Has Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald not learned after the the Barry McElduff Kingsmill Twitter debacle? Now Senator Maire Devine's Brian Stack tweet!
You would think that new Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald would have learned something from the mistake she made dealing with the Barry McElduff Kingsmill tweet two months ago. But it seems not. Last week she repeated the mistake when dealing with an equally disgusting tweet from another Sinn Fein politician, this time in the south.
For someone who is supposed to be so smart and strong it's disappointing and disturbing. Nice, respectable Mary Lou, the middle-class Dubliner with no connection to the IRA's bloody campaign, is the new leader of Sinn Fein chosen specifically to widen the party's appeal in the south.
But it's dirty business as usual, it seems, rather than a new beginning.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar summed it up well last week. “It does create a real concern that despite a change at the top in Sinn Fein, there hasn’t really been a change in attitudes and they still glorify violence," he said.
Before we get to last week's revealing blunder, it's worth remembering what happened just weeks ago. McElduff, a Northern Sinn Fein Member of Parliament in Westminster, caused widespread outrage when he posted a video of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre in 1976, a sectarian shooting in which the IRA slaughtered 10 Protestants near Kingsmill in South Armagh.
Making a joke of this mass shooting was not only unbelievably insensitive, but it was also indicative of how little the mindset of some republicans in the North has changed in the decades since the atrocity. It also gave a very hollow ring to Sinn Fein's pious appeals for talks to restore power-sharing in the North.
The Sinn Fein response was half-baked, with McElduff suspended by the party for three months. McDonald, still deputy party leader at the time, supported this decision saying that it was the “appropriate and proportionate” action to take following what she described as "a very crass and stupid tweet."
A short suspension was never going to be enough, however. The outrage at McElduff grew in the days that followed, with demands that Sinn Fein throw him out. With the party under severe pressure he resigned, probably having got advice from above that he could not ignore.
McElduff was widely seen as a bit of an idiot, but the whole episode was seriously embarrassing for Sinn Fein. It was also very uncomfortable for McDonald since her “appropriate and proportionate” comment on the initial suspension made her look foolish. Which makes what happened last week even more disturbing because it indicates that she has learned nothing from the McElduff mistake.
This new embarrassment was another tweet, this time by a minor Sinn Fein politician in the south, a Dublin woman called Maire Devine who is a senator. She retweeted an online comment about Brian Stack, the chief officer in Portlaoise prison in the south who was shot by the IRA on the streets of Dublin in 1983.
Stack had been unpopular with IRA prisoners in the jail because he insisted on maintaining control and refused to give in to their demands to run things themselves. By all accounts he was tough, but fair. He was paralyzed and brain damaged in the attack but lived for a year at home being cared for by his family. His sons, young teenagers at the time, used to shave him.
Now adults, they have been demanding in recent years that his killer be brought to justice and have confronted former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams on a number of occasions. (For my report on this search Brian Stack on IrishCentral).
For many years, both the IRA and Sinn Fein denied any involvement in or knowledge of Stack's murder, just as they did in the case of Detective Jerry McCabe. More recently Sinn Fein -- following the admission by Adams that the IRA were involved -- have been trying to rewrite the history of what happened. So the usual Sinn Fein/IRA trolls have been active online, blackening Stack's name and painting him as a cruel monster who deserved what he got.
And it was one of those comments that Devine retweeted last week. It referred to Stack as a “sadist prison officer.”
For a member of the Dail to retweet such scurrilous stuff aimed at justifying the murder of a prison officer was not only insensitive but incredibly stupid. The vast majority of people in the south have zero tolerance for anyone attacking those who defend us, like the police and prison officers, and for someone like Devine who tries to undermine them.
The leader of the Labour Party Brendan Howlin put it like this, “It is completely unacceptable and improper for that insulting and hurtful phrase to be used about a servant of our state who was murdered in the line of duty."
As Howlin said, it would be unacceptable from anyone, but it was doubly unacceptable from a member of the Dail. And it was made even more disgusting because of the way Stack -- and his family -- had suffered in the wake of the attack.
Howlin continued, “The fact that it is the second time in a few short months where the victims of IRA violence have been traduced in that way is very worrying indeed, and I certainly think the page turning that was supposed to be part of the new leadership of Sinn Fein I’m afraid is back to the same page, back to the same response and I think the mask has slipped again.”
Following what had happened after the McElduff case in the North, it should have been immediately apparent to McDonald that Devine had to be expelled from Sinn Fein. But instead of doing so the party suspended her for three months, exactly what was done initially to McElduff. There were calls for her to resign from the Senate but so far she is holding on and the Sinn Fein strategy seems to be to tough it out.
In one way, the Devine case was even worse than that of McElduff because initially she refused to withdraw the "sadist" comment. Not only that, but when Stack's son complained she engaged in a Twitter row with him and accused him of being overly sensitive. Instead of withdrawing and apologizing, she doubled down and tried to justify what she had done.
When the controversy erupted and Sinn Fein suspended her, Devine eventually apologized. But the language she used was classic Sinn Fein doubly talk.
“I want to offer my most sincere apologies to the family of the late Brian Stack,” she said. “It was never my intention to cause any distress or hurt, particularly to victims of the conflict."
The Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin was quick to unpick this. "Brian Stack wasn't part of any conflict. He was an Irish public servant going about the work that we as a country asked him to do and was killed for doing so," he said.
"Mary Lou McDonald's attempt to glide over his murder using the well worn 'we were all in a conflict' theme doesn't wash either."
McDonald said that Devine's behavior had shown the "poorest of poor judgment" and was "entirely unacceptable." She had been "severely and definitively punished."
But of course this was nonsense. Devine had been suspended for three months (on full pay), after which presumably she will be back in Sinn Fein. And she had not been instructed by Sinn Fein to resign from her seat in the Senate, despite calls from all sides for her to do so.
None of this has been good for the image of Sinn Fein's new leader. McDonald’s shtick is to play the severe school mistress talking down to a classroom of students who are not the brightest. She speaks slowly and forcefully so that us dullards can understand.
It's a trick that has given her a certain aura. But it's one that is already wearing thin.
If she has not already done so by the time you read this, she needs to expel Devine from the party and advise her to resign her Senate seat. Anything less won't be enough. McDonald should know that from the McElduff experience.