Tensions grow over Sinn Féin’s influence on ‘party-political’ National Women’s Council

Protest rally sparks Government vs NGO debate over inclusion and free speech

On the face of it, the reason for the argument was straight forward.

Women politicians in the Government parties were irked that they were excluded from a National Women’s Council (NWCI) rally that is brimming with female members of the Opposition. The council said it was a “moment of protest” designed to hold the Government to account on certain issues.

Throw in a reference to the significant State funding which the NWCI receives, and it became a Government versus NGO debate about inclusion and free speech seemingly sparked by one protest rally.

Pulling back the lens, however, there appears to be bigger forces at play as a growing mistrust has developed between both sides.


There are some in Government who believe the NWCI has changed tack since the start of the pandemic, becoming apparently more party-political. The organisation was co-founded by the late Fine Gael TD Monica Barnes although in its first iteration it was known as the Council for the Status of Women, even if, humorously, it was sometimes known “as the council for the women of status”.

And while the NWCI said this week that it was neither pro nor anti-Government, and leading figures refused repeated requests to answer questions about their action, some of its individual staff expressed more strident views.

Sarah Clarkin, the council’s communications officer, tweeted: “Women’s equality is political, and NWCI’s job is to represent their members. No one with an interest in feminism wants to hear from parties who do zero to further the interests of women, like more refuge spaces, affordable childcare, accessible abortion. Time to listen for Government.”

Ms Clarkin, a former parliamentary secretary to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Social Democrats campaign manager for Gary Gannon TD, also wrote online this week that the Government had “no interest in advancing” issues on domestic and sexual violence and access to abortion locally.

“Pretending otherwise is a boring lie tbh,” she added.

The council’s newly hired head of campaigns and mobilisation, Rachel Coyle, a former Sinn Féin adviser and former member of the ardchomhairle, wrote that “some political voices clearly represent marginalised women, low-paid women, disabled women and those left behind by State policy more than FF and FG. Why Govt TDs would just assume they be entitled to slot at a PROTEST rally is outrageous.”

When her previous close ties with Sinn Féin were pointed out, she said: “Is this meant to be a big reveal? Is my professional experience supposed to help you delegitimise my opinion? I’m not quite clear.”

Other sources involved with the council say they genuinely cannot understand why female Government representatives would want to stand on stage and be potentially heckled about shortcomings in policy, whereas politicians like Fine Gael’s Jennifer Carroll MacNeill believe the way to progress women’s issues is through cross-party work.

Soon after the NWCI announced the line-up of speakers on February 9th, texts began to fly. The council gave Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald first billing, followed by Labour TD Ivana Bacik, Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall and People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith.

Director of the NWCI Orla O’Connor was suddenly fielding messages from female members of the Government asking what the reason for the exclusion was, and the issue took off from there, further stoked by a press release last Sunday from Fine Gael senator Mary Seery Kearney.

‘Identity refresh’

It is true to say that the women’s council has undergone what has been termed “an identity refresh”, a process which began in 2020 in the early months of Covid-19.

Language, a research and design consultancy, was brought on board. During consultations, a consensus emerged that the organisation “needed a new identity which would reflect and speak to the changing Ireland in which they were operating”, according to Language’s website.

“The identity would have to imagine an Ireland with progressive values, youthful ambition and increasing momentum; and inspire individuals and groups to come on that journey with them.”

At the same time another consultant firm, Kelleher and O’Meara, was brought in to help the council develop a new No Woman Left Behind plan. It spoke to politicians, stakeholders and members of the media asking probing questions about who the NWCI stood for and what should be done differently.

In 2021, a new strategy was unveiled and the message was clear: the pace of change for women’s equality was not considered to be acceptable and a radical shift was needed as the organisation approaches its 50th anniversary next year.

Thinking ahead to a post-pandemic era, the strategy document expressed a concern that after unprecedented Government spending across the board, the prospect of spending cuts and austerity could follow which would impact women more negatively.


There was also a keen awareness about the organisation’s own funding situation, too. When the Coalition was formed, the responsibility for “equality” moved from the Department of Justice to the Department of Children. In its strategy, the council said the development of a “strong relationship” with the new department would be critical.

The NWCI’s latest annual report shows it received about €552,000 from the Department of Justice, €90,000 from Pobal, €141,000 from the HSE, €22,000 from the Department of Education and €3,700 from the Department of Housing in 2020.

Group and individual memberships raised about €37,500.

Internally there is a desire for the organisation to broaden its funding base through membership fees, while the NWCI also wants to increase membership substantially including in Northern Ireland and among under-represented groups.

That game plan is even more interesting given the fact the controversy has also raised eyebrows in Northern Ireland.

The leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, upon seeing the line-up for the March 5th rally, asked the NWCI if the names of Máiría Cahill, Jean McConville and Joanne Mathers registered with them.

In October 2014, Máiría Cahill waived her rights to anonymity to tell of her claims of being raped as a teenager by a Provisional IRA member, and then being forced to take part in an IRA internal investigation.

Ms Cahill faced verbal and online abuse from republican supporters after she went public. In 2014, the NWCI issued a statement in support of Máiría Cahill where it commended “her bravery in sharing her story”.

In November 2018, following a meeting with the Sinn Féin leader, Ms Cahill said some of Ms McDonald’s responses were “bullshit”, since Ms McDonald did not accept Ms Cahill’s allegations about the IRA internal inquiry.

One of “The Disappeared”, Jean McConville, meanwhile, was murdered by the IRA in 1972, and her body was not found until 2003, leaving her seven children to be split up and taken into care.

Meanwhile, Joanne Mathers, a mother of one who was working part-time on the Northern Ireland Census to supplement the family’s income, was murdered in 1981 by the IRA as she collected forms in the Cobnascale district in Derry.

Broader view

Taking a broader view, former Fine Gael minister Gemma Hussey said “one way of looking at this whole thing is that in a way it is a measure of how far we have come”.

“When I was in politics, I was the only woman in Government for five years and there were very, very few women. The only women there were the wives or widows of men and TDs.

“Now we have a situation where we have loads of women in all the parties. I think it was a little bit thoughtless of the National Women’s Council to do what they did. It showed a bit of thinking in the past. I know Orla O’Connor and I know her heart is in the right place,” said the former minister for education.

However, there were signs on Thursday that peace had broken out during the NWCI’s Enniskillen event highlighting women’s role in peace-building. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Senators were in attendance. Meanwhile, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney sent a pre-recorded video message congratulating the group for the event and expressing his happiness that the department’s reconciliation fund could finance the initiative.