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25 September 2017

Totalitarian Sinn Fein riven by dissent as councillors in south exit amid bullying claims

Erstwhile loyal members are now speaking out about life in an undemocratic party, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Gerry Adams with Sinn Fein colleagues Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald
Gerry Adams with Sinn Fein colleagues Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald

September has been a troubling month for Sinn Fein. First there was the resignation of Limerick councillor Lisa Marie Sheehy, who said she had been forced out of the party after she was “undermined, bullied and humiliated”.

Tipperary councillor Seamus Morris then went public in her support, telling his local newspaper that he had been driven to contemplate suicide because of “an intense, nine-month hate campaign of harassment and slander”.

June Murphy, one-time Sinn Fein East Cork councillor, then weighed in with an interview on local radio discussing the “nightmare” period before she resigned in 2015 and became an independent who refused the party demand that she vacate her seat. 

“It just amazes me, for a party that talks about transparency, justice, democracy, all those words. None of it exists in the part”, she told local radio just over a week ago. 

And to cap it all, last week Sinn Fein expelled three councillors from Wicklow County Council whom it alleged had failed to attend council team meetings over 18 months.

That statement, said one of them, Gerry O’Neill, was a “barrage of lies” and “codology” and obscured long-standing differences of opinion relating to the imposition of candidates and the “extreme” use of the party whip “even on trivial issues”.

Councillor O’Neill added that 50 members had resigned over the previous two years.

I often reflect on the complexities Gerry Adams has to deal with as president of a psychologically partitioned party and figurehead of a republican movement dominated covertly by Northern Irish veterans of the IRA.

If he vanished tomorrow, who could replace him?

How would his middle-class, expensively educated, well-travelled Dublin protege and deputy Mary Lou McDonald — who gives the IRA enthusiastic retrospective endorsement but has no republican credentials — really go down in south Armagh?

Even the more thuggish elements there must have had a good laugh when she said she had met Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy “perhaps twice or three times” and had found him “very nice, very approachable”, “a very typical rural man of that age” and a “staunch” supporter of the peace process.  

And how would Adams’ unexpected appointee to the leadership of the party in Northern Ireland, that biddable but intellectually unimpressive politician Michelle O’Neill — best known for her enthusiasm for the would-be assassins of Loughgall — play in middle-class Dublin?

The gap between the two Sinn Fein jurisdictions has been highlighted recently by the spate of resignations in the Republic: there has been occasional trouble in Northern Ireland with disillusioned members, but mostly it’s well below the radar.  

When you’ve been schooled up north in a culture of violence, intimidation and tribal hatred, you’re much easier to control than if you’re a starry-eyed idealist down south who joined the party because it seemed to have high-sounding aspirations about equality, social justice, peace and love, and discover the reality is very different. 

Matt Tracey, one-time adviser in the Dail to Sinn Fein convicted gunrunner Martin Ferris, has written A Tunnel To The Moon: The End Of The Irish Republican Army, an illuminating book on hitherto concealed divisions.

 He calculates that having won 264 council seats in elections north and south in 2014, Sinn Fein lost more than 10% to resignation or expulsion — the vast majority in the Republic — in rows over its totalitarian approach to procedures, policies and the handling of dissent.

Councillors investigate councillors and make the findings required by the Dublin leadership.

“It’s really aggressive and no one is stopping them,” said June Murphy, discussing the “systematic abuse” that had culminated in the promotion of the man she accused of bullying. 

“It is a culture of men, it gives you the illusion that they support women, they do not; they tell the women what to do.” McDonald, she stressed, was no exception: “She does what she is told.”

Ms Murphy reacted strongly to an assertion of journalist Vincent Browne that Sinn Fein “have a very democratic way of electing their party leader”.

“They do in their a**e,” she said.  “You are told who to vote for all the time and he (Adams) is always the only name. What is democratic about that?”

Will any Northern Ireland party members back up their southern counterparts, or are they still too frit?

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards