Anatomy of a Sinn Fein coun­cil­lor’s res­ig­na­tion

In­ter­nal emails de­tail for the first time the events lead­ing up to a ris­ing star’s de­ci­sion to quit the party, writes Philip Ryan

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Analysis -

SORCHA O’Neill first got in­volved in pol­i­tics when she was se­lected to sit on the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion. She en­joyed her time at the meet­ings and felt a sense of pride when the Con­ven­tion’s de­lib­er­a­tions re­sulted in the hold­ing of a ref­er­en­dum on mar­riage equal­ity.

She de­cided to be­come more in­volved in pol­i­tics and joined Sinn Fein in Kil­dare. Sinn Fein or­gan­is­ers noted her tal­ent and asked her to run in the 2014 lo­cal elec­tions. She was elected on the first count and be­came a Sinn Fein coun­cil­lor on Kil­dare County Coun­cil.

Fianna Fail TD James Law­less, who was also elected to the coun­cil on the same day, de­scribed O’Neill as a “re­spected col­league” who al­ways got “stuck in” and was easy to work with. “Sorcha was al­ways very con­cil­ia­tory in her ap­proach,” Law­less said last week. O’Neill was new to pol­i­tics but wanted to make the most of the op­por­tu­nity pre­sented to her by Sinn Fein and looked for­ward to serv­ing on the coun­cil. O’Neill em­braced the work of a lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive and en­joyed sort­ing out prob­lems for her con­stituents as best she could.

She wanted to build the party’s brand lo­cally and even- tu­ally run as a Sinn Fein TD in Kil­dare.

How­ever, it soon be­came ap­par­ent that work­ing as a Sinn Fein coun­cil­lor would be chal­leng­ing. There would be clashes with col­leagues on the coun­cil and lo­cal mem­bers whom she felt were try­ing to un­der­mine her. There are dis­putes in all par­ties, in fact, there are griev­ances in most pri­vate and public or­gan­i­sa­tions. But po­lit­i­cal par­ties can be melt­ing pots of am­bi­tion mixed with pres­sure. In most or­gan­i­sa­tions, there are guide­lines and pro­ce­dures for re­solv­ing dis­putes.

As with all or­gan­i­sa­tions, Sinn Fein has its own rules which mem­bers must abide by. How­ever, one theme run­ning through the re­cent spate of coun­cil­lor res­ig­na­tions is the lack of griev­ance pro­ce­dures within the party. When coun­cil­lors have com­plained they have felt they may as well be speak­ing to a brick wall. Many of the cases which have emerged could po­ten­tially have been re­solved through a half-de­cent me­di­a­tion or dis­putes res­o­lu­tion process. O’Neill’s case was no dif­fer­ent.

In­ter­nal Sinn Fein emails seen by the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent show for the first time how a break­down in re­la­tion­ships within the lo­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion led to the party los­ing one of its ris­ing stars.

O’Neill first made a com­plaint to Sinn Fein fol­low­ing a row among coun­cil­lors af­ter a press re­lease about de­vel­op­ment levies in Kil­dare was is­sued on be­half of the group with­out her prior knowl­edge.

On De­cem­ber 1, 2015, O’Neill sent an email to fel­low Sinn Fein coun­cil­lor Mark Lynch and the other group mem­bers in­sist­ing all press re­leases should be agreed by all coun­cil­lors.

“How many times do we have to go over this? Don’t sub­mit any­thing to press/ me­dia like this again with­out my ex­press per­mis­sion if you are us­ing the county name,” she wrote.

Lynch re­sponded to O’Neill (the other coun­cil­lors were in­cluded in the email) by say­ing: “You had want to cop your­self on.”

He told O’Neill she had been “noth­ing but has­sle” since she joined the party and she should work with Sinn Fein or “go off to one of the groups you met in the few weeks before see­ing an op­por­tu­nity in SF.

“Your be­hav­iour as al­ways is out of line and frankly a dis­grace and I would never want to speak for a po­lit­i­cal op­por­tunist and an­tag­o­nist to the work and growth and suc­cess of the party in the county.

“The sooner you get over your tantrum about not be­ing se­lected to run in an area where you are not wanted or sought, the bet­ter, oth­er­wise the likes of the AAA (Anti-Aus­ter­ity Al­liance) are al­ways look­ing for your type,” Lynch con­cluded. O’Neill re­ported the ex­change to her lo­cal con­stituency or­gan­iser but heard no more about it.

Last week, Lynch told the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent he sent the email be­cause he was “frus­trated” with O’Neill as it was not the first time she com­plained about a de­ci­sion taken at a meet­ing she did not at­tend. Sinn Fein said coun­cil­lors are ex­pected to “work to­gether as a team.

“In all walks of life, peo­ple have dis­agree­ments and fall out with each other. The ma­jor­ity of these dis­agree­ments, es­pe­cially within coun­cil groups, are re­solved lo­cally by peo­ple show­ing lead­er­ship,” the party said.

Separately, O’Neill was hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ties with a non-elected Sinn Fein mem­ber. A 2,000-word com­plaint, which was sent to a lo­cal or­gan­iser in Jan­uary, de­tails more than two years of con­flict with the in­di­vid­ual. The claims made in the com­plaints range in se­ri­ous­ness but over­all point to a se­ri­ous clash of personalities. Dur­ing the 2014 lo­cal elec­tion, O’Neill claims the mem­ber pushed her “full force” off a foot­path while can­vass­ing. She told the mem­ber not to do it again and was told she “couldn’t take a joke”.

She said the mem­ber “as­signed dis­re­spect­ful nick/pet names” to her and oth­ers in the party. O’Neill said she told the in­di­vid­ual “this was not ap­pro­pri­ate”.

Con­cerns were also raised in the com­plaint about the mem­ber’s ac­tiv­ity on so­cial me­dia and the im­pact it could have on the party. O’Neill said she asked the mem­ber not to put her per­sonal phone num­ber or ad­dress on Face­book and when she was asked to take the de­tails down, the in­di­vid­ual ini­tially re­fused.

The coun­cil­lor also al­leged a lo­cal busi­ness owner com­plained to her about “ex­tremely dam­ag­ing” com­ments the mem­ber made about their busi­ness on so­cial me­dia. O’Neill ad­vised the busi­ness owner to con­tact gar­dai. The coun­cil­lor also said she re­ceived a com­plaint from an­other lo­cal per­son about com­ments the mem­ber was mak­ing on Face­book. She again en­cour­aged this per­son to con­tact gar­dai with their com­plaint. Over­all, O’Neill felt the mem­ber was mak­ing life dif­fi­cult for her per­son­ally and was pre­vent­ing Sinn Fein from growing in the area. She said the mem­ber showed a “com­plete lack of re­spect for lo­cal struc­tures.

“We have meet­ing min­utes that clearly state that we have ad­vised mem­bers to read, reread and ob­serve the party’s so­cial me­dia guide­lines and poli­cies code of con­duct so (the mem­ber) would not be sin­gled out,” she said.

O’Neill said she has nine other peo­ple who could ver­ify the events and be­hav­iour she out­lined in her com­plaint.

“Our ef­forts to re­solve this lo­cally and given the grav­ity of some of the lat­ter com­plaints, I feel this is bet­ter dealt with by head of­fice. I would ap­pre­ci­ate ac­tion taken on the mat­ter,” she con­cluded.

She in­quired a num­ber of times as to how the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the com­plaint was pro­gress­ing but said she was met with a wall of si­lence.

On April 17, she wrote again to the or­gan­iser when re­spon­si­bil­ity for or­gan­is­ing a lo­cal com­mem­o­ra­tive event was taken away from her branch.

Five days later, O’Neill and five other ac­tivists re­signed from Sinn Fein. Speak­ing to her lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion, O’Neill said she was leav­ing the party due to “bul­ly­ing, hos­til­ity and ag­gres­sion”. She also said mem­bers told her they could not sleep due to the at­mos­phere in the lo­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion. Sinn Fein ad­mit­ted there were “dif­fi­cul­ties” in the area which they were work­ing to ad­dress.

Last week, Sinn Fein said the na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion only be­came aware of the is­sues af­ter O’Neill re­signed. “Con­stituency client mat­ters raised as part of the con­stituency ser­vice are pri­vate and con­fi­den­tial be­tween the coun­cil­lor and their con­stituents and are not party mat­ters,” the party said.

“It was the duty of the Coun­cil­lor O’Neill to en­sure that all con­stituency client mat­ters were fol­lowed up on. All party mem­bers in that area were made aware of the party so­cial me­dia rules which in­cludes Face­book com­ments,” it added.

‘She said not to do it again and was told that she couldn’t take a joke’

BEFORE THE SPLIT: Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDon­ald can­vass­ing with Sorcha O’Neill, who has left the party

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