Miriam Lord: Sinn Féin condemned to linguistic knots over Jerry McCabe

Party leader Mary Lou McDonald and TD Martin Browne were singing different songs

Housing was the key issue on the doorsteps as the candidates entered the final week of the Dublin Bay South byelection. Video: Enda O'Dowd

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The politics of condemnation came in from the cold for Sinn Féin this week.

Or did it?

Decades after adopting this clever phrase as cover for its unwillingness to publicly denounce republican terrorists and their atrocities, Mary Lou McDonald condemned the IRA men who murdered Det Jerry McCabe during an attempted post office van raid in Limerick 25 years ago.

“We refuse to engage in the politics of condemnation,” was a familiar line from Sinn Féin representatives. A couple of years ago McDonald was bang on message: “The politics of condemnation is a rabbit hole that I will not go down because it becomes a tit for tat, ‘you said, I said’, and it becomes a tennis match between very, very hurt and very, very damaged people and communities.”

But in an interview on Virgin Media on Thursday night, the party leader “absolutely” condemned the killers of Det McCabe. She was responding to interviewer Colette Fitzpatrick, who picked up on her repeated condemnation of “the killing” and “the actions” of those who carried it out.

Browne has his own view on the new politics of condemnation and of ‘the conflict’ in the quiet village of Adare back in 1996

She pointed out that McCabe’s widow specifically asked for Sinn Féin to condemn the perpetrators.

“So can you do that for her?”

“I mean I condemn the killing. I condemn the actions of those who took his life,” replied Mary Lou.

“But do you condemn the killers?”

“I think the least Ann McCabe or any victim of the conflict deserves is for political leaders like me to stand in solidarity with them. I condemn absolutely the taking of that man’s life, his murder…”

Fitzpatrick pressed the point because it was “really important” to Ann McCabe.

“She said she wants Sinn Féin to condemn the killers themselves – so not the killing, [but] the men who did what they did. They ambushed that man on that day, took out an AK-47, fired 15 rounds into him, took the love of her life and left her five children without a father. So can you condemn her killers tonight?

“Yes, I condemn, absolutely, and we have consistently said that there is no justification for what happened, absolutely no justification whatsoever.”

On Friday, Sinn Féin TD for Tipperary Martin Browne wasn’t singing from the same hymn sheet. Browne has his own view on the new politics of condemnation and of “the conflict” in the quiet village of Adare back in 1996.

Fran Curry of Tipp FM asked how he felt about Mary Lou McDonald’s condemnation of Jerry McCabe’s killers.

“Lookit, I didn’t see the programme, Fran,” he haltingly replied. “We’ve had discussions like this before. And, you know my view on it – the apologies have been made, and Mary Lou – like I said, until I would actually see the programme itself… ”

But she definitely uttered the word “condemn”. Would Browne go along with that?

The Cashel-based TD sounded hesitant and uncomfortable as he answered. He said there were a lot of things that happened that time that “probably” shouldn’t have happened.

“It – it – it was a thing that happened that wasn’t sanctioned at the time and… ” He paused, cleared his throat. “Condemn is a very hard word.”

But the interviewer wasn’t giving up. So did he agree with his party leader?

“Like I said, I haven’t seen the programme, and when I look at the programme I’ll get back to you on that.”

No need for him to check. “I saw the piece,” chimed in Fran, helpfully. “That is genuinely what she said, Martin. What would your immediate reaction to that be?”

The TD was struggling but holding the line – his line, that is.

“Like I said, it wasn’t sanctioned at the time by the movement, and I don’t think they got support for it at that stage.”

And on it excruciatingly went.

So he wouldn’t go so far as to say he condemns those men?

“I would not go as far as saying ‘condemn’, like, that is a hard word to put out there.”

And it’s not a question of being at odds with his party leader either, explained Martin.

“We all have, eh … We all have our own opinions of what happened, at that time.”

And that would be?

“Well, sure, I told you my opinion that it was a sanction, or an action that wasn’t supported by the Provisional movement at the time, and they made that clear, and they made their apologies and that, down through the years, for that.”

Jackie Cahill, Fianna Fáil TD for Tipperary says he wouldn’t find it too hard to condemn the people who murdered Jerry McCabe.

“I fail to understand why anyone would even have to pause to think about whether the killing of a detective on duty couldn’t but be condemned,” he said on Friday. “How any public representative wouldn’t condemn this out of sight is beyond my comprehension. But the thing that really got me was the implication that if it had been ‘sanctioned” by the ‘movement’, it would have been okay. It beggars belief.”

The chemistry set

What is it about Dublin Bay South and chemists?

Candidates from all the main parties are still popping into Kate O’Connell’s pharmacy in Rathgar to commune with the candidate Fine Gael didn’t choose to run in the byelection. That’s all done and dusted; the party organisation wanted James Geoghegan to run in preference to the former TD, and he is the frontrunner, according to an Irish Times opinion poll at the start of the week.

Fine Gael candidate James Geoghegan on the canvass in Dublin’s southside. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Fine Gael candidate James Geoghegan on the canvass in Dublin’s southside. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

But with reports of O’Connell’s name coming up on the doorsteps, his opponents are taking pleasure in drawing attention to the unspoken presence of the spurned politician.

Another candidate who knows her well is Mairead Tóibín, the candidate for Áontu, who is also a pharmacist. We know this because she bumped into Labour’s Ivana Bacik on the hustings and it turns out that Mairead and Ivana already know each because Ivana’s mother, Rina, is also a pharmacist who used to work in Kate O’Connell’s chemist when it was run by mother-in-law Nora.

Lawyers and pharmacists all over the place in this political race. If nothing else, half the field will be able to discuss university entrance points with each other during quiet moments at the count on Friday.

Now in colour: Shane Ross. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Now in colour: Shane Ross. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Elsewhere on the trail, voters have been somewhat confused by the sight of a former minister appearing on the doorsteps in the more upmarket areas with the Fine Gael candidate. Is this a case of Winston Churchtown rides again?

No, Shane Ross hasn’t entered the field. But former ministers and stockbrokers have to make a crust too. Ross was shadowing James Geoghegan because he is writing a colour piece for the Sunday Independent.

Colour writing? Oh, the mortification. How the mighty have fallen.

The Taoiseach turned up on Thursday night for his ninth canvass with the Fianna Fáil candidate, Deirdre Conroy. (Does the man ever sleep?) But for all the shoe leather Micheál Martin is burning through, the prospects don’t look great for his candidate.

Meanwhile, in the Seanad, Bacik got a back-handed endorsement from an unlikely source during the debate on the National Maternity Hospital. Senator Ronán Mullen sadly noted it was “quite clear the Sisters of Charity have abandoned any desire to be in a position to influence the ethos of anything that goes on at the St Vincent’s Hospital campus in future.”

While he understood the vocations crisis, it was “a great tragedy” that they had allowed this to happen. “They were, in a sense, a bulwark against statism.”

But times have changed.

“I completely get it that the majority have a different view in this country,” said Mullen.

“Senator Bacik will be elected as a deputy next week, despite being an unremitting opponent of any protection for unborn babies down through the years. That is the fashion.”

He wasn’t cheering.

Waffly versatile

Topical Issues is the part of the Dáil day where TDs can raise issues of concern with a relevant minister. The topics chosen are submitted in advance to the Ceann Comhairle, who selects a number of them for discussion. Subjects can be local or national.

Ministers of State are routinely dispatched to stand in for their senior colleagues, reading out boring scripted replies drafted by civil servants.

Thursday’s topical issues were about the ambulance service in Connemara (Mairéad Farrell, Sinn Féin; Catherine Connolly, Independent; Eamon Ó Cuív, Fianna Fáil), the disruption of bus services in Waterford and the southeast (Marc Ó Cathasaigh, Greens) and housing conditions in the Oliver Bond flats complex in Dublin (Bríd Smith, Solidarity-People Before Profit).

Minister of State for Housing Malcolm Noonan apologised to Smith as he hadn’t time to familiarise himself with the full detail but he would do so and get back to her. He read a script about departmental standards, funding for local authorities and general information about Oliver Bond House.

He also replied to Ó Cathasaigh at length, reading from another turgid script. Eventually he admitted he couldn’t “answer the question because it’s not my department and it’s not my remit, so I am relaying a scripted response on behalf of the Minister for Transport. I am more than happy to take the issues back to the Minister.”

The Ceann Comhairle heaved a heavy sigh. He had already vented his frustration after Anne Rabbitte, Minister for State at the Department of Health, replied to Galway TDs, who have been campaigning for years for an adequate ambulance service in north Connemara.

In fairness to the Minister, who is a TD for Galway East, she knew she was reading out pages of bureaucratic gobbledegook and civil service jargon that went no way towards addressing the matters raised.

When she finished she added: “Before coming here today, I followed up on the issue because I didn’t feel my scripted response would address it properly.” She relayed the information she got from the ambulance service on the situation in Connemara and what is being done to improve the service. Not very much so far, but “an analysis of demand” is under way.

It was important to read that into the record, said Rabbitte, “because I would be doing you a disservice to stand here and give the answer I have in front of me, which doesn’t address the questions”.

Her fellow Galway TDs thanked her for her honesty. And the Ceann Comhairle, who has to sit through these sessions, was equally grateful.

“It’s outrageous that State agencies would treat this House with contempt when they produce to us, by way of an answer to a serious question, waffle rather than a substantial answer,” he huffed, commending Rabbitte on “her integrity”.

But he wasn’t finished. After an apologetic Malcolm Noonan read his supplied script on the Waterford bus situation, Seán Ó Fearghaíl remarked: “It seems that we have another reply for the waffle box.”

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