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Sinn Féin’s hollow Hamas stance Hypocrisy underscores its call for the return of an Irish-Israel hostage

A mural in Belfast (Cathal McNaughton/Getty Images)

A mural in Belfast (Cathal McNaughton/Getty Images)


November 22, 2023   7 mins

The torment of Thomas Hand, an Irish man originally from Dun Laoghaire in Dublin, speaks directly to the most visceral fear of every parent: that, one day, we may find ourselves powerless to protect our child. Mr Hand lived with his eight-year-old daughter Emily in Kibbutz Be’eri near Gaza, but when Hamas attacked the kibbutz on October 7, Emily was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. She and her friend’s family have since disappeared.

Mr Hand was at first informed that his daughter had been killed, then told by the Israeli army that they now believe Emily is in fact alive and being held in Gaza. He appealed to Hamas at least to release its child hostages, to “have some humanity, some pity”. His daughter turned nine without him last Friday: he must now pin his hopes on the successful outcome of the newly forged hostage deal between Israel and Hamas.

On a brief trip to Ireland recently, Mr Hand appealed to Irish politicians for any help they could give. Both the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Tánaiste Micheál Martin pledged their support in the strongest possible terms. Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, also expressed sympathy, saying that “the trauma and heartbreak being endured by this family is unbearable. I reiterate my condemnation of the taking of hostages and again reiterate our clear demand that hostages be released immediately”.

There is considerable sympathy in Ireland for Mr Hand’s situation, even as the public is appalled by the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza. But the plight of a young Hamas hostage of Irish-Israeli heritage is delicate territory for Sinn Féin. It has long been highly vocal about the Palestinian cause, and has had a number of contacts with Hamas over the years with an ostensible view to “furthering the peace process”. In 2020, for example, Sinn Féin hosted an online event — introduced by Mary Lou McDonald — featuring Palestinian speakers, including representatives of Fatah and Hamas. They included Dr Basem Naim, Hamas’s head of international relations, who joined from Gaza. Following the events of October 7, it was Naim who repeatedly told a clearly flabbergasted Sky interviewer that Hamas hadn’t killed any Israeli civilians.

Even as news was first leaking out about the horrors Hamas had enacted upon Israeli civilians, Sinn Féin’s youth wing, Ógra Shinn Féin, was assiduously tweeting about the historic crimes of Israel. Ms McDonald has herself condemned the Hamas attack, but has repeatedly called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, Dana Erlich, over Israel’s bombing of Gaza. At the annual Sinn Féin party conference earlier this month, the Palestinian ambassador to Ireland, Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid, was met with a standing ovation and shouts of “Free Palestine!”.

Yet this tension runs deeper, too. While McDonald is no doubt sincere in her calls for Emily Hand’s return, the past activities of the Provisional IRA, and her own role in commemorating and defending the organisation, cast an ineradicable shadow over present events. On October 9, she said that “the targeting of civilians and the taking of hostages is to be condemned outright”.

But is it? Not, it seems, if targeting civilians, taking high-profile hostages, or simply “disappearing” people has been sanctioned by the IRA Army Council.

It is unfortunate timing for McDonald that the detail and consequences of PIRA tactics in the Seventies and Eighties are very much in the news recently. Last Saturday, the Irish businessman Ben Dunne Jr, the former director of Dunne’s Stores, died aged 74. Prominent Irish politicians spoke warmly of the deceased: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described him as “larger than life”; McDonald tweeted that her “thoughts are with his beloved family”. It’s fair to say Sinn Féin’s thoughts weren’t primarily with his family back in October 1981, when Mr Dunne was abducted by masked IRA gunmen on his way to open a new supermarket in Co. Armagh; he was released a week later, reportedly after the payment of a very large ransom.

Compared to many other IRA kidnappings, however, Dunne’s had a happy ending. Many others didn’t, not least for the families damaged irrevocably by their trail of violence. A new book, The Kidnapping, by the Irish journalists Tommy Conlon and Ronan McGreevy, tells the grimly dramatic story of the IRA abduction of the Quinnsworth supermarket executive Don Tidey in November 1983. Mr Tidey was driving his 13-year-old daughter Susan to school near his Co. Dublin home when he was flagged down by someone he thought was a policeman. In fact, it was an IRA man, whose associates shoved young Susan Tidey to the side of the road — along with her brother Alistair, who was driving the car behind — and abducted Mr Tidey at gunpoint, seeking a £5 million sterling ransom.

Garda intelligence eventually tracked his IRA captors down to a place called Derrada Wood in Co. Leitrim and mounted a rescue operation. During it, two agents of the state were killed by the IRA: Gary Sheehan, a 23-year-old trainee Garda, and Patrick Kelly, a 35-year-old Irish Army soldier and father of four. The eldest of Private Kelly’s sons, David, later described the catastrophic effect of his father’s murder upon the family: his vulnerable mother remarried a controlling man who took them all to England, where they endured poverty and domestic violence: “we had fallen a long way in a short few years.”

In 2020, McDonald said of the IRA’s violence: “I wish it hadn’t happened, but it was a justified campaign.” David Kelly then asked her to condemn his father’s murder outright: when pressed, she owned that particular IRA killing, of an Irish soldier, was “wrong”.

Which killings, then, were right? Sinn Féin culture — which McDonald plays an enthusiastic role in upholding — is one of frequent, sentimental commemorations for “fallen volunteers” whose deeds are clothed in hazy euphemisms of “liberation struggle” and “active service”. It falls to others to document the brutal generational trauma which PIRA visited on the families of its victims.

Among the most harrowing are those cases in which an abduction was simply followed by silence, causing untold agony for relatives. Last week, the sixth search for Columba McVeigh was called off after failing yet again to uncover his burial site. Columba was a 19-year-old Catholic boy from Co. Tyrone abducted by the IRA in 1975: the IRA spread rumours that he was an informer, which his family has strongly denied. But love is stubborn, and for nearly 24 years after he disappeared, his mother Vera clung to the hope that he was still alive. She and his father bought Christmas and birthday presents for Columba every year, in case he came home. Then, in 1999, the IRA at last admitted that their son was one of the “disappeared” whom it had murdered and secretly buried in unmarked graves. Vera died in 2007 without ever knowing where Columba’s body was.

Thomas Niedermayer was another civilian who never returned home, after two men knocked on his Belfast front door just after Christmas in 1973, saying there had been an accident involving his car. His daughter Renate answered the door and fetched her father, who went out in his house slippers to take a closer look at the problem. As the recent documentary Face Down by the Irish director Gerry Gregg searingly records, it was the last time anyone in the family saw Niedermayer alive.

A married father of two daughters, Niedermayer was the well-respected German director of the Grundig plant in West Belfast, employing both Catholic and Protestant workers. Unluckily for him, the factory shop steward for a time — with whom, his former secretary recalls, he occasionally clashed — was a man called Brian Keenan. By 1971, Keenan was the quartermaster of the Belfast Brigade of the IRA. It appears he bore a grudge towards his former boss.

No one outside the IRA knew what had happened to Niedermayer, or who had taken him. His wife kept pleading to know his whereabouts, but myriad false rumours — deliberately planted — swirled around her husband’s disappearance, talk of affairs and gun-running. Then, seven years after he had vanished, thanks to a tip-off from an IRA informer, his body was discovered by police, buried face down in a fly-tipping site in Belfast’s Colin Glen.  

The plan had been masterminded by Keenan, the informer said. It was intended to use Niedermayer as a bargaining chip with the British government for the return to Northern Ireland from England of the IRA bombers Marian and Dolours Price. On the third day of captivity, however, Niedermayer had made an escape attempt and was so brutally beaten by his captors that he died.

Much of Face Down is narrated by Niedermayer’s brave and dignified granddaughters, Tanya Williams-Powell and Rachel Williams-Powell. They are the only ones left to tell the story, because the murder took an almost unimaginable toll on the family. Mr Niedermayer’s wife Ingeborg, and their daughters Renate and Gabriele, all took their own lives by different means in the years after his death. So too did Gabriele’s husband Robin, in 1999.

The architect of the kidnapping, Brian Keenan, lasted quite a bit longer. In the IRA his tactical ruthlessness led him to be regarded as a figure of immense authority. He certainly seemed to impress the up-and-coming Mary Lou McDonald, eager to bolster her republican credentials after arriving in Sinn Féin from Fianna Fáil. In 2003, she appeared publicly alongside him at a commemoration for Sean Russell, an IRA man who died of a gastric ulcer in 1940 while on a German U-boat, having requested and received assistance from Nazi Germany to mount a proposed invasion of Northern Ireland. In 2008, after Keenan died from cancer, McDonald carried the coffin at his funeral. He is commemorated annually, with party members encouraged to join the Brian Keenan Mountain Challenge, a Sinn Féin fundraising walk.

With Sinn Féin now the largest party in Ireland, there is a distinct possibility that McDonald could be Taoiseach after the next election: her brand of confident outspokenness and vigorous indignation on grass-roots issues appeals to that large section of the Irish electorate which is disenchanted with the failings of the political old guard.

Yet the memory of Provisional IRA violence cannot be consigned to the past — as many would no doubt wish — in large part because Sinn Féin doesn’t want that to happen. The party is not interested in apology: it doesn’t crave forgiveness, but vindication. It doesn’t wish to forget Provisional IRA violence so much as to rewrite it, to repackage what was brutal, heart-breaking and squalid as something radical, exciting and heroic to a generation that never experienced the reality of the Troubles.

In so doing, Sinn Féin is steadily propelling the Republic of Ireland towards a kind of heightened internal battle of self-definition. There can be no easy reconciliation between those who seek to document Ireland’s gritty reality and those who energetically promote Sinn Féin doctrine: the portrait of the Provisional IRA and the Troubles that arises from The Kidnapping and Face Down is simply incompatible with the Sinn Féin narrative in which Gerry Adams or the late Brian Keenan are morally unimpeachable Irish patriots. And so the argument has become no longer simply about what Ireland does, but what Ireland is. Who is the true guardian of the nation’s identity: those who would commemorate the late Irish soldier Patrick Kelly, or those who would honour the organisation that killed him?

One can sense this deepening anxiety in the statements of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders. In September, after watching Face Down, Micheál Martin said that Sinn Féin was “infecting a new generation of young people” by “trying to triumphalise the horrible deeds” of the Provisional IRA. Leo Varadkar said recently that the idea of a Sinn Féin justice, foreign affairs or defence minister was “repugnant to me” given the party’s refusal to “acknowledge war crimes that may have happened in this country”. That is unusually strong language to use about an opposition party in a Western democracy, but the rift it signifies will only grow more intense. Part of that will be because — as we see now with the Middle East — the debate around other conflicts persists in holding up a mirror to Ireland’s past.


Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
8 months ago

In 1992 Sinn Fein won less than 1% of the vote in the Republic of Ireland general election – it was said they had about as much support there as amongst Northern Unionists – and Gerry Adams was unseated even in West Belfast by the SDLP. Sinn Fein / IRA were marginalised politically and running out of road militarily, riven with informers. The Peace Process which commenced shortly after saved some lives, but involved a political redemption of militant Republicanism – criticism of which was beyond the pale for many years within an Irish political and media establishment fearful of rocking the boat – which may ultimately cost many more as Sinn Fein comes to power North and South of the border. Young Irish people are now as stridently nationalistic as anyone in the modern world outside of China, coarsened by a cherrypicked version of Irish history, and a glamorisation of violence. Irish people used to know their history. For those that still do, there is terrible foreboding.

Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
8 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

As an Irish person living in Ireland that’s really not how I would see it. The nationalism I see in young people is very shallow, limited to a few rebel songs. Other than that we are just another liberal mess of a country. Very quickly losing our independence, culture, land and people. I’d imagine if the young people were Nationalist they would actually give a damn about that.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I have said this before, but peaking as an Irish catholic, there is a distasteful element to the Irish character that is a toxic mixture of self-pity, victimhood sentimentality and virtue signalling.
Hamas and the Irish have much in common

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
8 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

All true but you fail to mention the corruption of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and their adherence to policies that enriched a few and impoverished many.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
8 months ago

Terrorists find their own. Sinn Fein and Hamas are like brothers.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
8 months ago

If the strategic aim of the IRA in Northern Ireland was “Brits Out”, then they lost the war. There’s not much left for the political branch of physical-force republicanism other than posturing at the graveside of their martyred dead. Analogously, Sinn Féin has lost the economic argument in Ireland – they have more or less signed up to neoliberalism and American multinationals as a way for paying for handouts if and when they come to power down South. But none of this can be said out loud – the concept of “face” is very important in many countries, not just China. Truly, Sinn Féin are Marxists, of the Groucho tendency, as in “here are my principles, if you don’t like them I’ve got others”. The empty posturing over the cause of the Palestinian people helps to distract the party faithful (especially the youth wing) from this core cynical philosophy of the movement.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
8 months ago

Speaking of other principles and empty posturing, no one seems to give a good d*mn about the hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians killed by Bashar Al-Assad. No catchy slogans and printed tee shirts, no banners and flags and paid-for bullhorn marches through Western cities.
When the corporate money dries up, so will the chants of “free Palestine”, and passionate concern for non-combatants living in Gaza.

Last edited 8 months ago by Allison Barrows
Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
8 months ago

From the desert to the sea, Western Sahara will be free!

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
8 months ago

I posted “from the desert tû the seä, Western Sahara whill bê frea” on here, but the post was blocked. For sure I used a more standard orthography but I never knew the WordPress alogorithm had such a built-in pro-Moroccan bias.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago

Or for the recently ethnically cleansed Armenians

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
8 months ago

Or for the Uyghurs or the Rohingya whose dire straits have been well publicised … funny that …

Jeff Carr
Jeff Carr
8 months ago

The winners write the history.
Sinn Fein are Ireland’s Socialist party with Nationalism thrown in and the young and naive are flocking to their brand of Utopia.
It is almost a generation since the Belfast Agreement and many have no memory of living with security services on the streets and the atrocities committed by the PIRA in the name of Unity.
Mary Lou Macdonald is the fresh face of an organisation with a very hard core of radicals.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
8 months ago

I find Irish politics increasingly off putting these days. I wouldn’t go near the place if I was Jewish.

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
8 months ago

I fear that the “patriots” of SF will do more damage – both economically and ethnically – than the dreaded British ever did. I suspect they would leave the economic miracle of recent decades looking somewhat threadbare.
I know a few SF candidates locally, and while they are basically decent and well-meaning people, the naivety and the incredibly narrow lens through whch the organisation views the world is a major concern.
A recent poster who spoke of “Toytown revolutionaries who belong in the Students Union” summed it up well. Their knowledge of the Middle-East appears to be from an SWP three-point summary: such a level of ignorance applied to foreign policy would be both dangerous and a national embarrassment.

j watson
j watson
8 months ago

The added sunlight that attaining power will project onto these past deeds will almost certainly generate more questioning and calls for accountability. In some regards Sinn Fein may come to realise the constant scrutiny that comes with power will also attract further ordnance onto the false mythology. They need to be ‘careful what one wishes for’.
There are many in Eire who will ask the questions and press for answers even more if SF attain power. They may find they wish they’d remained in the shadows.

Miriam Uí Riagáin
Miriam Uí Riagáin
8 months ago

Unfortunately, despite all this, it looks quite likely Sinn Féin will get into government at the next election just because the electorate are fed up with the incumbents. I’m reaching the place where there’s no one I care to vote for.

Last edited 8 months ago by Miriam Uí Riagáin
Mike Downing
Mike Downing
8 months ago

Same here in the UK and I’ve never not voted in my life.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
8 months ago

I suggest you get involved.

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
8 months ago

A moderate, left wing party tough on immigration and minus any woke silliness would be good enough. Not too much to ask for surely?

William Amos
William Amos
8 months ago
Reply to  Harry Phillips

You may be interested in reading the manifesto of the SDP.
https://sdp.org.uk/policies/

Steven Targett
Steven Targett
8 months ago

I used to enjoy holidays in Ireland both North and South but not so much anymore. I find there’s an undercurrent of nationalism which I find repellent. It may be my imagination and I don’t sense it in older people just the younger ones.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago
Reply to  Steven Targett

I went on a road trip in Eire a few years ago, including visiting the area where my grandfather was born (Kilkenny). As i drove on towards the west coast in my UK-reg car, the atmosphere passing through the smaller towns and villages took on a slightly sinister feel. I wondered if it was my imagination, until i happened to be stopped at a traffic light and a young man gave me the finger. “Green” couldn’t come quick enough.

Last edited 8 months ago by Steve Murray
Graham Ward
Graham Ward
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I wonder what his reaction would’ve been if he knew your family circumstances?
On a trip to Ireland in the early Eighties, I went into a craft shop displaying a map of family coat of arms, and wondered if mine was on it.
Although I have no immediate connections, the answer on hearing my accent was “I don’t think so”, until I gave them my surname, and, lo and behold, there it was.

D Walsh
D Walsh
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

You sound paranoid to me Steve

UK reg cars are a common sight in Ireland, the locals pass no notice of them

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
8 months ago

I’ve always detested the IRA. Especially as they supposedly were somehow catholic. When I went to Ireland about 10 years ago I was surprised Sinn Fein had survived as a party people choose to vote for. Maybe the Irish should look at the result for the gazans of voting for hamas.

Voting has consequences.

D Walsh
D Walsh
8 months ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

The IRA were NEVER a Catholic organisation, they had Protestant members

The main reason people are voting for Sinn Fein is because the other parties are useless, the same voters will turn on SF soon enough
In the next Irish election, I won’t be voting Sinn Fein, I won’t be voting for anyone

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
8 months ago

It’s like Anna Burns the novelist said; it was only years after she left Belfast that she realised the terrible deep-seated trauma she was carrying round in her from ‘the troubles’. And that would apply to the whole population.

It could have all been achieved peacefully and was, like most of these revolutionary movements of the period (ETA, Colombia, Peru) hugely destructive and a big waste of time.

Pip G
Pip G
8 months ago

Simple question: Why do so many Irish people vote for Sinn Fein.
it was (and is?) the political wing of the IRA. For the last 40 years Ireland has come out of its darkness and become a modern, prosperous European country.
Do so many Irish want Ireland to go backwards to a proto-fascist country alienated from “the West”?

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
8 months ago

We live in an imperfect world; the peace process for all its problems has produced a dividend of almost no deaths since it was agreed. If SF get into power in the Republic they will be in a position to argue strongly for a referendum on reunification.
P.S. Ireland is a friendly place. Some relatives and friends of ours from England were over here for a wedding and had the time of their lives. One father and his daughter had a man pay their bus fare as they didn’t have the requisite bus card (all cashless).

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
8 months ago

How can Ireland vote for unification? Are they unifying with themselves? Or is it the same as Russia voting for unification with Ukraine?

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
8 months ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

Look it up! This is not a school.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
8 months ago

It’s more of a narrative response than a pedantic one. Clearly if world peace fills the hearts of the people of ulster and Ireland then a union is just a vote away. It’s a nice vision.

William Amos
William Amos
8 months ago

With obvious and sincere deference to your direct experience of the events you comment on may I argue that surrender to the men of violence often brings peace in the short and medium term but it exacts a terrible price in the longer term.
The problem lies in that it gives an imprimature of legitimacy to lawless deeds and violent means which can never be withdrawn. And there was a surrender to the terrorists in Ulster.
There is, sadly, to my mind a straight line from Iniskillen and McGurks Bar to the parades in support of Hamas and even the bloodshed on our streets. When I see the intimidation and sectarian anger, the marches and the threats now being uttered on British streets, it’s not Gaza that comes first to mind but the old ‘dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’.
Lawless violence, be it only once legitimised, becomes an accepted tool of politics. Indeed it is the most natural and automatic form of politics. The exclusion of violence from politics is almost a civic miracle. It is so rare in history and so fragile and so easily lost. The ‘peace process’ and the electoral rise of Sinn Fein has shattered forever the illusion that political murder is irrevocably anathema maranatha. It cannot now be regained.
I think it is very hard for people of my generation to fully understand the dignitiy and seriousness shown by so many in Ulster during the Troubles refusing the electoral overtures of Sinn Fein in favour of the SDLP, for instance. That instintive and reflexive disgust at political murder, highly sophisticated both ethically and politically, is gone, all gone now.
It stands on the historical record like an act of heroic, mysterious forebearance from an older and a wiser time.

Last edited 8 months ago by William Amos
Carl Valentine
Carl Valentine
8 months ago
Reply to  William Amos

Excellent post! Thank you