Nationalist unity fractured by Sinn Fein’s ‘England out of Ireland’ message

Three speakers at a major gathering of Irish nationalists in Belfast less than two months ago have strongly criticised Mary Lou McDonald’s decision to promote an “England get out of Ireland” message in the US.

Sunday, 17th March 2019, 4:38 pm
Updated Sunday, 17th March 2019, 6:11 pm
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald posted the picture of herself (centre) behind the banner along with Irish republican supporters in the US
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald posted the picture of herself (centre) behind the banner along with Irish republican supporters in the US

The Waterfront conference brought more than 1,500 people, representing a wide range of nationalist and republican viewpoints, together in a display of unity in the face of the challenges posed by Brexit.

However, several of those who endorsed the initiative have now distanced themselves from the Sinn Fein president’s actions – echoing the sentiments of Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney who said the message was “offensive” and “divisive”.

Opening the ‘Beyond Brexit: The Future of Ireland’ event on January 26, Belfast solicitor and event organiser Niall Murphy said: “In the challenges which will immediately confront us in the coming weeks and months we will require a unified and coherent mobilisation of broad northern nationalist and progressive voices.”

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After Ms McDonald posted the picture on Twitter, political commentator David McCann said the message being promoted was “completely contrary to everything that we discussed at that conference”.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood retweeted the picture of the banner and said: “Sinn Fein aren’t capable of convincing unionists of anything. The rest of us will have a lot of heavy lifting to do.”

Clare Bailey, the Green Party NI leader who also spoke at the Beyond Brexit conference, said the banner “calls into question her genuine commitment to equality and rights”.

The South Belfast MLA added: “The sentiment is the same as that of hard Brexiteers – to sever political, social and economic connections without a second thought for the consequences.”

The picture of the Sinn Fein leader was posted on Twitter with her comment: “No explanation needed.”

In response, Mr Coveney said Ms McDonald should “grow up” – describing the message as “offensive, divisive and an embarrassment”.

Mr Coveney added: “We are better than this!”

Alliance leader Naomi Long tweeted: “This banner is not just profoundly stupid (England is not now and never has been or could be in Ireland) but it sends out a hostile and offensive message to anyone English or of English extraction on this island. Respect, Equality, Integrity anyone?”

Lisburn and Castlereagh SDLP councillor Mairia Cahill said there is “a whiff of a radicalised west Belfast teenager about Mary Lou McDonald, who is gleeful about dressing herself up as some type of republican hardliner,” and added: “Isn’t it about time she wised and grew up?”

Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard hit back at his party leader’s critics.

He tweeted: “If – after all of the events of this week – your ire is directed at an Irish republican standing behind an historical anti-colonial banner in America then you’ve really got to step away from social media for a few days and enjoy the holiday.”

• Prominent republican commentator Patricia MacBride has also distanced herself from the Sinn Fein president’s endorsement of the ‘England get out of Ireland’ message.

Ahead of the Irish presidential election last year, some commentators suggested there was a likelihood Ms MacBride could be approached by Sinn Fein and offered the chance to run as the party’s candidate.

Ms MacBride told the BBC’s Sunday Politics she believes the banner came to prominence during the 1980s.

“I think it came to the fore during the daily protests outside the British Consulate in New York City during the hunger strikes in 1981,” she said.

“I think the sign was very much of its time and needs to be consigned to history at this point in time and moving forward.”