Former British prime minister Harold Wilson coined the now popular phrase ‘a week is a long time in politics.’ If this is true, imagine what can change in a year. Well, this time last year Christine O’Mahony was campaigning for her then local Sinn Féin councillor Darren O’Rourke who went on to win a seat in the 2020 general election for the Meath East constituency.
Today, O’Mahony has since left Sinn Féin, for which she held many leadership roles including chairperson of the UCD branch and is now a member of the Social Democrats. She has been very critical of her former party for widespread bullying within and for creating a hostile environment for its LGBTQ+ and ethnic minority members. O’Mahony recently sat down with The College Tribune to discuss her experiences inside and outside the party.
Whilst not a member of the organisation until last January, O’Mahony had a lengthy association with Sinn Féin. Her father was a long-time supporter and activist. She even supported Darren O’Rourke’s early political career when he was running for Meath County Council, to which he was first elected in 2014.
O’Mahony described her early days canvassing as ‘a great experience, everyone was so kind and so nice,’ adding that it was like one ‘happy little family.’ It wasn’t until she left the party that O’Mahony found some of the very same people she canvassed with were criticising her online, spreading lies behind her back to other members and ‘making up their own version of the story.’ Ultimately, O’Mahony left the party after a neighbour and Sinn Féin activist called to her house demanding her to delete a social media post critical of the party’s TD Brian Stanley.
Brian Stanley was accused of homophobia when a 2017 tweet resurfaced about then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Online, O’Mahony called on the deputy to delete the tweet and apologise to both Leo Varadkar and the LGBTQ+ community. This prompted the neighbour to call to O’Mahony’s house who told her parents that she ‘can’t be criticising Sinn Féin online.’ A similar attempt to stop Sinn Féin members from criticising party representatives was made when South Dublin county councillor Paddy Holohan made racist comments last year by suggesting Leo Varadkar did not understand the history and society of Ireland due to his Indian ethnicity. Speaking about the visit to her house O’Mahony said, ‘I felt very uncomfortable, these matters didn’t have to come in person.’ Party leader Mary Lou McDonald defended the practice at the time which angered O’Mahony. ‘If that’s normal they really need to change that, you don’t need to do that, some members might not mind it, but I do,’ she said.
O’Mahony described how ‘lies are spread about ex-members who leave,’ and that ‘they are made to look stupid.’ She believes this behaviour is widespread in the party with bullying not being addressed and ex-members being slated, particularly within Ógra Sinn Féin. Many political opponents have often described Sinn Féin as not a normal party, considering its historical routes. O’Mahony noted this saying that ‘any bit of criticism of Sinn Féin is met with so many people that are so abusive that include personal attacks,’ adding that members and supporters of other parties like the Social Democrats are ‘far more civil online.’
When considering the causes of the prevalence of bullying within Sinn Féin O’Mahony suggested that given the origins of Sinn Féin as the political wing of the IRA there is a ‘violent nature,’ which can contribute to making Sinn Féin supporters ‘some of the most abusive online.’ Also, the generational divide within Sinn Féin has not helped tensions within the party. Many new younger members have joined in recent years who are more motivated by social and economic issues compared to older members who may have Irish unity at the top of their political agenda. O’Mahony said that some branches such as Kerry or in Northern Ireland are ‘much more conservative.’
Speaking about her experiences with the Ógra Sinn Féin UCD branch, O’Mahony said ‘she had no problems there,’ however, when she left, the branch told the University Observer that ‘O’Mahony’s resignation wasn’t to do with alleged homophobia, which Sinn Féin has a storied history against and strong policies in support of the LGBT+ community.’ O’Mahony felt the branches response was an example of ‘victim-blaming,’ considering the backlash to her criticism of Paddy Holohan. She also noted the homophobic abuse received by another former branch member, Seán Pender, who resigned in solidarity with O’Mahony.
While not all members of Sinn Féin participate or condone the actions which led O’Mahony to leave the party or the bullying and abuse she and others have faced since revoking their membership, she notes ‘a sizeable group of people’ engaging in this behaviour, particularly online who are either members or supporters and even party officials. Failure to call out and address the problem has gone to the very top of the organisation. While Sinn Féin is in a very strong position in the national polls, O’Mahony believes these issues she has raised is ‘turning off members, predominantly LGBTQ+ members and people of colour. It remains to be seen whether these accusations against the party could derail the parties plans to lead a government of change in the future.
Conor Paterson – Features Editor