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Sinn Féin has had a very bumpy few years on social media - how will it weather this latest storm?

Mary Lou McDonald has said she seeks to reform and modernise the party, part of that will require a rethinking of how reps use social media.

File photo of Maire Devine.
File photo of Maire Devine.
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

SINN FÉIN HAS been engulfed in controversy once again over the use of social media by one of its elected representatives.

Senator Máire Devine has been suspended from the party after she retweeted a post on Twitter from a parody account which called Brian Stack, a senior prison officer shot dead by the IRA in the 1980s, a ‘sadist’.

Devine’s actions have been condemned across the board, with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald calling the retweet “a catastrophic error of judgement”.

Austin Stack, the son of Brian Stack, who has been campaigning to find out who murdered his father, said that what the senator had done “is well below the standards of any public representative”.

This is far from the first time Sinn Féin members have come under fire for their use of social media, with prominent party figures sanctioned and suspended in the past.

McDonald – who took over as leader of Sinn Féin last month after Gerry Adams stepped down after 35 at the head of the party – spoke to TheJournal.ie recently about the need to “modernise” and reform the party.

She was addressing issues around the internal bullying that has dogged the party in recent months.

“Everyone needs to know there are rules, there are standards, there is a charter of ethics and we didn’t write and produce them just for the craic, they actually mean something, and if they are breached, we have to deal with that,” she said.

Addressing claims and allegations around internal party bullying will surely form part of this reforming process, as will how McDonald deals with the party’s frequent controversy caused on social media.

According to Máiría Cahill – a former Labour senator who claims that she was raped by a member of the PIRA  and was then forced confront her abuser – a lot needs to be done by Sinn Féin to address issues around bullying and social media.

Cahill has suffered a lot of online abuse by anonymous Twitter accounts since she went public with her story.

“My heart goes out to Austin Stack on this and I have spoken to him to see if there is any support at all that could be offered,” Cahill told TheJournal.ie.

“For example, I protected my own Twitter account… Because of the abuse I was taking day in, day out.

Cahill said that senior Sinn Féin figures needed to stop engaging with anonymous online accounts as a matter of urgency.

Barry McElduff and Kingsmill 

original (1) A screengrab of the offending video.

Devine’s suspension comes just over two months after a similar storm was caused by a prominent party figure posting on social media.

Barry McElduff resigned as an MP in January after he posted a highly controversial video of himself on Twitter posing with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre.

The Kingsmill massacre, one of the worst single atrocities of the Troubles, saw a van carrying a group of textile workers killed by men disguised as British soldiers on 5 January 1976.

The IRA have never claimed responsibility for the attack, although an investigation by the North’s Historical Enquiries Team concluded in 2011 that it was responsible.

While McElduff maintained that there was no intended reference to Kingsmill in his tweet, he accepted that people felt it was “deeply damaging to the reconciliation process”.

He was suspended from the party for three months with pay, before he then resigned as an MP.

Other incidents

There have been many other prominent incident in recent years with party figures on social media.

Former party leader Gerry Adams was forced to apologise in 2016 after he sent a tweet after watching the Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained.

The tweet compared the struggle against slavery in the US to the struggle of Irish nationalists, and made use of the n-word while making this comparison.

It was removed quickly, but not before it provoked anger on social media.

As well as this, Sinn Féin MP for Mid Ulster Francie Molloy was also forced to apologise after he described revelations on a BBC Spotlight programme as “a load of rubbish” in 2015.

The programme saw Paudie McGahon, an alleged victim of IRA abuse, claim that he was abused by a volunteer when he was 17 and later subjected to an IRA-convened kangaroo court.

Molloy described the programme as a “joint Indo bluesh.. production”.

Following criticism from Mairía Cahill – who called the tweet “disgusting” – Molloy deleted it.

Another notable incident includes now-Lord Mayor of Dublin Micheál Mac Donncha calling the people who call Irish rugby “West Brits”.

There have been a number of other incidents over the past four years.

Social media guidelines 

 

In light of the latest controversy, Mary Lou McDonald said that asked the party’s general secretary to reissue social media guidelines to members.

The guidelines from 2016 emphasise the need for party members to be responsible with their output.

“Social media tools such as facebook, twitter, blogs, etc are powerful political tools that can help accelerate political support for the party when combined with the right political issues and messages,” the guidelines state.

However, a casual, naïve or irresponsible approach to these tools can cause problems for the party, individual representatives and members.

The guidelines give general advice but state that they “cannot replace commonsense and personal responsibility of activists when engaging with these tools”.

The guidelines include advice not to engage with trolls, to consider your audience, to not send “offensive or harassing material to others” and a particular one about reposting which states:

Beware of reposting others content: When we repost something from another political/campaign site – acknowledged or not – it will be viewed as a tacit endorsement of that site or page.  So we should not be reposting material or endorsing sites, pages or people from people or groups who are politically opposed to us.

The guidelines state that disciplinary action can be taken for people who breach Sinn Féin’s Charter of Ethics and Disciplinary Procedures, which can include suspension or expulsion from the party and loss of voting privileges.

Mary Lou’s response 

There have been calls for Devine to resign – including from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – following her retweet. However, McDonald has said her punishment was proportionate.

Reacting today to the latest scandal, McDonald said that what had happened was “entirely unacceptable”.

“The retweeting of this material was entirely unacceptable. It represented the poorest of poor judgement on behalf of Senator Devine. She has of course and quite correctly fully apologised for the matter and we acted swiftly,” McDonald said.

She has been disciplined and been left in absolutely no doubt as to the gravity and the seriousness of her actions, and a three-month suspension for anyone in political life is a serious sanction. The whip has been removed and her party membership has been suspended.

“And for anyone in a profession to receive such a sanction is a very open and public rebuke, it is certainly more than a wrap on the knuckles,” the Dublin Central TD added.

Asked about whether Devine should be removed from the party, McDonald said this would not be appropriate.

Yesterday, she said that the issue highlighted “the fact that users of social media have to be very careful”.

She said she has asked the party’s general secretary to reissue social media guidelines to members and implored people in the party to “please, for goodness sake, be thoughtful, be cautious, and if you make a mistake, accept that the mistake was made immediately and, where an apology is due to another human being, make that apology”.

Read: Mary Lou says senator who retweeted post calling IRA victim a ‘sadist’ made ‘catastrophic error’

Read: McDonald: Sinn Féin Senator’s suspension for ‘unacceptable’ retweet is a ‘severe’ punishment

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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