Kisyombe affair highlights hidden fault lines in Social Democrats

Fundamental internal differences exist about policy, the EU and party leadership

Ellie Kisyombe, still a candidate for Social Democrats in local elections.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Ellie Kisyombe, still a candidate for Social Democrats in local elections. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

On February 22nd, senior members of the Social Democrats were called to a hastily-convened meeting on foot of allegations made six days before about one of its most high-profile local election candidates, Ellie Kisyombe.

Days previously, the Sunday Times had reported inaccuracies in Kisyombe’s story. She claimed that she sought asylum in Ireland in 2010. However, it emerged that she had entered the country in April 2011 and secured a student visa before travelling to the UK and claiming asylum there.

Tensions were on the rise between party factions beforehand, however. They boiled over during the three-hour “fraught and tense” meeting. Within hours, the chair Joe O’Connor, vice-chair Carly Bailey and another member, Chris Bond, had quit.

Much mystery surrounds what was said during the meeting, though it did vote 9-2 to review Kisyombe’s case. However, it is still disputed whether it decided that she should suspend her campaign pending the review. As of now, she is still a candidate.

Regardless of the secrecy surrounding the meeting and the very public damage inflicted by the Kisyombe affair, it has highlighted fault lines that have remained hidden until now: “Ellie was just the lightening rod,” says one party member.

The publicity prompted a storm of debate on social media, leaving the party’s co-leaders, TDs Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall, in the eyes of some, scrambling to formulate a coherent response.

Last Thursday, Murphy and Shortall emailed the national executive, expressing concern about the “inaccuracies” in Kisyombe’s back-story while appreciating the “severe difficulties” facing anyone in the asylum process.

However, members in the Dublin Central branch of the party dug in their heels: “Members [locally] threatened to quit en masse if the party took this decision [to suspend Kisyombe’s campaign]. That’s what was communicated back,” said one figure.

“We thought we had better get to the bottom of this for both Ellie’s sake and for the party’s sake, and there was a concern that all of this publicity would put her in a worse position,” said one source.

But that is not the way it was viewed in Dublin Central.

Sources in Dublin Central say there was never an explicit threat to make her step down, but say that a suspension would have proved so unpopular among the grassroots that many locally would have quit.

“Members of our branch just could not figure out why there had not been an official response, something to show the party was supporting her. The wrong message was being sent out,” said one source.

Split

In truth, the split between Dublin Central, the national executive, and the party leadership dates back even before the referendum campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment on abortion last year.

Gary Gannon, a councillor for Dublin’s North Inner City and also a hopeful for the European Parliament elections, has built a tight-knit group of local supporters. They, in turn, have made connections and allies across other elements in the party.

Some of them spoke to the Irish Times about the simmering tensions: “This split is not about Ellie. It is about fundamental differences in the party about policy, about where we should stand in the EU, about leadership.

“We want be stronger on climate change, workers’ rights, we want to see real leadership on Brexit. There was an internal struggle, we felt, even when it came to the referendum on the Eighth Amendment.

“The majority of the membership were unabashedly in favour of ‘free, safe, legal’ [abortion] but in the branch, we felt it took a long time for us to get there publicly,” said one party member. Those close to Murphy and Shortall reject this.

“The branch certainly shouts the loudest, particularly on social media, but their views are not representative of other members around the country,” said someone close to both TDs. Such views are shared elsewhere in the organisation.

Last month, Gannon quarrelled with Ann Marie McNally, one of the party’s more high-profile representatives who also serves as the party’s political director, after The Irish Times reported that Gannon wanted to run in the European Parliament elections.

Hours later, political correspondents received a message from party sources saying that McNally also wanted to run. However, in reality the party had not yet decided whether it wanted anyone at all to go forward

“The leadership wanted candidates to show that their candidacy was viable. It was a case of show us that this could actually work, because that cash [to run an EU election campaign] could take away from much-needed resources for the local elections,” one source said, privately.

Regardless, McNally had the edge because of her pivotal role in the party and this further soured relations. Later, however, she decided against running in the European election. For now, the Social Democrats has still to decide if it will have a flag-bearer.

Despite the difficulties, many in the party remain optimistic: “We are waiting to see what happens in the local elections and the feeling is that we will do well, that we got a bounce from the Eighth referendum, and that we have stand-out candidates,” one figure says.

The Social Democrats will run 58 local election candidates, 32 of whom are women. The most optimistic forecast is that the party will, one day, have 10 Dáil seats. Such success would bring its own issues, including the possibility of a challenge to the existing leadership.

“More seats in the Dáil would mean a different dynamic for the party. We are not necessarily looking for a leadership challenge, but a change in the way the leadership works,” said one party member in Dublin Central

And what of the relationship between co-leaders Murphy and Shortall? In the eyes of some, not all is well in paradise. “They have different leadership styles. But they work well together. Catherine is the yin to Róisín’s yang,” said one source, diplomatically.