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London (AFP) - Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams apologised Monday for using a racial slur on Twitter while seeking to compare the treatment of African Americans with Catholics in Northern Ireland.
Adams, an avid Twitter user who has more than 100,000 followers, spent most of Monday backpedalling furiously over the issue after initially claiming his tweets the previous evening had merely been "ironic".
While viewing a Quentin Tarantino movie late Sunday, Adams tweeted "Watching Django Unchained -- a Ballymurphy Nigger!" He followed it with another tweet: "Django -- an uppity Fenian!"
He quickly deleted them amid a flurry of criticism and later apologised for his use of a word that is widely regarded as toxic.
"Anyone who has seen the film, as I did last evening, and who is familiar with the plight of nationalists in the north until recently, would know that my tweets about the film and the use of the N-word were ironic and not intended to cause any offence whatsoever," he said in a Sinn Fein statement emailed to AFP.
"Attempts to suggest that I am a racist are without credibility. I am opposed to racism and have been all my life," he said.
Ballymurphy is a working-class nationalist area of west Belfast where Adams was born and which he represented for many years as a Westminster MP.
The area was one of the main flashpoints during the Troubles, a three-decades-long armed conflict that pitted Irish nationalist republicans against the British army and pro-British unionist paramilitaries.
The Fenians mounted a campaign of armed resistance to British rule in Ireland towards the end of the 19th century, and the term has been used as a derogatory word to describe Catholics.
- 'Toxic' -
As a backlash grew during the day, Adams said at a function in Belfast the use of the word had been "inappropriate" and issued an apology for any offence caused. However, he stood by the main thrust of his tweet.
"I stand over the context and main point of my tweet about the Django which were the parallels between people in struggle," he said.
Catholic nationalists have often characterised the conditions in which they lived as second-class citizens for decades in the majority unionist state as akin to those of African Americans.
Adams pointed out that the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s, of which he was a founding member, had modelled itself on the civil rights campaign in the USA.
"In our own time, like African Americans, nationalists in the north, including those from Ballymurphy and west Belfast, were denied the right to vote; the right to work; the right to a home; and were subject to draconian laws," he said. "This changed because we stood up for ourselves. We need to continue to do that."
However, critics have dismissed Adams' attempts to draw parallels.
Tim Brannigan, a mixed-race Irish nationalist from west Belfast who was jailed for Irish Republican Army activity during the conflict, said: "Gerry and Sinn Fein won't need me to tell them just how toxic it is and the sort of reactions it gets."
"I don't think that you can equate what was happening in Belfast in 1965 with slavery," he added.
It comes only days before voters in Northern Ireland go to the polls on Thursday in the local assembly elections.
Sinn Fein is expected to return to government in power-sharing administration as the largest nationalist party with around 25 percent of the vote.