Though now invisible to others, the Facebook page, simply named Sinn Féin, is a well-visited site. Many of its 16,000 members engage frequently, often with supportive messages for the party.
However, some often engage differently, delivering bitter tirades at Sinn Féin’s political opponents, including frequently expressed wishes that harm should befall others.
Set up seven years ago, it operated as a private group up until last summer when inquiries were made to Sinn Féin – not to the group itself – about its 10 rules of conduct by the Sunday Business Post.
Rule four of the Facebook page stated: “If you see something in the mainstream media that you want to share, then it would be best to copy and paste the article into the group. If you share links, they get paid for every click on those links.”
The rule was removed after Sinn Féin’s press office was asked for comment on whether it supported such views.
After this, it looked as if the Facebook group had simply disappeared. It did not feature in searches, and links which previously brought Facebook users to the group just showed a blank page that said there were no members.
Closed groups are common on Facebook letting current members view group content and see who else is in the group, and people are invited to join. However, their existence can be found online.
Secret groups – and this is how they are described by Facebook – are hidden from searches, and so are invisible. They, too, require an invitation to join.
Some people who were once in the group found themselves out in the cold and unable to find it when they went looking. They presumed it had been taken down by Facebook because, as sources said, there could have been content on there that might cause problems for the party.
When contacted early in December by The Irish Times, a spokeswoman for Facebook said: “We’ve looked into this group and can confirm it is still live as a secret group. Facebook has not removed the group.”
Inside the 16,000-strong group, there are multiple posts about policy and politics and party issues. Some of it is routine, most of it is supportive of senior Sinn Féin figures and the party’s policies; but much of it includes often vitriolic and abusive language.
Under a photo of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Michael Collins, commentators wrote that Collins would have "cut Leo the liar's throat, for sure" or "I know what Michael Collins would have done with a snitch like Leo the leak, one round, and a round well spent."
Another said Collins would “shoot Leo in the face, like most of the Irish would love to”. Other posts about Varadkar said he should be “put in the bog” or that he “needs the belt of a shovel badly”, “the bigger and heavier the better”.
Posts about Taoiseach Micheál Martin were also met with derisive messages with a member claiming he was “nothing but a two-faced liar”.
Members of the group included Sligo-Leitrim TD Martin Kenny and Clare TD Violet Anne Wynne, as well as multiple Sinn Féin councillors. They left the group this week after The Irish Times contacted Sinn Féin with a series of questions about what was happening in the group and about the TDs' presence in there.
A Sinn Féin spokesman said: “Sinn Féin does not operate any Facebook groups and Sinn Féin is not responsible for any of the content in this group or any other Facebook group.
“There is an onus on social media platforms such as Facebook to tackle this type of content, which is clearly unacceptable, and in violation of their own standards. We have contacted Facebook to make it clear that Sinn Féin has nothing to do with this group and that they should remove it.” Meanwhile, the TDs who have left the group have so far not responded to queries.
The group has been in existence since 2013. The administrators are three party activists who have featured on local Sinn Féin Facebook pages.
One of the activists campaigned intensively in Cavan during the February general election for Pauline Tully TD. Two of them were also pictured in a group with party leader Mary Lou McDonald almost exactly a year ago at an event to commemorate the life of IRA volunteer Martin Savage.
The Facebook group declared itself the unofficial online supporters’ group of Sinn Féin. One of the group rules says that “trolls, shills and spammers will be shown the door”. Critics of the party, whether they are journalists or members of other political parties, are often referred to online as “shills” of the Government.
Another rule of the group asks members to “refrain from dropping f-bombs or c-bombs in your comments”. Despite this, many of the comments contained references to Opposition politicians being a “c***”, “p****”, “parasite”, “dickhead”, “bellend”, or “evil b*****d”.
The seventh rule was for “no hate speech or bullying”.
“Make sure that everyone feels safe. Bullying of any kind is not allowed and degrading comments about things such as race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, gender or identity will not be tolerated.” Again, despite this, there are references to the Tánaiste’s partner and comments that he should “get out of our country now… with your boyfriend”.
Earlier this year, Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne wrote to Dublin Mid-West TD Eoin Ó Broin about the very same group.
Byrne was worried about posts which repeatedly referred to former Labour TD Joan Burton as a "c**t" and an "ugly b***h" and one post which said they would like to "throw her out of a plane with no life jacket".
Under a post about Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris, one person asked for "someone with corona" to "please go sneeze on the twat and do the country a favour".
In yet another ground rule, members of the group are asked to be “kind and courteous”.
“Let’s treat everyone with respect. Healthy debates are natural, but kindness is required.”
Undoubtedly, Sinn Féin has a major advantage over other parties. It uses social media more creatively, and its members and supporters engage strongly with the content – the key to driving such messages “viral” in the crowded online world
However, its very dominance online creates its own problems. The recent controversies about Twitter and Facebook posts written by Brian Stanley and Martin Browne have brought the issue to a wider audience, not always favourably.
While academics found that Sinn Féin had about 10 times more engagement on Facebook during this year’s general election campaign than other political parties, historical messages sent by some party TDs have provided headaches for the leadership.
The party’s online dominance during the election helped to bring new younger voters. However, many of those, galvanised by issues such as the housing crisis, bridle when told that they must not speak out of turn with the party line, in the name of “democratic centralism”.