Taoiseach accuses Mary Lou McDonald of ‘playing both sides’ on Ukrainian refugee accommodation

Micheál Martin declines to elaborate on remarks made during angry exchanges in Dáil with Sinn Féin leader

Taoiseach Micheál Martin declined on Tuesday night to expand on his accusations in the Dáil that Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was “playing both sides” on Ukrainian refugees.

During sharp exchanges, Ms McDonald said the Government’s failure to accommodate Ukrainian refugees mirrored its general failures on housing.

Mr Martin sparked a furious reaction from the Sinn Féin benches when he reacted to Ms McDonald’s claim that the Government was “not content with denying our own people the right to an affordable secure roof over their heads” but was extending its “its catastrophic failure to those coming to Ireland seeking humanitarian assistance”.

Defending the Government’s performance, Mr Martin said: “We never before had to deal with such numbers coming into the country. We have to deal with it because of a war. It is a vicious war and we have said, along with our European Union colleagues, that we will do everything we can to accommodate Ukrainians, and we have... That must be acknowledged.”


He went on to attack Ms McDonald, saying she commented that the Government could not look after “our own” as well.

“I know what that is targeted at,” he said. “I know why that phrase was used.”

To cries of “shame” from the Sinn Féin benches, Mr Martin went on: “Ms McDonald used that phrase at the beginning of her remarks and I know why she used it and who it was targeted at... She is playing both sides in this debate, and I regret that she is.”

In response to Ms McDonald’s criticisms, Mr Martin said that the only person getting “solace” from her comments was Russian president Vladimir Putin himself because he “wants to create the impression across Europe that Europe can’t manage this”, when the Government and Irish people were working to deal with an unprecedented influx of Ukrainian people fleeing an unjust war.

On Tuesday night, Mr Martin’s spokesman declined to elaborate on his comments.

Asked if he intended to suggest that Ms McDonald had intended a “dog whistle” – sending a signal to certain groups of voters without appealing to them explicitly (ie, only they can “hear” it) – on Ukrainians, his spokesman declined to add anything, but said that the Taoiseach “would stand over what he said in the Dáil... What he said is on the record. ‘She is playing both sides in this debate.’”

Sinn Féin rejected any imputation of a dog whistle. “The exact opposite was the case,” a spokesman said. “Mary Lou made it very clear that the Government is failing both those in need of housing and has failed refugees and those seeking international protection. I think any rational reading of her remarks would show this to be the case.”

The angry exchanges were the latest in a series between the Taoiseach and the Sinn Féin leader, which are becoming a feature of Dáil business.

Meanwhile, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday that Ireland is not in a position to guarantee accommodation to refugees arriving in the country.

Mr Varadkar said Ireland will not resile from international obligations or European solidarity, “but we do need to say to people that if you come here we can’t guarantee you accommodation at the moment and indeed for the next couple of weeks”.

His remarks came after a Government Cabinet sub-committee met to consider a range of measures aimed at easing the huge pressure on Ireland’s system for providing housing for asylum seekers.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times