Unionists describe Sinn Fein leader as 'cynical' over banner apology
Unionists have described as "cynical" an apology from the Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald for posing with a banner reading 'England get out of Ireland'.
She drew criticism from political leaders at the time when pictured on St Patrick's Day in New York.
Her apology came after a public opinion poll published in the Sunday Business Post showed a 5% drop in support for Sinn Fein, down from 18% to 13%.
DUP MLA Gordon Lyons has said the apology is a "cynical response" to the falling poll rather than remorse.
And Ulster Unionist MLA Alan Chambers said she had shown "political naivety" in posing with the banner in the first place.
On Sunday, Ms McDonald clarified the meaning of the banner and said the poll results showed Sinn Fein still had work to do.
"In respect of St Patrick's Day, I think it starts a conversation around that banner which has been up and down Fifth Avenue for a generation," she said.
"It's a very direct political statement, it's an anti-partition statement.
"I know it was taken by some to be directed at English people. It certainly was not and is not."
Pressed on the sensitivities of the current climate due to Brexit, Ms McDonald described the slogan as a "fairly blunt statement at any time".
She went on to say: "All of us have to be conscious of not just what we say and what is meant but also what is heard and what is understood.
"For anybody who felt that it was directed at English people, I just want to reassure them that that's not the case. Indeed I have blood relatives myself who are English and English people are very welcome in Ireland.
"Many of them live amongst us, they are our neighbours and our friends, so certainly I apologise to anybody who felt that the banner was intended in that way and I'm happy to clarify that it's not. It certainly doesn't mean that."
However, she said she stands behind the anti-partition sentiment expressed by the banner.
"But as to the political sentiment behind the banner in terms of ending partition, now in particular as we face into the chaos of Brexit, decided upon in London in England by politicians and political forces there, I cannot apologise for being a united Irelander and for wanting unity and democracy for Ireland," she told RTE's Drivetime.
"In fact far from apologising for it I wear that political position as a badge of honour."
But Mr Lyons said: "Mary Lou McDonald's apology is a cynical response to falling poll ratings rather than any acknowledgement of remorse. It is testament to Sinn Fein's place on the sidelines of politics that gaffes by their new president have been their most significant contribution to politics in recent months."
Ms McDonald was also criticised in February for suggesting she did not think there were any suitable candidates in the PSNI to take over as Chief Constable.
Mr Chambers said posing with the banner had been "ill advised".
"It's quite a long winded apology. I think the photograph of the banner once again showed the political naivety of Mary Lou McDonald.
"At the time her party put out a statement saying 'no explanation needed'. But here we are a couple of weeks later and they're willing to provide a very long winded explanation."
He added that although Sinn Fein had benefited from having a fresh face as leader, "I'm sure they have their own men in grey suits and they must have been quite concerned. It looks like someone has had a word in her ear to sort it out".