“he knew who really held the power in the party…”

BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport notes some lines of interest from former Sinn Féin MLA, Billy Leonard’s memoir, “Towards a United Ireland – an uncompleted journey”.  From Mark Devenport’s blog

The memoir is revealing on the discussions within Sinn Fein at the time of the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney and, as he told me on Inside Politics, Mr Leonard believes the IRA’s tentacles still run through the party.

He writes that “when the IRA was finally disbanded in September 2008, the one remaining link that kept many in the party only relatively happy was the fact that the army council stayed in place”.

He continues that one MLA “expressed to me in very open terms that he knew who really held the power in the party, and accepted that this was the best way to get on with the work”.

In essence he knew that “the elected representatives didn’t hold the real power, rather it was held by a blend of ard chomhairle and army council members: everyone was meant to be equal but in classical terms some were more equal than others.”

Worth noting, given Mick’s recent post, that Billy Leonard left the party after what we were told was a “disagreement over his support arrangements“.  [Sandra McLelland, call your office! – Ed]  Indeed.

It’s also worth looking back at former Dublin Councillor Killian Forde’s criticism of the party leadership, made before he too left the party.

Sinn Féin, it appears to me, does not even have a basic organisational chart for employees, elected officials, candidates and cumman members to be able to refer to. The power and associated decision-making in the party lies with individuals not embedded structures. This means that those seeking to question or contribute to decisions, policies or strategy have to try and negotiate through a maze of offices, titles, committees, working groups and individuals to try to get their voice heard. The structures that do exist have not the confidence to make decisions, meaning that even minor matters get funnelled up to a small amount of the same people in the party. These people then end up with an effective veto on everything. This practice makes the party bloated, slow and predictable.

Coincidentally, the party’s internal hierarchy features in Brian Feeney’s op-ed in todays Irish News.  He’s concerned at Sinn Féin’s apparent “preferential treatment for former IRA members”.

Of course there’s jiggery-pokery in all parties, especially at selection conventions but are Sinn Féin selection conventions just for the optics?  There’s no evidence it’s a democratic process.  Everyone seems to know beforehand who the candidate will be.  There’s never a closely fought battle between competing factions.  On the contrary, the replacement MLA is chosen by acclaim.  Who really takes the decision?  Certainly not the local party members in open forum.  How centralised is the decision?  The ard chomhairle?

The suspicion remains that there’s an inner magic circle whose members magically lay hands on the chosen one and their decision to favour former IRA personnel is not just to wind up poor Jim Allister, the assembly’s resident Jeremiah.  What we do know is that the process is secretive and not what happens in a normal political party.  If Sinn Féin is ever going to widen its support beyond what it calls its ‘base’ it’s going to have to demonstrate that there is an equal opportunity policy in the party and you don’t automatically get extra brownie points for having been an IRA operator. 

You might very well think that, Brian…

  • “The suspicion remains that there’s an inner magic circle”

    Mitchel McLaughlin agreed with Michael McDowell’s description of the PRM Army Council as the legitimate government of Ireland (the island). In light of the meeting with Douglas Hurd in 1993, perhaps Martin McGuinness is or was its Foreign Secretary.

  • fordprefect

    AG, yeah, “who’d a thunk it”, any eejit thinking of joining SF should look at their track record on anyone who has the temerity of expressing an independent thought and/or opinion! Francie Molloy springs to mind. They’ve had the same president for the last 25 years (only comparable to somewhere like North Korea). As for being an all Island party, one only has to look at their carry-on in the North (in mandaTory coalition with their DUP sweethearts), claiming that there’s nothing they can do about cuts etc. it’s imposed on them by the ConDem government, how about walking out of Stormont, or at least threatening to, just like Robinson did when the uniform of screws was under threat! In the 26 counties they are totally against any cuts whatsoever! Please anyone, don’t give me any guff about “it’s okay to do that when you’re in opposition”, SF have shown themselves to be every bit as deceitful, slimy and underhanded as the best of them!

  • “If Sinn Féin is ever going to widen its support beyond what it calls its ‘base’”

    According to that BelTel poll, SF is more popular with the younger electorate than the older so the base is most likely to continue to widen; the development may will be enhanced by the inability of the MSM to report fully on the activities of the parapolitical organisation.

    “.. you don’t automatically get extra brownie points for having been an IRA operator”

    Is Brian writing in code? I seem to remember that Gerry’s pen-name was claimed to be Brownie.

    “This means that those seeking to question or contribute to decisions, policies or strategy have to try and negotiate through a maze of offices ..”

    Why not short-circuit this labyrinth by sending a note to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Iveagh House, Dublin, where it will be forwarded to their opposite numbers in Connolly House(?) for prompt action?

    By the way, whatever happened to the curiously named North-East Antrim SF website and to Daithí McKay’s blog? There’s not been a post on the latter since January.

  • Dec

    ‘Is Brian writing in code? I seem to remember that Gerry’s pen-name was claimed to be Brownie.’

    I believe Brian’s employing what’s known in literary circles as a ‘pun’.

  • Rory Carr

    Good God ! An organisation, a human organisation, a political organisation where “Some members are more equal than the others.” No wonder our various scribes are shocked, although Brian Feeney at least seems to have some past experience of having encountered such a phenomenon in political groups other than Sinn Féin.

    It strikes me that while Killan Forde’s starry-eyed impression of the internal democracy to be expected in a political party might be forgiven in one so young and naive ( God help him in the Irish Labour Party now we might think) we can can hardly say the same of such seasoned, such long-toothed commentators as Mark Devenport, Brian Feeney and our own dear, Pete Baker.

    “Come off it, you are definitely ‘aving a larf !” is the most immediate response that springs to one’s lips.It is true however that the dripping release of (not so) finer details of the precise nature of the limitations of pure democracy within Sinn Féin are as tittillating as those we hear from time to time from the retired, the jaded, the disenchanted, the ship-jumper, and the openly hostile of any other party and indeed where would we be without such entertainment especially during these doldrum days of summer?

    Of course stories of Sinn Féin’s “jiggery-pokery” (and, “Yes,” I fully accept that it too has its share of that as other parties do) are always likely to have an element of additional spice, of “sexiness” because of the IRA connection, but all that is fading fast and while there was a time that such disassociation from militarist past might have harmed the party through loss of more traditional-minded members, in fact what has happened is that the deviation of this element into the mists of “Continuity” and “Real”-ity and the like has only created greater attraction for new forces as the party seems to grow from strength-to-strength in terms of membeship and electoral success in both jurisdictions.

    Too militaristic for some (Billy Leonard ?) not militaristic for others, Rory Brady et al, yet somehow getting the formula just about right. It shouldn’t be allowed.

  • “finer details of the precise nature of the limitations of pure democracy within Sinn Féin”

    Thanks for the ‘larf’, Rory. BTW, leave white-washing to the experts 🙂

  • gendjinn


    What exactly is the point in quoting, uncritically, Billy Leonard’s complaints about Sinn Fein?

    Beyond pushing his propaganda, that is…

  • ranger1640

    Gendjinn, the point of Pete’s post, is the rarely or never seen before machinations of the closed word of Sinn Fein inner workings.

    As for propaganda no party, group or individual does propaganda better than a Sinn Fein. If Leonard is guilty of pushing propaganda as you put it, he learnt well while in Sinn Fein.

  • Evan

    Maybe Billy was less than impressed with his financial gain following his short stint in office? Maybe Billy is searching for alternative cash flow streams, in the form of his memoirs inside the party. That would make a few quid.

  • Evan

    Lets face it….he was suspended over a financial dispute. He has an axe to grind with the party.


  • Mister Joe

    Is anyone being groomed for the succession?

  • Mick Fealty

    Joe, Billy? See last year’s election results for East Londonderry: http://www.ark.ac.uk/elections/ael.htm

  • ranger1640

    Evan, will Sinn Fein be suspending Pearse Doherty Sinn Fein TD, and the rest of the Sinn Fein TD’s for questionable expenses in the RoI??? http://sluggerotoole.com/2012/06/20/64228/

    Are these the same expenses that Leonard was suspended for??? I’m sure we would be delighted to know if you know more??? Maybe you could enlighten us????

  • Mick Fealty


    I hear what you say about naiveté. And it’s a fair point, as far as it goes.

    All big or growing parties rely on fixers, enforcers and political ball busters. Few are known to the public as such. But one of the reasons you need them is that there are factions and regional power bases to be got in line.

    What these various voices are telling us is that there are no real power bases inside the party, that authority resides exclusively with the national leadership. That fits with some of the stories that are coming out about how the party’s governance arrangements…

    So from a selfish, reporting point of view there is simply no credible story to be told when someone like Martina is appointed to Brussels. Nor do we have a story, when two former (and relatively competent) Stormont Ministers are retired from Stormont and the one Minister who visibly (from the outside at least) made a heims of her time in office is the only one left with a meaningful office.

    Now, we may choose to call this a lot of things, but the normal business of politics it ain’t. And it ain’t no strange thing to point out that this is just how things are.

  • Brian Walker

    It would help to start a campaign to end the undemocratic practice of co-option which derives from local council practice. It’s a fit-up there too of course, the excuse being lack of public interest in councils and the cost of holding by elections. Co-option applies when parties agree to it. You bet they agree, each behaving like a mini poltiiburo, thereby saving themselves the cost of by-elections, maintaining the balance of power and leaving out the voters.

  • seamus60

    The party is being run as the Army was.