Wednesday 21 March 2018

Internal emails reveal events leading up to Sinn Fein councillor's decision to quit party

Anatomy of a Sinn Fein councillor's resignation

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

Philip Ryan

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 eventually 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, re-read 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.

Sunday Independent

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