Willie Clarke ‘allowed the option’ of working in Down council…

It’s not particularly thought to have anything to do with the SDLP selection of a successor (who’s still waiting in the wings) for Margaret Ritchie. But the official explanation for dropping an MLA whose not thought to have been under particular electoral pressure reads like a transliteration of ‘spending more time with my family’ to ‘community initiatives’.

I was particularly struck with this line in the official press release: “I would also like to thank my Sinn Féin colleagues for their support throughout my term and allowing me the option to choose which arena I would continue my political representation.”[emphasis added]

Hmmm… Curiouser and curiouser….

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  • cynic2

    I thought that was the electorate’s job. Silly me.

  • Mick Fealty

    Nothing wrong with co-option. It’s a game that’s equally open to all parties. Just thought the choice of words was pass remarkable.

  • Id love to agree but I actually think there is less here than meets the eye.
    I know that in the past Willie Clarke has been mentioned as the weakest link in the Sinn Féin Assembly team…..and thats fair enough. To be honest if I was shown a photograph of him, I would not recognise him.
    Even a total political anorak like myself would have difficulty recalling anything he ever said or did.

    But SF have a certain strength in that their MLAs, councillors, advisors and advice centre staff are all “identikit” people who can easily take each others roles. Arguably without a salary that is more than the average industrial salary (yes I know I know) there is minimal jealousy and enough largesse to go around.

    If Willie Clarke himself realises that he is “council material” rather than “Assembly material” then it begs different questions.

    Two seats is the realistic maximum in South Down.
    And within Down Council, SDLP leads SF by 9 seats to 5.
    So Id see it as a means of shoring up SF……a defensive move (they actually fell back a little in the 2011 Assembly percentage here).

    A look at the percentages shows that Ruane had 14% to Clarkes 9% and Bailie (parachuted from the Ards Peninsula) took 7%. That doesnt look healthy.The other big SF player in the Council is McConvey.

    I dont get your reference to Margaret Ritchie. Shes not on the Council and her MLA replacement is not waiting in the wings. Sean Roogers is already at Stormont.
    Far too early to say if he will stand next time…….but certainly a candidate from the Downpatrick area (McGrath is the most likely) will be selected.
    As I have argued before this gives the SDLP a fighting chance of a third seat. (but I would say that wouldnt I?).

    Certainly at this point in time there would probably be no change after just one year. But if there was a change in that parity Id tend to think the second SF seat is vulnerable.

  • Michael Shilliday

    Willie Clarke isn’t the strongest link in the SF Assembly chain, but he certainly isn’t the weakest either.

  • cynic2

    ” their MLAs, councillors, advisors and advice centre staff are all “identikit” people”

    Just so long as they do as they are told and don’t ask awkward questions anyway

    “Willie Clarke has been mentioned as the weakest link”

    I assume they forgot Catatonia and at least 5 others

    ” there is minimal jealousy and enough largesse to go around.”

    of course there is

  • cynic2

    “Nothing wrong with co-option”

    I wasn’t challenging that Mick but now y7ou raise it the over-wheening arrogance of a party that assumes it will just tell the electors who they are getting just a year after the election and for no reason other than inner party manipulations does irk a little.

    There seems no reason for him to go other than the party want him out, having put him forward to the electorate in the first place. Is this an admission that they got it wrong in putting him forward in the first place?

    What will also be really interesting is when we see the successor which may shed some light on the behind the scenes Machiavellian manoeuvrings

  • Mick Fealty

    No, that reference is out of date. Mea culpa. Truth is I don’t know if there is anything in it or not. The figures you quote don’t really imply vulnerability, but they could be improved with a decent talent import.

    I’m so not convinced that Clarke is quite the supernumerary he’s sometimes made out to be. But not ‘good enough’ in a constituency where they should be pushing the dagger home on the SDLP is probably a good enough reason to fire him.

    I just thought that use of the word ‘allowed’ was pass remarkable. It implies there were reasons not present in the rest of the statement.

  • South Down Stoop

    Clarke said before the election he would resign one of his posts. My guess is he’ll be replaced by the 3rd Assembly candidate Naomi Bailie. True, she was parachuted in and true she missed out, but she seems to be a young and energetic contrast to the (literally) “old” guard that predominates the SDLP in that part of the constituency – Colin McGrath excluded. Bailie picked up 3000 votes in Ritchie’s back garden and outdid the SDLP’s third candidate with no history of elected office and almost no prior presence in the constituency at all; that’s not insignificant.

    With the current gap left in the northern end of South Down by Ritchie’s co-option, I’m betting Bailie becomes MLA and uses it as a springboard to have a very serious go at Ritchie come the next Westminster election.

    Caitriona Ruane has already proven that the South Down Sinn Fein vote is incredibly resilient to. . .”personal factors.” If the Sinn Fein candidate is someone like Bailie, who can pull in undecided nationalist voters as well as holding or even improving turnout in the Sinn Fein base, the next South Down MP race could be an actual race.

  • Sean Og

    “I dont get your reference to Margaret Ritchie. Shes not on the Council and her MLA replacement is not waiting in the wings. Sean Roogers is already at Stormont.”

    Ritchie still hasn’t stood down. If Sean Rodgers is at Stormont he’s not there as an MLA. Maybe working in the kitchen until Margaret goes?

  • Barry the Blender

    Still looking forward to Billy Leonard’s book

  • chewnicked

    , Surely Mick Coogan is the best replacement?

  • sdelaneys

    “Clarke said before the election he would resign one of his posts. ”
    A whole new version of the old ‘Put them in to get them out.’

  • Carsons Cat

    “It’s not particularly thought to have anything to do with the SDLP selection of a successor”

    Its probably got nothing to do with the Assembly whatsoever. Its a recognition that Clarke is probably Councillor level and not going to go any further.

    However, its maybe also a recognition that the other ‘shining star’ of South Down SF, probably shouldn’t even be at the level of Councillor. My guess is that SF are bringing someone in who can neatly replace the universally loved Catriona Ruane as their next Westminster candidate.

    Its quite clear that a huge chunk of the population (unionist and nationalist) would sooner vote for satan himself than stick an X beside Ruane’s name and SF’s attraction in the area is severely limited by her – combined with the fact that Clarke’s clearly nothing better than a bit of lobby fodder.

    Not sure where you get this notion that Ritchie’s Assembly successor isn’t still “waiting in the wings”. The only way that could possibly be true is if the Stoops have completely ditched him and Richie is going to get her preferred candidate to replace her after all. As it is, Maggie is clinging on by her fingertips to that Assembly seat and maybe she’s allowing Sean to do a bit of photocopying up on the hill, but he’s certainly not getting to do much more.

  • For the benefit of FJH(!), this is what Willie Clarke looks like – my newcastlerocks short video interview with him in the run-up to the double election last May, when he wouldn’t say which of his two jobs he would give up post-poll.

    As I note, Clarke’s exit from the Assembly seems certain to leave Newcastle without a Stormont representative from the town.

  • 241934 john brennan

    It would appear there is still ‘bad blood’ among SF activists in South Down – a hangover from the time when Denis Donaldson was pulling the SF strings in that constituency:
    Below is a copy of report, published in the Down Democrat, Tuesday, January 03, 2006 :

    “Spy ring riddle
    SENSATIONAL claims about the existence of a culture of spying and intelligence gathering by Sinn Fein members in South Down have been made in the aftermath of the Denis Donaldson affair.

    Disillusioned party activists have told the Down Democrat that they believe the former Sinn Fein Director of Elections, who before Christmas was unmasked as being a British agent for 30 years, has planted his own network of spies throughout South Down. They have also voiced strong criticism of the role played by Caitriona Ruane in the constituency, describing her as “a divisive figure who was always too quick to follow the Donaldson line.”

    The Sinn Fein leadership is also accused of turning a blind eye to the activities of a convicted drug dealer.

    THE central role of MI5 agent Denis Donaldson in developing Sinn Fein’s electoral strategy across South Down has left the constituency riddled with informers and intelligence gatherers who are actively working for the British Security Forces.

    The claims about the vulnerability of Sinn Fein to infiltration by agents collecting information on behalf of the Stormont authorities have been made by a group of South Down based party activists.

    They say that they have been left with “no alternative” but to voice their concerns in public. Their comments come in the wake of the outing of Denis Donaldson as a British agent just before Christmas.

    As a former Director of Elections for Sinn Fein he was regarded as a member of the party’s elite inner circle and as the effective Chief of Staff for Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams.

    The confirmation that Denis Donaldson had been on the payroll of British Intelligence for over two decades has thrown Sinn Fein into turmoil. Questions continue to be asked within political circles over the exact timing of the disclosure that Donaldson was a British agent.

    In particular there is recurring speculation that his cover was blown after 20 years in order to protect a number of even more highly placed intelligence moles within Sinn Fein.

    “We cannot trust anybody anymore. It’s as simple as that. When you have a major player like Donaldson turned over as a British spy it could be your brother or sister who is also on the paid informer list.

    “We have no faith in promises that we will be listened to. The people at the top, the people close to the leadership, are the same individuals that have forced hard working members of Sinn Fein out of the party.

    “They parachuted in Caitriona Ruane to fight the South Down seat in the General Election. This was done over the wishes of the rank and file membership who wanted to support a locally based candidate.

    “We complained when Donaldson demanded that his own people were given priority in the last Local Government elections. “Francie Branniff had no say in being moved out of Down District to fight for a seat on Banbridge Council.

    “Frank McDowell was another one that Donaldson wanted to get rid of. But Frank refused to budge, despite all sorts of dirty tricks. “Party headquarters tried to say he had a rough and ready image and that he didn’t fit the new profile they wanted in their Councillors.”

    There was also anger expressed over the treatment of former Downpatrick based Councillor Aiden Carlin, who at one stage was regarded as a rising star of Sinn Fein. “Aiden Carlin was given no option but to quit the party. He was looked upon as one of the best young prospects we had by many people.

    “But because he questioned the way the party was going on some issues he was invited up to the Short Strand and given an offer he couldn’t refuse.

    “He was given promises about investigations into various matters before eventually being prevailed upon by elements based in South Armagh to stand aside. “When you are given the choice of having your name on a ballot or a bullet the decision making process becomes pretty easy.”

    The embarrassing revelations in the Down Democrat about the prominent role played by a convicted drug dealer while at the same time representing Sinn Fein in Newcastle was another contentious issue.

    “When questions were asked about why a convicted drug dealer in Aveen Butler was allowed to stay in the party and continue to make offers of cash donations for various projects, we were told it was none of our business.

    “The public was told lies by the leadership over Aveen Butler. They knew for months before Butler was exposed as having a record for drugs offences.

    “Yet they allowed her to build up a profile as a community activist in Newcastle. “Was it perhaps because Butler was willing to offer sums of £10,000 for various projects that she was tolerated?

    “It’s no surprise that plenty of decent and committed Sinn Fein supporters like former Hunger Striker Gerry Carville and election worker Mickey McClelland refused to play any further public role for the party when the sordid Aveen Butler revelations surfaced” they said.

    The Sinn Fein party workers and members told the Down Democrat that they repeatedly warned about the long term implications of pursuing the Donaldson selection agenda, especially regarding Caitriona Ruane. “But we were not listened to. It was a case of “Do what I say and don’t ask any questions.”

    “People were hauled in from South Armagh and put in positions of authority. Long standing Republicans, from places like Castlewellan, were dumped and left humiliated. “Those people that Donaldson handpicked were to a certain extent vetted by the party, even though he always made it clear that he would have the final say.

    “There are plenty of people in Sinn Fein who are now very concerned that those party workers were also given the stamp of approval by the British Government. “And did the Brits have a say in the choice of Ruane as the candidate to fight Eddie McGrady in the Westminster seat?

    “After all, it suited the British to keep South Down in SDLP hands. All the publicity just before the General Election of a dirty tricks campaign against McGrady based on leaked Stormont documents gave the SDLP a head start. “Combined with the choice of a weak and unpopular candidate in Ruane it was perfect for the SDLP. It also suited the British perfectly.

    “Looking back at the whole Stormont spygate issue and Donaldson’s pivotal role in the case it all ties up very neatly as an example of Donaldson’s political betrayal. “Nobody can convince us that that isn’t the situation.” The Sinn Fein activists stressed to the Down Democrat that they were in no way to be classified as so-called Dissident Republicans.

    “We are Republican by conviction. No one can take that away from us. It isn’t us who have been found out to have been supplying information to the British. “We have never compromised on our principles and we never will. But we determined to ask questions that will have to be answered.”

    They told the Down Democrat that up to now those that dared to question the official party line as dictated by Donaldson over the past number of years have been placed, at best “in a kind of political quarantine.”

    “They are treated as diseased dogs. They are completely muzzled and only allowed to repeat what is fed to them through the central publicity office.

    “Those that are regarded as being beyond redemption are just dumped out into a Siberian type political exile. “The general public, the ordinary people who voted for Sinn Fein, don’t realise how tight the control is.

    “Denis Donaldson operated, and was allowed to operate, a form of Thought Police control. “He ruled with a rod of iron. He was allowed by the party leadership to get away with what he wanted to get away with.

    “Now however people are looking over their shoulder. They are, quite rightly in our opinion, asking if the strategy implemented by the leadership was all of their own or was it really a blueprint drawn up and ultimately sanctioned by the British?

    “Donaldson was never away from South Down. It was his baby. He was the one that pulled all the strings in getting people into positions of authority. “Good people have been forced out of the party. They couldn’t take it any more. They could see what was going on.”

    The Sinn Fein party activists told the Down Democrat they believe that the entire complexion of the party in South Down, and its approach towards any form of internal dissent, has been formed and shaped by the values and views of Denis Donaldson.

    “The Donaldson agenda was at its strongest in South Down. He called all the shots. “But it was the British who supplied the ammunition. “And even though Donaldson has gone the individuals he allowed to pull the various triggers are still firmly in place.”


  • RyanAdams

    I would have also thought Mick Coogan would have been the most likely candidate for the vacant seat, he’s been a competant leader of the SF Group on Down council for some time now. I always thought it very odd that he was moved to Strangford where the party had no hope of a seat, meanwhile Naomi Bailie was shifted from Portaferry to South Down, and left Joe Boyle as an unchallenged nationalist contender for a seat on Ards council in the pininsuela area.

    Until last March I would have thought McConvey would have been an assembly candidate until the St Patricks day showdown last year, which seen his personal vote and the partys plummet in the Downpatrick area poll, which off set the small growth that the party had in the other three District Electoral Areas.

    South Down stoop,

    Thats an interesting prediction with regard to 2015 – However you forget that when it comes to South Down and Foyle the shinners biggest problem is that theres always going to be unionists a plenty to throw a spanner in the works with their tactical voting antics 🙂

  • quality


    For the record (as someone who generally has little time for Sinn Féin’s brand of faux socialism), there should be more MLAs like Caitríona Ruane.

    That probably sounds counter intuitive, but her return to the back benches and Committees has emphasised the fact she is intelligent, engaging and generally pretty empathetic. She’s even done a bit of travelling. Having left Ireland and seen a bit of the world probably shouldn’t be a criteria for an MLA, but given the vast parochialism up at Stormont it’s no bad thing.

    She just wasn’t a very good Minister.

    But, then, I can’t imagine she exactly had much autonomy as a Sinn Féin Minister – probably more accurate to say she wasn’t a good salesperson.

  • South Down Stoop


    Certainly the unionist vote can’t be discounted, it generally seems to account for around 10-15% of the vote when Assembly is compared to Westminster. But the unionist tactical vote is always fairly contingent on the prospect of SDLP success – in Newry and Armagh the unionist vote could easily push Bradley over Murphy, for example.

    If Ritchie is faced by someone who might actually win (in contrast to Ruane) tactical unionists may just revert to voting UUP-DUP. Maybe it’ll take one “mid-way” election, where Bailie runs Ritchie close, but beyond that I can’t see any more than one more term for Ritchie.

  • fordprefect

    Let’s call a spade a spade here. He obviously wasn’t doing something right, or wasn’t doing what he was told properly and that’s why the SF Politburo clique got rid of him. As pointed out elsewhere on this thread, the wording says it all, we’ve seen it all down the years, “spend more time with my family”, “health reasons”, “personal reasons”, “I’m better at council level” etc. etc. etc. The usual Bullshit.

  • RyanAdams

    South Down Stoop,

    “Certainly the unionist vote can’t be discounted, it generally seems to account for around 10-15% of the vote when Assembly is compared to Westminster. But the unionist tactical vote is always fairly contingent on the prospect of SDLP success – in Newry and Armagh the unionist vote could easily push Bradley over Murphy, for example.”

    I believe personality of the candidate is a factor in asking for the votes of those whom one wouldn’t normally try to reach. Margaret Richie won a lot of support from the unionist community for wearing a poppy and I think thats what allowed many unionists in South Down to lend her the vote. I also believe she would have won a few votes from those in the orange ranks for refusing to facilitate SF in FST, although in end it didn’t matter. Finally on your point about Dominic Bradley, tweeting in Irish even if its only occaisional usually is toxic to some unionists, and Danny Kennedy and William Irwin have both got hefty personal votes which I think helps them to poll so well.

  • Comrade Stalin

    As with others, I’m not buying the “not a very good MLA” line. If he’s not a good MLA why did they select him ? And that aside, don’t the electorate have a say given that they wanted him to be their representative ?

    This looks like an abuse of the co-option mechanism to me.