Sinn Féin faces yet another claim of a toxic, bullying culture
Analysis: Lisa Marie Sheehy’s allegations follow a number of similar cases in the party
Lisa Marie Sheehy, who was Sinn Féin’s youngest elected councillor in the State. Photograph: Press 22
Earlier this week Lisa Marie Sheehy, Sinn Féin’s youngest elected councillor in the State, resigned from the party, citing a toxic atmosphere and a bullying culture.
The resignation of the 23-year old Limerick councillor caused ructions. A postgraduate student of politics in UCC, she perfectly fitted the profile of a new generation Sinn Féin representative.
Sheehy had made a complaint to the party following what she described as a “serious event” that unfolded at an official meeting of the party in the recent past. She said the investigation of her complaint was a joke and different units of the party had played “pass the parcel” with her complaint. In the end, the local provincial organisation concluded there was no evidence of any wrong-doing.
“The party expected me to go back into meeting rooms with the people who had undermined me and with no mediation and just ignore what had happened,” she told The Irish Times. “There is a bullying culture bubbling up and it can be addressed by the party but they are in denial.”
Sinn Féin has strenuously denied the claim of bullying. A senior figure in the party said the meeting complained of was a “hostile meeting where accusations were made across the floor” and might have included “language that was not appropriate”. But what happened had not amounted to bullying, it was asserted.
However, this was not an isolated allegation of bullying. Ten Sinn Féin councillors in six counties have resigned from the party over the past three years, or are in dispute with it, amid various claims of bullying, “sham investigations”, whispering campaigns, and diktats from “middle management” prescribing what is said and determining how votes are taken.
In nearby Tipperary, Nenagh councillor Seamie Morris was the party’s candidate in last year’s general election. But following a row with his local constituency organisation over recoupment of election funding, he found himself the subject of intense hostility locally.
“It started off slowly enough. I was slagged off at comhairle ceanntair. Then statements were issued in the name of four councillors rather than five. It culminated with the local Tipperary organisation expelling me for ‘uncomradely behaviour’, something it had no authority to do.”
Morris said he then found himself at the wrong end of a poison-pen campaign and what he calls a “dirty tricks” campaign. It led to a split in the organisation. He complained to party headquarters but found himself wholly frustrated by the experience. After a long process, involving a five-hour interview with two officials, he said it all came to nothing.
Morris said that the whole process has badly affected his mental health and led to many dark nights.
“I’m wondering about how Sinn Féin deals with this,” he said. “They don’t seem to have any procedures or human resources in place to deal with such a complaint. It is in denial about it being a problem.”
Another 2016 general election candidate, Westmeath councillor Paul Hogan, has also complained he was subject to intense bullying. In the aftermath of a relationship breakdown, he said some members of the party in the constituency had made “vile allegations” against him. He also claimed he was subject to a “kangaroo court” [an unofficial court where guilt is assumed], a claim which hurt party officials to the core.
“I was subjected to at least one kangaroo court. I have been bullied since October 2015. I have been intimidated and threatened. I have received a death threat. I am the victim of an anonymous hate-mail campaign.”
For its part, the party denied the kangaroo court allegation in the strongest terms, and said that an independent arbiter had looked at the issues and Hogan had been exonerated completely. The senior figure accepted there was a local rift but that the party had done its best to heal it.
In April, Kildare councillor Sorcha O’Neill also quit the party. In a radio interview, she claimed there had been an atmosphere of hostility, bullying and aggression. There were claims made locally by some that her work ethic was undesirable.
“There’s not one thing. It’s a culture that has come up and it’s not something that you can talk out about.”
Another councillor who was elected in 2014, Eugene Greenan in Cavan, left the party and politics earlier this summer. A member of the party’s ardchomhairle, the 30-year-old broke his silence only last week when he also alleged a culture of bullying within the party.
In Wicklow, three councillors, John Snell, Oliver O’Brien and Gerry O’Neill have lost the party whip for voting against the party. In short, they have alleged that unelected “middle management” in the party have exercised undue influence and imposed a group leader, controlled all the officer positions and dictated to them how they should vote on every issue.
Mr O’Neill, a party member since 1971, said he was not going to be a “nodding dog” for anybody. He said the party was imposing its will on every move of every councillor. “They seem to be able to make your mind up for you,” he said.
The most damaging and most protracted row over bullying was the one in Cork East, which culminated in permanent and temporary suspension for two councillors. The constituency TD Sandra McLellan refused to go forward to convention amid claims she was being bullied. The whole constituency organisation was stood down for a while.
Morris and Sheehy say that at least 20 councillors are affected – out of a total of 159 in the State. For its part, the party points to its rules and procedures on ethics and behaviour, saying that any incident of bullying will result in expulsion.
In each of the instances, it denies bullying took place, saying there were constituency splits or personality disputes, pointing to similar situations in other parties. Each of the incidents is complicated, with multiple parties and allegations.
It is clear Sinn Féin did intervene in all the disputes. The problem is that none were resolved and there are questions around the process the party has in place. The contention that the bullying claims are inflated, or are part of an agenda by others, does not stand up to scrutiny.
One member who left in recent years said he had not complained about bullying against him. “I did not bother wasting my energy. I know it was going to go nowhere and there was no point.”
While party leader Gerry Adams denied this week there was any culture of bullying, serving Sinn Féin councillors in Tipperary and Limerick have supported Morris and Sheehy and implicitly challenged that assertion.
Tipperary councillor David Doran told The Irish Times it was not good for morale, and it was regrettable what happened to Morris, who he said was a fantastic public representative.
In Limerick, Cllr Ciara McMahon said she was very proud of the stance taken by Sheehy, who had stood up for herself.
“The party has to look at this at a national level. The party has said there is no issue with bullying but there is an issue.
“My experience as a councillor and as a human being is there is no smoke without fire.”