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Stephen Collins: Sinn Féin’s brazen volte-face on Putin should be seen for what it is

Party’s attempt to jump on the bandwagon of popular revulsion is a cynical manoeuvre

The brazenness of Mary Lou McDonald’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been breathtaking. She didn’t just abandon Sinn Féin’s long-standing pro-Putin stance but had the hard neck to demand the expulsion of the Russian ambassador and suggested that the Government’s response to the invasion was not strong enough.

As recently as December, when the Russian military build-up was causing serious concern in the EU, Sinn Féin MEP Chris MacManus voted against a resolution in the European parliament that supported Ukraine’s independence, stressed that Putin’s military build-up at Ukraine’s borders represented a threat to Europe’s peace, and called on Russia to respect its international obligations.

That vote was not an aberration by Sinn Féin or the result of its MEP going on a solo run but part of a long-term strategy of backing Putin against Western democracy.

Just a few examples: Back in 2015 the party abstained on a European parliament resolution that condemned the annexation of the Crimea and human rights abuses in Russia.


In 2018, when the government in Dublin expelled a Russian diplomat in solidarity with the UK after Russian agents poisoned former KGB officer Serfei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, McDonald attacked the then taoiseach Leo Varadkar, claiming the move represented “a flagrant disregard for Irish neutrality”.

In 2019 the then MEP and current Senator Lynn Boylan voted against a European parliament resolution attempting to block the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and accused the EU of being overly confrontational with Russia.

Worst fears

Now that the Russian invasion has confirmed the worst fears of the EU and US, Sinn Féin has done a rapid volte-face. However, instead of admitting past errors, or simply keeping quiet, the party has attempted to cover its tracks by trying to lead the popular cry to have Russian ambassador Yuri Filatov expelled from Ireland.

While it is understandable that many Irish people, horrified by what Putin is doing in Ukraine, are clamouring for the expulsion of Filatov, it would actually make no sense for Ireland to take this decision unilaterally and it might put Irish citizens in Russia or Ukraine in danger.

What the Government actually did in response to the invasion was to take an early lead in advocating the strongest possible EU sanctions against Russia. Some other member states were initially reluctant but rapidly came around in an unprecedented show of unity which clearly shocked Putin.

Sinn Féin’s attempt to jump on the bandwagon of popular revulsion against Putin is a cynical political manoeuvre and should be seen as such.

It is surely time to face up to the reality that we are not neutral when it comes to a confrontation between democracy and tyranny

The point about Sinn Féin’s previous stance is that it revealed the natural inclination of the party to side with authoritarian forces against those who espouse Western democratic values.

It has provided the Irish electorate and the political system with another glimpse into the real nature of the party, and McDonald’s attempt to erase the record of Sinn Féin’s long-time support for Putin by suddenly adopting a pro-Ukraine pose should be treated as the opportunistic move it is.

In recent weeks Micheál Martin and Varadkar made strenuous efforts to call out Sinn Féin for its pro-Russia policy and were widely mocked for their trouble. The invasion of Ukraine has more than justified their warnings, and raises more serious questions about the values Sinn Féin will espouse if it ever gets into government.


The Russian invasion also raises questions for the entire political system about the country’s ill-defined policy of neutrality which is looking more threadbare with each passing day.

Ireland is a western country with western values, and the Government’s support for sanctions against Russia and military aid for Ukraine has reflected that.

It is surely time to face up to the reality that we are not neutral when it comes to a stark confrontation between democracy and tyranny. That doesn’t necessarily mean involvement in any military alliance, but at the very least the government and the Dáil should be able to decide on appropriate measures in an emergency without being shackled by an out of date concept.

All of Europe, shocked by Russian aggression and impressed by the extraordinary courage of the Ukrainians, has come together with a unified approach to the crisis in a matter of days. Serious changes in long-term policy have suddenly emerged across the continent.

By far the biggest shift has taken place in Germany, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz breaking decisively with a policy in place for decades and deciding to send military assistance to Ukraine and opting for a substantial increase in defence expenditure.

The scale of the attack on Ukraine convinced him and his Green coalition partners that the defence of a law-based European order is more important than Germany’s dependence on Russian gas.

Faced with a threat to its very existence the EU has moved to become a serious actor in the security as well as the economic sphere to underpin its commitment to freedom and democracy on the continent.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told the European parliament: “We cannot take our security and the protection of people for granted. We have to stand up for it. We have to invest in it. We have to carry our fair share of the responsibility.”

There is a message there for Ireland.