SINN Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has apologised for marching behind an "England Get Out of Ireland" banner at the New York City St Patrick’s Day Parade.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney was among the most high profile critics of the "offensive" and "divisive" gesture last month, while the DUP also took umbrage – claiming it summed up Sinn Féin's "attitude to explanations, truth and respect".
Following the backlash, a Sunday Business Post opinion poll published over the weekend found support for the Irish republican party dropped by five points to 13% from 18% in February.
— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) 17 March 2019
Ms McDonald has now issued an apology to anyone who felt offended by the banner, moving to reassure the public it was "not the case" that the sign's slogan was directed at English people.
She told RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime show: "In respect of St Patrick's Day, I think it starts certainly a conversation around that banner which has been up and down Fifth Avenue for a generation.
"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."
'English people are very welcome'
The 49-year-old – whose party previously branded backlash against the banner as "faux outrage" – went on to describe its slogan as "a fairly blunt statement at any time".
She continued: "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.
"For anybody who felt that it was directed at English people, I just want to reassure them that's not the case".
When pressed on the political sentiment behind the sign, Ms McDonald said she would not apologise for being "a united Irelander" and wanting unity and democracy across the island of Ireland.
"In fact, far from apologising for it, I wear that political position as a badge of honour," she said.
"I suppose 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."
The DUP said the Sinn Féin President's "supposed apology" was motivated by poll ratings rather than genuine regret.
East Antrim MLA Gordon Lyons branded it "a cynical response to falling poll ratings rather than any acknowledgement of remorse".
He added: "It is testament to Sinn Féin's place on the sidelines of politics that gaffes by their new president have been their most significant contribution to politics in recent months.
"It is clear however that a drop in support has pressed those who take the decisions within Sinn Féin to stop defending the banner and belatedly send Mary Lou McDonald out to issue this supposed apology."
Mr Lyons further claimed if Sinn Féin's leadership was truly sorry it would commit to working with all other parties to restore the Stormont Assembly.
The party has recently stepped up calls for a border poll as the chaotic Brexit negotiations drag on, despite fears from some that a vote on Irish unity in the near future might only intensify divisions in Northern Ireland – which has been without a devolved government since January 2017.
Recent polling has shown that the majority of people in the Republic want a border poll in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and that six in 10 people want to see a united Ireland in their lifetime.