Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has provoked outrage among republicans after she deliberately used the plantation name “Londonderry” for Derry at an event in the city on Wednesday.
In a promotional video released on social media following a visit to the city, Ms McDonald said: “We have had an engagement with young people with interests across Derry, or Londonderry, and it has been a really wonderful conversation and one that we need to build on because we have to live respectfully together and we know we can do that.”
The video clip was recorded after Ms McDonald met a Presbyterian minister and members of his congregation on Wednesday. Rev David Latimer is seen nodding enthusiastically as she says “Londonderry”.
After posting the video, Ms McDonald explained: “I’m well aware of the history of Derry and Donegal. I used the term to reflect the fact that we had a dialogue -- a really good one -- with people who see things differently to us.”
But the controversy has confirmed hat the party has returned to a policy of ‘unionist outreach’, for years the hallmark of Sinn Fein’s powersharing arrangement with unionists at Stormont.
However, the DUP quickly dismissed what it said was an attempt to reprise Sinn Fein’s “charm offensive”. Speaking on BBC’s Talkback programme, senior DUP figure Nelson McCausland accused Ms McDonald of being “disingenuous”.
He said: “There has been a Sinn Fein attempt at unionist engagement, a charm offensive towards unionists for more than a decade. But we still get situations such as Sinn Fein’s defence of McCreesh Park in Newry [named after a 1981 hunger striker], or what happened with Barry McElduff [who resigned after making an embarrassing video clip referencing an IRA attack].
“It makes it very clear to me that there is a lack of sincerity about this talk of unionist reconciliation and engagement.”
There has been no formal criticism of the ‘Londonderry’ stance by Sinn Fein’s political opponents. Saoradh spokespersons were said to be unable to comment as the party was struggling with this week’s wave of police raids and arrests.
Individual republicans accused the Sinn Fein leadership of an attempt to grab headlines at the expense of the campaign to remove the colonial prefix ‘London’ from the city’s already anglicised name.
Former eirigi election candidate Padraic Mac Coitir said that ‘Londonderry’ is a “disgusting word” and referred to the city by its Gaelic spelling, Doire.
“Mary Lou McDonald isn’t the only SF member to use that disgusting word for Doire. During the blanket protest, some men from Doire were refused letters and visits ‘cause they wouldn’t use that word. Shame on anyone claiming to be republican using it,” he said.
He described the outreach campaign as “appeasement”. “It’s never reciprocated by unionists,” he said, adding: “They [Sinn Fein] are taking the middle class vote from the SDLP”.
Former internee Mickey Donnelly, one of the ‘Hooded Men’, claimed former republican prisoners were turning against the new party leader who joined Sinn Fein in the aftermath of the Good Friday peace deal.
“I’ve never heard any republican use ‘Londonderry’,” he said. “Indeed, no one in the nationalist community, including SDLP people, uses it. The ex-prisoners I’ve spoken to are shocked and outraged. Mary Lou’s lack of republican credentials is showing.”
One Fianna Fail cumann tweeted that “the mask has slipped”. The party’s branch in Cashel, County Tipperary, wrote: “Now we know how republican Mary Lou actually is.”
Sinn Fein’s own supporters showed a mixed response, with some criticising what it described as the party’s ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, and contrasting it with the refusal of unionists to give legal recognition to the Irish language. Some younger Sinn Fein members expressed strong support, with one Irish speaker vowing to go by an Anglicised version of his name.
Sinn Fein activist Catherine Nelson said Mary-Lou McDonald’s approach is “nothing new” and gave the example of the late former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the English queen in 2012.
“I also said ‘Northern Ireland’ once in an interview and the journalist was taken aback, but it doesn’t make me any less republican to say it,” she said.
“How do we make unionists feel welcome if we don’t use some of the language that makes them feel comfortable?”