Elected against expectations and thrust into the national spotlight, the election of a mother-of-six and a Protestant voice as a rural Sinn Féin TD should have been a story of triumph against the odds.
For Violet-Anne Wynne and Sinn Féin, however, it has ended in tears and recriminations. She has resigned alleging “psychological warfare” and said her most recent pregnancy was used as a stick to beat her with.
The charges – serious allegations by any measure – have met, finally, with an apology.
As often happens when Sinn Féin are at the centre of a controversy and facing questions it would prefer not to answer, the party’s TDs who are usually regular fixtures on the Leinster House plinth were thin on the ground this week.
Yet as with most things in politics, the reality of what is happening behind-the-scenes is much more complicated than first impressions would suggest.
Some people were elected in the 2020 general election that Sinn Féin did not expect to get elected. It resulted in something of a culture clash between those candidates and the party, partially because of the centralised command structure.
The experience recounted by Wynne shows a discomfort with the level of direction she believes she was experiencing.
It has often – though not always – been the case that a person who wants to earn a seat in Leinster House has to spend years working up the political ladder. Such a route has its flaws, but it gives people time and experience to learn the ropes.
The outcome of the 2020 election – one that surprised Sinn Féin, never mind other parties in the Dáil – meant that there were Sinn Féin TDs elected who the previous year had failed to secure council seats. In Wynne’s case, she was placed eighth out of nine candidates in the Kilrush district, securing 4.2 per cent of the first preference vote.
Coming back into the Dáil on a wave of a victory after the election, Sinn Féin held talks aimed at setting up a government of the left, but this effort fell flat as the numbers were not there, as it rapidly became clear.
Then the pandemic hit and the Fine Gael-Independent caretaker government steered the ship for a time. The relevance of this is the following: Sinn Féin was unsure if another election would be called and in some instances they held off on appointing new staff, so certain problems did not become immediately evident to the new rake of TDs.
This is the first flash-point.
Two sources with knowledge of how the party works say that in many instances, parliamentary assistants are chosen for the TD and a choice is not given. Many of them do not rail against it, it’s just the way it is, they reckon.
In response to questions from The Irish Times, Sinn Féin denies that, saying all of their TDs are responsible for the recruitment, employment and management of their own staff, and while some look for help with advertising and interviews, others look after it themselves. “This is entirely a matter for each individual TD.”
Many of the parliamentary staff in question are bright, diligent and experienced. They also work long days and irregular hours.
The issue, one source says, is that the staff member may be loyal to the party and feel responsible to the central structure. They are invested in the political project rather than the politician, as is the case in other parties. The effect of this is to disempower the TD by eroding some of their power.
On the other hand, one source who has worked at different levels of the party, including as a parliamentary assistant, says there are benefits for new TDs as they may be offered experienced and savvy staff who can help them navigate the difficult first year in the job.
Another source said there be can huge ambition among these parliamentary staff and that working in these positions is something of a “school for future TDs”.
Housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin was once a parliamentary assistant for Donegal TD Pearse Doherty, while Louth TD Ruairí Ó Murchú and Cork South-Central TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire also worked for a time as PAs.
It is all well and good when the politician and their new staff are on the same page. It gets very complicated otherwise.
On Clare FM on Tuesday, Wynne touched on this very issue. During her two years as a party TD, she said she had four members of the party at various points working as her staff, though two had to take sick leave.
“They left me in a situation whereby I had no staff members for a period of three months. This was two days after I told the party that it was not a workable situation, it wasn’t something I could see being sustainable and I was possibly going to let them go.”
The Irish Times understands that Sinn Féin was made aware by those same staff members that they had significant concerns of their own. It is understood they felt stressed and over-burdened, and that the working environment was fraught. The two staff members went on sick leave before being let go just before in Christmas of 2020, and the jobs were advertised soon afterwards.
Sinn Féin says that the employment relationship is between the TD and the staff member, not with the party.
“As their employer, Violet-Anne decided to terminate the employment of a number of her staff members over the past two years. That was entirely her decision and her responsibility. A number of those staff whose employment had been terminated by Deputy Wynne contacted the party for advice. The party advised them if they felt they had been treated unfairly by their employer that they should seek employment rights advice,” The Irish Times was told.
Local party organiser
Wynne has also raised issues with the party’s structures on the ground in Co Clare, where there was no local party organiser to address inevitable issues that come up in any constituency.
Sources in the constituency – and, again, no one would speak on the record for this article – say Sinn Féin has regional organisers who cover large areas or multiple counties.
The organiser has a heavy workload – they are responsible for delivering on political strategy in the area, building membership, making sure constituency meetings between politicians and voters go ahead, attending meetings and providing reports.
There are two schools of thought about this role, the first of which is that they are integral members of the party who problem-solve and smooth over tricky issues. The other is that they are overly powerful and dictate to local members.
Wynne has raised other issues that the party moved to address on Thursday. She was told she was an “effing eejit” for becoming pregnant again and that she felt anxious about relaying the news. Sinn Féin said that comment was “unacceptable” and that the local member has apologised.
The criticisms of structures within Sinn Féin raise many questions. One of these is: will the party appoint advisers the way it does parliamentary staff if it gets into government? When difficult decisions have to be made and defended (and that is the nature of government), how will the new TDs fare if they disagree? Will they find themselves battling against both their staff and more senior party members?
Sinn Féin has suffered four high-profile Oireachtas defections in just 4½ years – Peadar Tóibín, Carol Nolan, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and now Violet-Anne Wynne. That is a high figure for an opposition party. What would it be like in the white heat of government?
Then there is the question of how the party approaches the next election, having high ambitions as it does. The strategists (somewhat understandably) closely guard election plans but there have been rumours that so-called accidental TDs could be de-selected in favour of more experienced candidates. One source said another option would be to run that stronger candidate alongside any TD the party views to be weak and push the votes towards the stronger candidate. If the second candidate still holds onto their seat, then that’s a bonus.
And when the numbers are in, should Sinn Féin enter Government Buildings, the next conundrum: the difficult task of managing expectations.