Sorry, not sorry: McDonald’s Mountbatten comments mark a change of tone

Though the Sinn Féin leader has not broken from party theology, a shift is perceptible

Mary Lou McDonald’s weekend comments on being “sorry” about the death of Lord Mountbatten were not quite the full-throated apology for IRA actions that many headlines, especially in the British press, would suggest. But they did represent a new tone from the Sinn Féin leader.

When asked on Times Radio if she would apologise to Prince Charles for the death of his uncle along with two boys and a woman when his boat was blown up off Co Sligo in 1979, McDonald said: “The army and armed forces associated with Prince Charles carried out many, many violent actions on our island. I can say of course I am sorry that happened. Of course, that is heartbreaking.”

You can read this either way. Sorry for the killing of Mountbatten, or sorry the whole conflict happened. The ambiguity is hardly unintentional.

Sinn Féin has never disavowed the IRA or its actions and is unlikely to start now

Asked on Monday if McDonald was apologising, Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin said it was “an admission of regret and an acknowledgement of the suffering for the family involved”.

Pressed as to whether McDonald intended to go further than Sinn Féin has previously on the subject, Ó Broin replied, “I don’t know”.

McDonald is a canny enough media operator to have foreseen headlines about the “apology”. That – and the fact she chose the weekend of Prince Philip’s funeral to make the statement – suggests a deliberate attempt to move the dial.

Regret and sorrow

While expressing regret and sorrow for the suffering caused by the conflict in general, Sinn Féin has never disavowed the IRA or its actions and is unlikely to start now. This is part tactical, part theology. Once you start to address individual incidents, where do you stop?

But on a deeper level, it remains a fundamental tenet of republican thinking that the IRA campaign – while admitting individual mistakes and expressing regret for all deaths in the conflict – was morally and politically justified. That belief is ingrained in the party’s DNA.

This is not the sort of thing that Sinn Féin does on the spur of the moment

So McDonald is unlikely to rewrite that theology. But she does appear – and some party sources agree – to be trying to alter the tone, at least a bit.

Her comments on Mountbatten followed a tweet expressing sympathy with Queen Elizabeth on the death of her husband. Since McDonald does not expect the queen to be closely following her Twitter account, it is fair to assume the intended audience included those referenced in the second part of the post – “those of a British identity on our island, for whom his death will be felt as a great loss”.

It is unlikely, too, that she just dashed off a tweet when she heard the news. This is not the sort of thing that Sinn Féin does on the spur of the moment.

Against the background of a divided Northern Executive and increasing loyalist alienation, McDonald seems to be making conciliatory noises. It is an interesting departure.