Sinn Fein’s new leader has said that she would “very much like to meet the Orange Order” and has appeared to say sorry for the IRA’s murder of around 300 Orangemen during the Troubles – an essential prerequisite for any such meeting with the institution.
In an interview with the News Letter yesterday, Mary Lou McDonald said that she would attend the Twelfth of July if she was invited.
The Orange Order has a long-standing policy of officially not meeting Sinn Fein – although scores of Orangemen have worked with Sinn Fein in other contexts, such as in councils or at Stormont – and has linked its refusal to meet the party leadership with its “glorification” of the Provisional IRA.
Former SF president Gerry Adams more than once suggested a meeting, as did the then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness but the order rejected the offers, citing the personal involvement of both men with the IRA and that organisation’s murder of Orangemen, many of whom were members of the security forces.
Unlike them, Mrs McDonald, a Dublin TD and former member of Fianna Fail, was never an IRA member and joined Sinn Fein after the end of the Troubles.
In the interview, to be published in full tomorrow, Mrs McDonald initially said several times that she was sorry for the “hurt” suffered by members of the Orange Order.
However, when it was put to her that the Orangemen had been murdered, she said: “Yes. And I’m sorry that anybody was hurt.”
She said that “a lot of the time the people are way, way ahead of us [as politicians] and the role of the politicians is to responsibly lead”.
That, she said, involved “us as the leaders of nationalism and republicanism saying to our constituency and our base that we need to reach out, that we need to reconcile, that the Ireland that’s envisaged isn’t ours – it’s for everybody and unionism needs to be an essential dynamic of that”.
When asked if she would go to the Twelfth of July, she said: “If I’m invited, yes,” before quickly adding: “I haven’t been invited ... I will meet everybody; if I could meet every single person, I would meet every single person individually. I have no hang-ups, I want to meet with everybody.
“I had previously said – and I might as well say it through your own good offices – I would very much like to meet the Orange Order. I think it’s important.”
It was put to Mrs McDonald that the Orange has said it will not meet Sinn Fein until it apologises for IRA murders of Orangemen. Mrs McDonald said: “I think that is so unfortunate.”
Would she not just apologise to get the meeting if it is important?
“No, look – I have no hang-ups about saying that I am sorry.
“I am heartily sorry for everybody that got hurt. I am heartily sorry to those who were hurt by the IRA. Of course. Of course.”
Asked about the general nature of that comment, she said: “Well, that includes the Orange Order. Of course it includes the Orange Order.”
When asked if she could say specifically to the Orange Order: I’m sorry that your members were murdered, she said: “Of course, I am sorry that members of the Orange Order were hurt in...”
Pressed on going beyond that to say they were murdered, she said: “Yes. And I’m sorry that anybody was hurt.”
She added: “You can play games on these issues. I’ve no interest in that ... that’s not getting us anywhere. I’m sorry that anybody got hurt; I’m sorry the whole bloody ... that any of that happened, from start to finish.
“But I don’t think either that it’s a reasonable position for the Orange Order to say ‘well I’m not going to meet with that person because of everything that happened in the past’ because everybody could adopt that position, and then where are we?”
The Sinn Fein president’s comments come just over a fortnight after Leo Varadkar became the first taoiseach to visit the Orange Order’s Schomberg House headquarters in east Belfast.
Mr Varadkar was warmly welcomed – with one Donegal Orangeman addressing him in Irish – and the Orange leadership was particularly impressed that he paid his respects at a memorial window in tribute to 336 members of the loyal order who were murdered during the Troubles, many of them by the IRA.
Orange Grand Master Edwin Stevenson said at the time that Mr Varadkar’s respect for the institution’s murdered members “should not be underestimated and will, I believe, be deeply appreciated by many relatives of the deceased, and the Orange membership as a whole”.
Mrs McDonald also told the News Letter that there are some Protestants who are members of Sinn Fein.
She said: “We want people of all faiths and none and I can tell you on entering Sinn Fein we don’t ask what your religious persuasion is. As it happens, I happen to know – because they are people who are of my acquaintance – that yes, there are some members who would have grown up in or come from Presbyterianism or the Church of Ireland.
“It’s none of our business in Sinn Fein if you go to church on a Sunday, if you do, which church you go to, if you never go ... I want us to develop that.”
When asked if she viewed what the IRA did as morally justified, Mrs McDonald was wary, referring initially to her family’s connection to the old IRA of the 1920s, which she she said was morally justified, a view she said she took “not least because I had family members involved”.
She went on: “But I think to seek the morality of things is in some ways the wrong way, in my view, to come at it because what you have to ask yourself is firstly, the why of these things happening.
“I know that countless people joined the IRA, volunteered to the IRA, not because they were hugely different to their counterparts living a hundred miles down the road, but because the circumstances they were living in were entirely different.
“And so I ask myself as a southerner if I was living in a state that was gerrymandered, that was discriminatory – and I’m not saying this to cause offence to your readership, but that’s how it was – what would I have done? How would I have reacted?
“I think if anyone asks themselves that question and then says ‘was it morally justified or not for those people who came forward’, I think you arrive at a conclusion that actually the morality or otherwise of it was completely overtaken just by the politics on the street.”
She added that she did not “stand over” every IRA action and that “I’m a person who doesn’t wish to see acts of violence from any source”, but she is not a pacifist, believing that “people have a right to defend themselves”.