A banner at the centre of an anti-English controversy involving Sinn Fein’s president was about ending partition not xenophobia, Michelle O’Neill has insisted.
Mrs O’Neill rejected the suggestion that Mary Lou McDonald was endorsing bigotry when she posed with the sign reading England Get Out of Ireland in New York’s St Patrick’s Day parade.
Mrs McDonald was roundly criticised by political rivals after Sinn Fein posted the image on Twitter at the weekend, along with the comment “no explanation needed”.
Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney accused Mrs McDonald of poor leadership, claiming she was an “embarrassment”.
Mrs O’Neill defended her party leader.
“It is important that everybody looks at all of these things in context,” she said.
“Mary Lou was walking in a St Patrick’s Day parade in New York, she was walking behind a banner that has been carried for many decades. I think from the 40s that banner has been carried.
“You also have to remember what is that banner about?
“It’s about the end of partition in Ireland and, as Irish republicans, that is what we are about - ending partition, partition has failed.
“I think some of our opponents have tried to spin this and turn it into that it’s about individuals or people with a British identity, or people who are English, it’s not about that, it’s about the relationship between Britain and Ireland.
“And I don’t think it should be a surprise to anyone that the president of Sinn Fein, a republican party, would stand behind a banner that actually says that we want to end partition.”
DUP MP Emma Little Pengelly branded Mrs McDonald “gaffe-prone and an embarrassment” to her party.
“It is regrettable that Michelle O’Neill defends the New York photograph,” she said.
“Such a comment about any other people group would be deemed as highly offensive and racist.
“Not the actions of a party committed to equality and respect.
“Not much respect for unionists or ‘the English’ as Mary Lou calls us.”