners,” he wrote.
The damage caused by the triumphalist tone of the tweet, glorifying the massacre of 18 British soldiers in living memory, was exacerbated by the fact that Mr Stanley is not just a member of Sinn Féin. He is chairman of one of the Dáil’s most powerful committees, the Public Accounts Committee – meaning everything he says carries the imprimatur of that august body, whether he intends it to or not.
Faced with a barrage of criticism, Mr Stanley deleted the tweet and quickly apologised but the harm was done. The question for Sinn Féin is, what are they going to do about it? Nothing much, according to party leader Mary Lou McDonald. In an interview with RTE’s Morning Ireland yesterday, she said the tweet was “ill-judged” but she has no intention of sanctioning him and fully expects him to continue in his role as PAC chair.
The leniency shown to Mr Stanley is in stark contrast to punishment meted out to other Sinn Féin representatives who became embroiled in similar controversies. Former Senator, Máire Devine, was suspended for three months in 2018 when she retweeted a tweet which referred to prison guard Brian Stack, who was murdered by the IRA, as a “sadist prison officer”.
Meanwhile, Barry McElduff was forced to resign as an MP for West Tyrone in 2018 after he posted a video to Twitter which appeared to mock the murder of 10 Protestant civilians in 1976. In the video, Mr McElduff walked around a shop with a loaf of Kingsmill-brand bread on his head – on the 42nd anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre.
If Sinn Féin fails to similarly sanction Mr Stanley, the obvious question is why? Is it because Mr Stanley referred to the murder of British soldiers, who are viewed as legitimate targets by Sinn Féin, rather than innocent civilians who were cut down as they went about their normal lives?
What does that say about the party’s commitment to reconciliation and the notion, often cited by party members, that there should be no hierarchy of victims if the legacy of the Troubles is ever to be truly grappled with?
Further, what does it mean for the PAC, whose function is to rigorously hold others to account, to be chaired by a TD who openly tweets such a divisive and jingoistic remark and escapes with just a slap on the wrist? Its credibility is surely dented if Mr Stanley remains in situ as chair.
Sinn Féin has grown to be a real force in Irish politics with its relentless focus on issues like housing, health and probity in public office by a cohort of articulate and hardworking TDs. It has succeeded in expanding its reach from its republican base and now has widespread support across a number of different demographics.
According to the weekend’s Red C poll in the Business Post, “the party secures over 40pc support among all “younger” age groups, from 18 year olds right up to those aged 44. Its support now also extends beyond the young, with the party boasting 33pc of the first preferences among 45-54 year olds and only dropping off among those aged 55+”.
If Sinn Féin wants to copperfasten this support, then it must demonstrate that is has moved beyond the narrow sectarian politics of old and can deal sensitively with those of a different political perspective. It had been doing a good job at this. In 2018, when wreaths laid at the site of the Narrow Point massacre were vandalised twice within a matter of weeks, Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard was extremely critical.
“If you feel you need to trample on the heartfelt pain of others to make yourself feel good you are not a republican. You are a moron. Please leave these wreaths alone,” he tweeted. It is hard to reconcile Mr Hazzard’s tweet and Mr Stanley’s as coming from members of the same party.
Sinn Féin routinely laments as disingenuous the attacks of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs, who regularly resurrect decades-old IRA travesties in Dáil debates as ripostes to legitimate criticism by the party on a host of contemporary and unrelated issues. When Gerry Adams was leader, facing Enda Kenny during leaders’ questions, hardly a day went by without the murder of Jean McConville being mentioned, no matter what the subject matter of the debate.
Sinn Féin TDs may view this criticism as unfair, but when its representatives openly valorise IRA violence, and suffer no discernible sanction, it gives licence to these kinds of attacks continuing. It also detracts from the party’s ability to highlight issues which are of central importance to it.
On Monday, the entire focus of the party should have been on the disgraceful refusal by the British government to hold a public inquiry into collusion between State actors and loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane. Instead, its TDs were firefighting in the media for Mr Stanley.
The immediate aim of Sinn Féin is to be the first political party to serve in concurrent administrations in both jurisdictions on this island. It is tantalisingly close to achieving this goal. Given its dominance on the opposition benches, it will only have itself to blame if it fails at this task.