Sinn Féin representatives were "summoned" to the funeral of veteran republican Bobby Storey in defiance of coronavirus restrictions in a planned effort to push a political message "down everyone's throats", the Taoiseach has said.
In a marked departure from his previous insistence that people not be "overly judgmental" about the large attendance at the former IRA figure's funeral in Belfast in June, Micheál Martin suggested it was evidence of "behind the scenes" control over elected party members.
“There are individuals there who are not elected, it seems to me, who have a greater influence over the elected representatives,” he said.
Citing Mr Storey's funeral, where mourners included Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, former leader Gerry Adams and the North's deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill, Mr Martin described it as a "political funeral".
A decision was taken to “defy” public health guidelines “to make a very clear political statement around the war as they’d call it,” he told the MacGill School, which is being held online due to the pandemic.
“People were summoned from the length and breadth of the country to attend to make a statement,” he said.
‘Toe the line’
The turnout was part of Sinn Féin’s attempts to control a narrative around the Troubles which is “being shoved down everyone’s throats”, he told interviewer Olivia O’Leary on Saturday.
“I have a problem with that, I really see that kind of behaviour as illustrative of the influence behind the scenes...that this is what we are going to do here and you better all toe the line here,” he said.
When asked about the funeral attendance back in July, Mr Martin was reluctant to make any criticism, saying his “overall perspective on this is to try and ensure that this doesn’t damage, or undermine, the institutions within the North”.
“The one point I would make is we have to be careful not to be overly judgemental of people’s behaviour,” he said at the time.
Asked on Saturday about sharing power with Sinn Féin in future, Mr Martin said “fundamentally, Sinn Féin is a party that needs to change. It is a very controlling party over its members and has been for quite some time”.
He said that to be in government with a party, he would need to be satisfied that it is run by elected representatives.
“I have never been satisfied to this day that has been the case with the modern Sinn Féin party,” he said.
Mr Martin also denied there has been any departure from Fianna Fáil's core policy of the political reunification of Ireland.
At the launch of the Government’s Shared Island initiative during the week, he said his own priority was to promote greater North-South cooperation, prioritising sharing the island over reunification.
Some TDs in his party have criticised him for no longer using the term "united Ireland". But the Taoiseach insisted on Saturday that "Fianna Fáil is committed to a united Ireland, that has always been its position."
It was “very false and frankly ill informed” to suggest a shared island agenda in the context of the Belfast Agreement “is somehow straying from Fianna Fail policy”, he added.
“It’s a nonsense… I don’t think it’s fair. To me, it is a very noble objective to say to all persuasions on this island, how do we share this island,” he said, adding that his approach “is more in step with the Irish people,” he said.
"We have done research on Northern Ireland ourselves as a political party over the last number of years.
“We have identified a very strong middle ground in Northern Ireland, that want to get things done for them, that want to create a future.”
Mr Martin said he is “very impatient and hungry to get real progress on these kinds of issues.”