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'It was liberating': The councillors elected as independents after leaving Sinn Féin

Noeleen Reilly resigned from the party in 2018, citing a failure of the leadership to deal with a campaign of bullying against her.

Noeleen Reilly takes part in a demonstration in Dublin to highlight unemployment.
Noeleen Reilly takes part in a demonstration in Dublin to highlight unemployment.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

SINN FÉIN HAD a particularly bad election result in the local elections. 

The party went from having the lion’s share of Dublin City Council (15 seats) to just 8 seats out of 63; its representation on Cork City Council was halved; and in Offaly, two of its poll-topping councillors didn’t run for reelection this time – leaving the party with no councillors.

Senior party figures have been mulling over the reason for its disastrous election result over the past few days: Lynn Boylan, who lost her Dublin MEP seat said that there wasn’t the same anger against the government that there was before. Commentators said that the political landscape had shifted significantly since the anger from the financial crash, and Sinn Féin hadn’t shifted with it. 

Although there are almost certainly a number of factors at play here, part of the problem is that it went into the election with less councillors than they had won in the last election. This is due to the significant number of councillors who have resigned from the party over the past few years due to HR issues and unresolved allegations of bullying.

Those candidates who ran campaigns again, this time as independent councillors, have done quite well.

In Wicklow, Gerry O’Neill and John Snell have been reelected as independent councillors. There are 9 independent councillors on Wicklow County Council compared to just two Sinn Féin representatives. John Cassin was re-elected to Carlow County Council as an Independent.

In Kildare, Ide Cussen has been elected as an Independent after leaving the party.

“I felt that I stood on principles and I took a chance leaving the party, but I called it as it was and left as I did,” she told TheJournal.ie. She said that she hadn’t had problems of bullying when she was in the party, as others have alleged, but said that there was “certainly a hostility” there after she left.

Out of 40 Kildare councillors, just one is now a Sinn Féin member. Cussen says that a change in boundary lines may have contributed to the result, but adds that “I have to say, I didn’t see that coming”.

Speaking about the support and financing a campaign without a party, Cussen said:

You wouldn’t have European posters or a TD picture beside yours, so you have to make sure you get your posters out there and your profile is there. I had the cheapest campaign last time, this time wasn’t a whole lot more than that – I had one advert in the Liffey Champion.

She said that housing was a massive issue on the doors, and that only a dozen people asked about Sinn Féin and why she had left the party.

90184856_90184856 Noeleen Reilly takes part in a demonstration in Dublin to highlight unemployment. Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

In the Ballymun-Finglas ward of Dublin City Council, Noeleen Reilly was elected to one of six council seats for that area. Reilly resigned from the party in February 2018, citing a failure of the leadership to deal with a campaign of bullying against her. This was after Sinn Féin had taken disciplinary measures against its TD Dessie Ellis as well as Reilly.

Sinn Féin ran four candidates in the same area. One candidate, Anthony Conaghan, was elected. 

“I was absolutely delighted when I heard they were running four candidates,” Reilly said. “I thought that would be to my benefit and other parties in the area.”

“It’s probably unlikely if I remained in the party that I would have been elected, as I would have been given a small area to campaign.”

Reilly was elected this time despite the competition from four Sinn Féin candidates. She gathered more or less the same amount of votes as in the 2014 election. So how was canvassing different?

“It was a lot easier,” she says. “There wasn’t the baggage of any party. There wasn’t one door that was slammed in my face, which would have happened with Sinn Féin – and other parties as well.”

She said that she went with a completely different colour for her posters – pink – and it was a “very different canvass” for her. 

I didn’t have advice the last time anyway, I never had that backup or support, when I was in the party I wasn’t being brought into meetings, I was being excluded so much. A couple of years ago I started fundraising. I had ran before I knew exactly what it entailed.

Did people on the doors indicate that they weren’t going to vote for Sinn Féin?

“I probably thought the Independents would do much better than they did, and I didn’t know that the Sinn Féin vote would collapse the way it did, based on what people were telling me. Some people were saying they wouldn’t vote for them but I thought they were just telling me what I wanted to hear. 

There’s a negativity there and it needs to go and they need to address it. We all make mistakes, but there’s a huge culture there of dominance and you’re just automatically excluded… for a progressive party that’s not good. They ran a really negative campaign here. 

In Tipperary, out of 40 council positions, just two are Sinn Féin councillors. 

“That’s another story,” Seamus Morris says, who left the Sinn Féin party in November 2017 and has been reelected as an independent candidate. 

Morris said that he began to be bullied within the party following the last General Election, accusing them of a “whispering campaign”; Sinn Féin responded at the time by saying it found no evidence of a smear campaign.

“It was liberating,” he said of his canvass as an independent. “I didn’t have to deal with a toxic environment.”

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He said that two primary school teachers came on board to canvass with him who wouldn’t have done so before because he was a member of Sinn Féin. 

“Friends of mine were saying to me ‘I can vote for you now’,” he said.

He said that the Green vote shows that people have lost faith in politics: “The amount of corrupt politicians that get re-elected is astounding, and the closure of town councils seriously severed the connection between public representatives and the people.”

He advises Sinn Féin to look at its middle management in order to solve HR issues in the future: “If there’s a problem, Sinn Féin circles the wagons instead of looking at themselves.”

European Parliament election Source: Michelle Devane

Mary Lou McDonald

Speaking to reporters at the Castlebar count centre where the European election tallies were still being sorted through yesterday, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that the party had a “tough election” and had lost “some very good people”. 

“How you recover is you take stock. You have the humility to accept when you’ve had a bad day out and you have the wisdom to accept there are lessons to be learned.”

You have to have the resilience as a political organisation and as a political leadership to be able to weather all those circumstances and I am very sure… that us as a collective readership are able to steady ourselves, of learning the lessons and of going back out into the field to serve the communities who have elected us and to go and challenge very strongly in future elections.

McDonald said that the real test for party leaders was when things went wrong.

“The test comes when things don’t go right. The test comes when the situation is difficult and how do you bring your party with you. I am determined to do that and we will learn the lessons and I am determined that we will be back again. Any seat that we have lost, let me say, we will be back to win them and win some more.”

- with reporting from Kathleen McNamee in Castlebar, Co Mayo

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