The Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar has been forced to apologise for a comment about the religious denomination of Sinn Féin TDs in the Dublin parliament.
Sinn Féin called on Varadkar to withdraw the remarks he made on RTÉ in which he falsely claimed that the party “has no Protestant TDs”.
The comment was as false as it was crass – it emerged that Sinn Féin’s TD for Clare, Violet-Anne Wynne, is a Protestant.
More importantly, it revealed a lack of understanding of the deeply anti-sectarian nature of republicanism in the 26 Counties.
It also cut deeper by recalling post-independence Ireland, when sectarian tensions in the 26 Counties were at their highest. As many Protestants felt vulnerable following the British withdrawal, public comments about religious identity were inflammatory and the question of religion became a very private matter.
Ms Wynne criticised the Tánaiste’s remarks.
“Leo Varadkar’s constant attempts to score political points by spouting untruths and trying to demonise political opponents is getting tiresome,” she said.
“While nobody in Sinn Féin has ever made an issue of my religious views, it is not acceptable for the Tánaiste to do so.
“On national radio today, he said there are no Protestant TDs in our party. That is a lie.
“I am a Protestant and I am proud to be a Sinn Féin TD. The Tánaiste should immediately withdraw and apologise for his hurtful remarks.”
Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy said he had “no idea” what religion his party colleagues are, and he didn’t care.
“The fact that Leo Varadkar thinks it’s important says plenty,” he said. “He should stop the nasty, petty political games and concentrate on resolving the dysfunction within his government.”
In his apology, Mr Varadkar said he was not aware of Ms Wynne’s religion.
“I did not make any remarks, at all, about Deputy Wynne personally. I was unaware of her religious affiliation and I stand corrected. I fully retract my remark and apologise for any offence caused,” he said.
Sinn Féin TD Kathleen Funchion said the Tánaiste “did the right thing” by withdrawing the remark. Speaking on RTÉ’s Drivetime, she said his comments were “absolutely ridiculous” and showed “really how ill-informed he is.”