A rock and a hard place: Sinn Féin's past and future meet at Bobby Storey's funeral

For a party who believe they are hounded by media for every slight transgression, Sinn Féin rarely help themselves.
A rock and a hard place: Sinn Féin's past and future meet at Bobby Storey's funeral
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill attending the funeral of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey in west Belfast.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill attending the funeral of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey in west Belfast.

For a party who believe they are hounded by media for every slight transgression, Sinn Féin rarely help themselves.

Since Tuesday, the party have been on not-so-much-apology-but-justification-tour after pictures emerged of the party leadership attending the funeral of longtime Sinn Féin advisor and former IRA leader Bobby Storey.

Over 1,800 people turned out to pay their respects, applauding Storey's family as they passed, lining the streets of West Belfast, social distancing was basically impossible, few wore masks.

Many were, rightly, outraged at the presence of Michelle O'Neill who had helped write the rules in the north for social distancing during the pandemic, standing among the crowds, at one point, involved in a mind-blowingly badly judged selfie.

The furore handed political rivals more than enough talking points to further their argument that Sinn Féin are "not a normal party" and "not fit for government".

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill during the funeral of senior Bobby Storey at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast. O'Neill faces calls to resign after she and party colleagues attended the funeral on Tuesday.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill during the funeral of senior Bobby Storey at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast. O'Neill faces calls to resign after she and party colleagues attended the funeral on Tuesday.

This is a shallow assessment, and where the fundamental misunderstanding of Sinn Féin starts.

While you couldn't be blamed for seeing Tuesday's pictures and assuming that Mary Lou McDonald doesn't think the rules apply to her, it ignores a wider political game that Sinn Féin leadership have to play.

Unlike the other two medium-sized parties in Leinster House, Sinn Féin have to balance their past and present in order to ensure success both sides of the border, and so far, they're falling at really easy hurdles.

Not attending Storey's funeral was simply out of the question for McDonald and O'Neill, such a sign of supposed disrespect would not fly in west Belfast and across the north for the many old-school republicans who see their support for Sinn Féin dependent on whether their stick to their roots, while striving for a better future.

The funeral procession of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey following the funeral at St Agnes' Church in west Belfast.
The funeral procession of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey following the funeral at St Agnes' Church in west Belfast.

And while a better solution might have been to go directly to the church, which abided by guidelines while inside, that wouldn't have worked either, because the leadership had to be seen there. Whatever their feelings for Bobby Storey, which I am certain are genuine, being seen there sends a message.

However, that message is received in Dublin, Galway, and Roscommon very differently.

Over a thousand people across Ireland have laid to rest their loved ones in almost complete isolation. Grandchildren watched services through webcams and Zoom. Husbands dedicated to their wives for decades avoided cemeteries, while lonely coffins were lowered into the ground surrounded by strangers.

The coffin of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey passes Casement Park in west Belfast following the funeral at St Agnes' Church.
The coffin of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey passes Casement Park in west Belfast following the funeral at St Agnes' Church.

Bobby Storey was a giant to his community, but there were giants across Ireland who lie in graves unvisited because others played by the rules.

Sinn Féin have been walking a tightrope for years, one step forward and two steps back: One good Repeal vote, one non-apology to Paul Quinn's family.

One huge electoral win, followed by a chant of "Up the Ra".

Mary Lou McDonald must be able to say: "I hear you" to her voters, it's just that her voters include a middle-aged woman in Phibsborough who voted Sinn Féin for the first time because her adult children can't find a home, and a Belfast community worker who spent his youth in the H-Block and put his faith in her party after the Good Friday Agreement.

Michelle O'Neill posing for a selfie with two attendees at Bobby Storey's funeral.
Michelle O'Neill posing for a selfie with two attendees at Bobby Storey's funeral.

With one foot in the past, and one foot in the future, Sinn Féin need to tighten their ship. Thousands of people forgave Sinn Féin's baggage in February, but only with certain conditions.

Voters are fickle, and won't stick around if disrespect continues.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up