The East Cork area has long been a stronghold for Sinn Fein, but despite this, the party was not expected to take a seat in the constituency in the 2011 general election. You could say the political conditions of the time, namely the demise of Fianna Fail, created the perfect storm for the Sinn Fein candidate. Nobody was more surprised at the unexpected result than Sandra McLellan herself, who hardly canvassed on the run up to what was her second general election attempt, believing her chances of taking a seat to be so slim.
Propelled into the national political sphere, McLellan, like all first-time TDs, was out of her depth. She wasn’t the only one learning the ropes however, with Sinn Fein trebling its representatives on the government benches to fourteen since the 2007 general election. She was joined from Cork by long serving Sinn Fein City Councillor Jonathon O’Brien, who topped the poll after two previous unsuccessful Dail attempts in 2007 and 2002.
McLellan became the second female deputy in the Sinn Fein government party, joining the highly experienced Mary-Lou McDonald. Sinn Fein has long been vocal in its support for better gender balance in Irish political parties, recently calling for the current 30% quota to be increased to 50%. At present Sinn Fein’s female representation in the Dail is 16%, the same as Fine Gael, and two percent less than Labour, who have the highest proportional female representation. Sinn Fein will be hoping to improve their gender ratio in the next general election, with many strong female candidates already ratified to run around the country.
It is possibly due to the fact that Sinn Fein are so desperate for a strong female presence in politics, that McLellan’s obvious weaknesses have been tolerated and excused over the years. After the initial excitement of winning the Sinn Fein seat in East Cork, the party membership quickly discovered that little would change in the constituency. The newly elected TD failed to keep her promises of constituency clinics, seldom turned up at events and was regularly accused of ignoring issues forwarded to her by both party members and the general public.
The upshot of this dismal performance over her three years in government was the embarrassing loss of the only sitting Sinn Fein county councillor’s seat in the 2014 local elections, that of Councillor Michelle Hennessy in the TD’s home town of Youghal. Ms Hennessy is also McLellan’s sister-in-law, making the poor vote even more personal to the TD. This loss came amid a landslide local election victory for Sinn Fein in Cork County, where they increased their elected representatives from one to ten in County Hall. The result appeared to come as a shock to the TD, although not so much to the party membership, many of whom were long predicting the loss of the seat in Youghal.
Instead of sitting down and going back to the drawing board after the local elections, McLellan and her supporters went on an assault in East Cork. They initially blamed the division of the Local Election Area, claiming the Midleton based candidate, sitting town councillor Pat Buckley and subsequently elected county councillor, had encroached their agreed areas. When no evidence could be found to support this claim, they went on to blame a general lack of support from the party in the area.
However the TD may try to sugar coat it, the loss of her sister-in-law’s seat, in her own home town, was a major reflection of the level of dissatisfaction felt towards the TD. There was little to be taken from this defeat but that the cherished and long fought for Sinn Fein seat would not be held by the sitting TD come the next general election. A more established party might have taken this result as the cue to start internal party talks, both at a national and local level. Sinn Fein, however, seemed reluctant to draw the wrath of the TD and the result was largely ignored, much to the disbelief of the East Cork membership.
After spending many months trying to get the attention of the party’s leadership, the membership seemed to take matters into their own hands. Two prominent and successful County Councillors, Kieran McCarthy, from Cobh, and Melissa Mullane, from Mallow, declared their intention to run against the TD at convention. The party’s apparent attempts at preventing a convention was now in tatters, and when an article appeared in the Evening Echo confirming the two councillors’ intention to contest, panic quickly took hold.
Councillor Kieran McCarthy, who topped the poll in the recent local elections, had never been shy in expressing his hope of taking a Dail seat for Cobh. The introduction of an emergency change to the Sinn Fein party’s constitution, stating that a male candidate could not contest the seat of a sitting female candidate, seemed to rule out his chances on a one-to-one contest with McLellan. As the new ‘gender rule’ only applied to Deputies Mary Lou McDonald and Sandra McLellan, and given that McDonald being contested was highly improbable, the move was viewed by the party membership in East Cork as a ploy to prevent a fair convention and force the sitting TD through as the candidate.
The ‘conveniently’ timed change to the constitution may well have worked for McLellan were it not for Mallow Councillor, Melissa Mullane, deciding to put herself forward for convention. There was nothing to prevent Mullane from doing this and so, it now seemed impossible to stop a democratic convention from taking place in East Cork. In a further worrying development, most cumanns in the area were calling for a two candidate strategy for the general election. It was felt that the size of the constituency, along with the swing towards Sinn Fein, warranted the gamble.
If a two candidate strategy was indeed accepted by the party in the area, then the running of Mullane against the sitting TD would take care of the new ‘gender rule’, and what’s more, would open up the opportunity for Councillor Kieran McCarthy from Cobh, to also get on the ticket. The negative feelings of the membership towards the TD, meant that she was almost certain to lose the vote, should a convention take place. This meant on a one candidate strategy Mullane would most likely be the candidate, and if two candidates were going forward to contest seats, McCarthy would join her. Either way, the sitting TD would be ousted.
This would have been hugely embarrassing, not just for the TD herself, but for the party in general. The fact that McLellan would have remained a TD for a possible year or so until an election was called, would have made for a very awkward situation. This seemed to be the view taken by the party leadership. In an effort to quash the revolt against the TD, the East Cork area organisers came down hard against those viewed as being against McLellan.
What followed was a further loss of control by the leadership over the area as the membership openly revolted against these heavy-handed tactics, which were viewed as both undemocratic and divisive. Seeing the membership moving further away from her, McLellan called an emergency meeting in Youghal between her home town cumann and the Ireland South leadership. At that meeting McLellan made serious accusations against various Sinn Fein Cork County Councillors, as well as some of the party’s paid area organisers. The accusations were viewed so damning that the entire Sinn Fein structure in East Cork was immediately stood down.
An internal inquiry panel was subsequently set up to investigate the various complaints made by the TD in East Cork. It was bizarrely headed up by Jonathon O’Brien TD, McLellan’s comrade in the Dail. The complaints, it appears, mainly focused on the two councillors who had expressed an interest in contesting the TD’s seat at convention, Kieran McCarthy and Melissa Mullane. A happy coincidence? Or a desperate last ditch effort by the TD to hold onto her seat? Both councillors refute any accusations of wrong-doing and are continuing on with their constituency work while the inquiry continues to take place.
As things currently stand in East Cork, the structure is stood down, pending the findings of the various inquiries. The TD is regularly slinging mud in the same two directions, and it seems that nobody has the ability to reprimand her increasingly erratic behaviour. Communication between McLellan and most of the East Cork membership is all but non-existent, and it seems her recent behaviour has deemed a reconciliation unlikely. In fact, many members are now openly stating that they will not canvass for the sitting TD should she go forward as the candidate for the upcoming general election.
The party now stands at a crossroads in East Cork. If it does not take control of the area and listen to its membership, it is likely that the exodus of existing members will continue, new members will be deterred from getting involved and ultimately this traditional Sinn Fein stronghold will collapse. The party’s handling of issues in the area has shown both a lack of understanding and a loss of connection with its membership. Internal squabbling is certainly nothing new in politics, but shutting down an entire area’s structure is a foolish move. A cynic might be excused for thinking the party was willing to sacrifice the East Cork membership, for the sake of keeping the TD content. Perhaps in this case, the party has underestimated the resolve of its members.