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At some point, Sinn Féin will need to confront its violent past and grapple with 'sorry'

Party has mastered the non-apology but will need to confront its past

The verdict from Sinn Féin was practically unanimous.

Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O'Neill, David Cullinane and Matt Carthy all agreed that Gerry Adams has nothing to apologise for, that the "tiocfaidh ár lá, lá, lá, lá" video was just a bit of "lighthearted" fun and it was a "terrible pity" if some people couldn't see that.

Whatever you might think you know about Adams, the party wants you to understand that he’s just a cuddly, goodhearted peddler of Dad jokes who was only trying to raise a few quid for charity.

Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Insisting you’ve nothing to apologise for is the Sinn Féin way. It has mastered the non-apology apology in all its forms, from expressing sorrow in general terms without owning your part in any of it, to deploying the past-exonerative tense with a dose of whataboutery thrown in.


Some observers suggested the kerfuffle was part of a plan to demonstrate that dissent is tolerated within the party. This theory didn't seem terribly likely

"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," Mary Lou McDonald said last April in reference to the killing of Lord Mountbatten. It was not the historic, sincere apology many wanted to take it for, but served the purpose of getting the words "Sinn Féin" and "sorry" into headlines.

"Obviously, it would have been better if I had not said it," went Cullinane's own version of a kinda-mea-culpa for chanting 'Up the Ra' in a Waterford pub after his election in February 2020. He characterised this as "an apology for anybody that was offended by it, but there's bigger issues out there".

Only Eoin Ó Broin broke party ranks this week and said Adams should apologise. While “tiocfaidh ár lá” is merely, he explained on WLR FM, a long-standing political slogan meaning “our day will come in terms of a united Ireland” – which is both true and a wild understatement of the resonance of a phrase that has been embossed on a badge in the shape of an Armalite rifle and sold on the Sinn Féin website – an apology would be “helpful”.

Some observers suggested the kerfuffle was part of a plan to demonstrate that dissent is tolerated within the party. This theory didn’t seem terribly likely and became even less so after McDonald finally broke her silence on Thursday and reminded her people that she expects them to be “an cúramach ar fad” with their words.

If it didn’t reveal much about the inner workings of Sinn Féin, the whole crass episode was a reminder of the challenge it faces to convert its surge in popularity into a sustainable basis for government. All successful political parties have an ability to be whatever a particular voter wants them to be in the moment.

Right now, that’s true of Sinn Féin. Its supporters believe they know where it stands on three issues – housing, health and unity. As long as it’s in opposition, it can shape-shift on almost everything else. It can have “one view” on abortion North and South, but still abstain from a DUP vote that would restrict abortion rights.

It can be worried about the climate crisis, but want to abolish carbon taxes and fudge questions about emissions cuts in agriculture.

Even on unity – the one issue on which the party will never compromise – its supporters believe there is some wriggle-room. Recent polling suggests their republican ardour cools rapidly at the prospect of tax increases.

Only 20 per cent of Sinn Féin voters would pay higher taxes to achieve a united Ireland. They'll share the memes, but not the costs or the compromises.

Sinn Féin’s support has extended far beyond its traditional base and now includes disparate groups that have little in common, other than an inchoate appetite for change.

They include young voters who migrated to it online and were identifiable recently by their loud proclamations that Adams’s video was either “hilarious” or “nowhere near as offensive as the cost of the children’s hospital/levels of homelessness/communist scamdemic agenda of the woke liberal left looney maggots”. For them, declarations that the IRA hasn’t gone away are somewhere between a hopeful promise and a harmless meme.

Then there are quite a few people whom that supporter might characterise as the “woke liberal left”, whose primary concerns are around housing and inequality.

There are the older, middle-class voters whose appetite for change crystallised during the last election campaign into support for Sinn Féin, due partly to the appeal of Ó Broin. I came across many of these during the last election campaign: Fianna Fáil voters all their lives who said they would vote Sinn Féin because their children can't buy a house; Fine Gael-voting rural dwellers who feel forgotten. They are not quite so sanguine about suggestions the IRA hasn't gone away, but they're prepared to believe McDonald's assurances on it, for now anyway.

Where does that leave Sinn Féin? The short answer: in a position that is the envy of every other party. The longer-term answer: it’s going to be complicated.

At some point, Sinn Féin will have to deliver on its promises, which will mean disappointing some of those supporters. Clearly, it has a lot more work to do to sell a united Ireland, not just to the one million British people on this island, but even to its own supporters.

As part of this, it will need to confront its own violent past – not through childish stunts or “lighthearted” Dad jokes about conflict, but through a meaningful acknowledgement of what that conflict cost the people of this island. It will need to grapple with “sorry”.

As Patrick Kielty told the Shared Island forum, "it's way easier to sing a rebel song about a united Ireland than decide not to sing it, in order to maybe have one." If Sinn Féin's day is really coming, it needs to give up the crass memes and the crude, hurtful jokes about it.