The furore over Barry McElduff’s Kingsmill loaf tweet will not affect Sinn Fein’s vote in the West Tyrone by-election, the party vice president has predicted.
Michelle O’Neill said she expected a strong showing, portraying the poll instead as the first chance for voters to cast judgment on the recent breakdown of the Stormont talks process.
Former MP Mr McElduff quit in January, 10 days after a controversy flared when he posted a video of him with a Kingsmill-branded loaf on his head on the anniversary of the 1976 Kingsmill massacre.
He insisted it was not an intentional reference to the murders of 10 Protestant workmen by republican paramilitaries, but he acknowledged he had caused hurt and offence to victims’ families.
Ms O’Neill accompanied Sinn Fein’s candidate, Carrickmore solicitor Orfhlaith Begley, as she lodged her nomination papers in Omagh on Thursday.
Sinn Fein is defending a 10,000-plus majority in a seat where it took over 50% of votes cast in last year’s general election.
Ms O’Neill rejected any suggestion that the party’s vote would be eroded by the tweet controversy.
“I don’t believe so,” she said.
“Barry did the right thing when he realised there was an error of judgment.
“He did the wrong thing, it wasn’t intentional, but he himself recognised that hurt was caused, he took action, he stood out of political office, which is a big decision for anybody to take.
“We wish Barry well in the future but this is now an election in West Tyrone about Orfhlaith Begley, this is about getting Orfhlaith Begley elected.”
Powersharing at Stormont imploded last January amid a row over a botched green energy scheme.
The rift subsequently widened to take in disputes over issues such as the Irish language, same-sex marriage and how to handle the legacy of the Troubles.
Sinn Fein has claimed DUP leader Arlene Foster agreed a draft deal to resurrect powersharing last month before pulling the plug in the face of an internal revolt among party members angry at the prospect of concessions on the thorny issue of the Irish language. It is an allegation Mrs Foster has strenuously denied.
On Thursday Ms O’Neill said: “This is the first chance that people will have since the DUP collapsed the talks and denied people their rights, this is the first chance that people in West Tyrone will have to go out and go to the polls and assert their voice and their view on how that’s all been over the past 14 to 15 months.”
Ms Begley said she had already received a warm reception on the campaign trail.
“People are positive,” she said.
“They are glad to see a new voice for a new era.”