Mary Lou McDonald has credited Sinn Fein’s presidential candidate for sparking a healthy conversation around the poppy, but made clear she would not wear one as party leader.
During a TV election debate, Liadh Ni Riadh said she would be prepared to wear a poppy to commemorate the war dead if elected Ireland’s president.
The poppy is a contentious symbol of remembrance on the island of Ireland, particularly north of the border, with many nationalists and republicans associating it with their negative perceptions of the British military.
Some Sinn Fein members have distanced themselves from Ms Ni Riadh’s comments during the RTE debate on Monday night.
On Wednesday, party president Ms McDonald said Ms Ni Riadh made the vow in the spirit of “inclusivity and reaching out”.
But she acknowledged that the poppy was problematic for “huge swathes of Irish opinion”.
Talking to the Press Association, Ms McDonald drew a distinction between the office of the president and a Sinn Fein political leader.
“Liadh is talking as a candidate for the presidency,” she said.
“I’ve never been slow nor will I be slow in terms of reaching out – we’ll always do our best in that regard.”
She added: “I don’t think there’s any expectation that the leader of Sinn Fein would be wearing a poppy, in all fairness.
“I think she has sparked a really interesting conversation which I think is good – I think it is a healthy thing.”
Sinn Fein Assembly member Mairtin O Muilleoir broke new ground in 2013 when he became his party’s first Belfast mayor to attend a ceremony at the Cenotaph to commemorate Armistice Day.
On Wednesday, the South Belfast MLA told PA he was “sympathetic” to Ms Ni Riadh’s position.
But he also said he would not wear a poppy.
Mr O Muilleoir said the president of Ireland had to represent “all the people of Ireland”.
“So I understand where she is coming from,” he said.
“I am sympathetic to it. I am the first Sinn Fein lord mayor to hold an event on Armistice Day, so we have to stretch ourselves.
“I won’t be wearing a poppy, as a member of Sinn Fein I didn’t wear a poppy (as mayor).
“But I do realise that Liadh is trying to stretch herself to do the right thing for all the people of Ireland.
“I think we are looking to the future and we know now there will be a referendum on a united Ireland, I think that’s definitely coming, so I think we have to stretch ourselves and she has done that in a commendable fashion.”