Miriam Lord: Rare sight for Dáil as Sinn Féin TD makes act of contrition

To lose one TD may be regarded as misfortune but to lose two looks more than careless

First Brian. Now Martin. This is Sinn Féin exploring its Wilde side: To lose one TD for a week may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two TDs for a week looks more than careless.

There was huge anticipation around Leinster House for the latest apology in a long line of recent apologies to darken the door of the Dáil. This was a very unusual one: a Shinner sinner.

As a rule, they don’t do contrition in the chamber. That’s something they routinely ask other politicians to do. But the negative public reaction to a pair of vile tweets from Brian Stanley, a senior member of the party who also chairs the powerful Public Accounts Committee, forced the TD for Laois-Offaly into the Dáil to make a formal apology to the House.

Gloating remarks

Following his gloating remark on social media about an IRA massacre in 1979, Stanley bowed to pressure and apologised to the PAC, but this wasn’t enough for many TDs who renewed calls on him to account for his action on the floor of parliament.


So he did, but only after he took a week off from the Dáil first so he could get over the trauma of being called out over his offensive tweets. His party leader suggested he take a some gardening leave and he agreed.

Nobody saw that wheeze coming. It was a very novel move. Reluctant or otherwise, TDs have always fronted up sharpish when left with little option but bow to public and political pressure.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, after a short sanitisation break and before the lesser anticipated session of questions to the Minister for Higher Education, Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl informed the House that deputy Stanley wished to make “a personal explanation to the House, pursuant to standing order 56. No debate or statements by other members can arise in the aftermath of his contribution”.

Perhaps the fact that deputies were not allowed to say anything following Stanley’s statement was the reason so few of them turned up to listen to it. Three TDs sat on the Government side – Chief Whip Jack Chambers, Fine Gael backbencher Brendan Griffin and Fianna Fáil backbencher, John Lahart. Independent Carol Nolan, a former Sinn Féin TD for Laois-Offaly, nipped in quietly for a look.

Came to listen

Social Democrats co-leader, Catherine Murphy, who is also a member of the PAC and was highly critical of Stanley’s tweets, also came in to listen.

But it was the dearth of Sinn Féin TDs in the chamber when their colleague was making his apology which was the most striking thing about the short episode. That was not by accident.

When he spoke, the Sinn Féin benches were almost deserted, save for Mary Lou McDonald the party leader and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, the party whip.

In Dáil Éireann, the time honoured way of supporting a political colleague under pressure is by turning out in numbers and filling the benches around them when they have to stand up a make personal speech.

Filled by colleagues

Even during the pandemic, when new arrangements mean many seats must remain vacant, all available pews are usually filled by colleagues of whatever TD is in the unwelcome spotlight. No party is better at mustering the numbers, turning out the troops and presenting a united front that Sinn Féin.

Not so on Tuesday. Stanley read his scripted explanation, beginning with an introduction on what Irish republicanism and Sinn Féin’s part in the peace process before moving on to an apology. Something all but two of his colleagues felt wasn’t worth taking up a seat in the chamber to hear.

“We must be sensitive in how we talk about the past and respectful of the views others may hold about the past that may be different.”

He accepted his flippant (not his word) tweet about the ambushes at Kilmichael and Narrow Water was insensitive and caused hurt and anger. “Words can do that and my words did. For that, I am truly sorry.”

Tweets, of course, are often composed on the fly with little thought. Stanley had a week to compose his personal explanation. And it was simple, really. It was the words what did for him.

If only he could have phrased it better, presumably. The same content, just better words.

And then there was the tweet sent in 2017 when he wasn’t such a high-profile Sinn Féin TD. This was the homophobic dog-whistle one marking the election of Leo Varadkar. Except it wasn’t, Stanley insisted.

It was a badly worded (again) commentary on the welcome election of a gay taoiseach. “Yippee 4 d tory. it’s Leo. U can do what u like in bed but don’t look 4 a pay rise the next morning.”

“The point I was trying to make was that that was great, but let us also focus on advancing workers’ rights, the rights of people on low income, economic justice and issues such as a living wage, which we do not yet have in this country.”

Another example of inarticulate speech of the heart from the Sinn Féin deputy.

Anyway, over three years later and during his apology to the Dáil he says “I tried to contact the Tánaiste today to express my apology personally to him and I will do so again following this address.”

He took his time.

Meanwhile, as all this was unfolding, another little Shinner Sinner Twitter drama continued to play out in an equally bizarre manner.

Martin Browne, TD for Tipperary, was pulled up over retweeting daft 9-11 conspiracy theories and then went on to cover himself in glory on Tipp FM by giving his tuppenny hapenny on the Stanley controversy and saying he shouldn’t have to apologise.

Which is true, really. Nobody in Sinn Féin ever properly apologises for the terrorist atrocities carried out by the IRA. They can’t because that would be to repudiate all that they stand for.

Martin, is turns out, is chair of the Oireachtas Public Petitions Committee, and some of its non-Sinn Féin members wanted him to hold a meeting this Thursday to discuss his tweets and his comments.

On Monday, members of the 11 strong committee were sent an email from the chairman saying he did not propose to hold a meeting.

Later in the day, a second email came from him on foot of representations from Fine Gael’s Brendan Griffin, asking all members if they wanted to meet. A certain number must agree for it to happen.

Chairman Browne needed to hear back from them all by 2.30 on Tuesday.

All members of the committee - Fianna Fáil’s Cormac Devlin, Pádraig O’Sullivan and Eugene Murphy; Fine Gael’s Brendan Griffin, Eoghan Murphy and Jerry Buttimer, Independent TD Richard O’Donoghue and Senator Gerry Craughwell were in favour.

The remaining three Sinn Féin TDs - Browne, Pat Buckley and Fintan Warfield - were against.

At lunchtime on Tuesday, it was communicated to the members the chairman had taken ill and had to be hospitalised. In view of this, a number of them emailed the committee clerk to say they didn’t want the meeting to go ahead.

Sinn Féin said Browne’s illness was not the reason the meeting was shelved. It was because not enough members were in favour it. But they were, until they heard the bad news about their committee colleague.

Fortunately, deputy Browne was released very quickly and was home in no time. Which is wonderful news.

The party told the Irish Independent: “He was briefly in hospital for a minor issue that flares up occasionally. He is back home. There is no connection of stress or to Covid.”

Unfortunately, he’s off for the week now. And then the Dáil is gone for Christmas. Rotten luck.