Martin Galvin (MG) speaks to award-winning journalist Suzanne Breen (SB) via telephone from Belfast and gets updates on ‘Brysongate’ and the recent 18 resignations from Sinn Féin over the party’s treatment of Daithí McKay. (begins time stamp ~ 14:50)
MG: And with us on the line we have Suzanne Breen. Suzanne Breen is one of the leading journalists – she’s been an award-winning journalist in Ireland. She has been with the Sunday Tribune, with the Irish Times and lately she’s been doing a number of reports for the Irish Independent, for the Belfast Telegraph and other papers in The North of Ireland. Welcome back to Radio Free Éireann, Suzanne.
MG: Suzanne, two weeks ago we covered the initial story: There was a crash in 2008-2009 in the United States, a world-wide crash with banks and mortgages. As a result of that the Irish government in the Twenty-Six Counties sold off a great many assets including assets that they owned in the Six Counties – mortgages, properties, etc. They formed an agency, the National Asset Management Association (NAMA), to sell those properties. Properties, more than a billion pounds worth were sold and a member of the Irish Parliament, Mick Wallace, in the Dáil as it’s called, stood up later and said that people, politicians in The North of Ireland had gotten backhanders, had gotten money, as a result of those sales. Now there was an inquiry in Stormont. It was led by Daithí McKay. One of the witnesses was an individual named Jamie Bryson who describes himself as a hardline Loyalist. He’s with a number of Protestant bands in The North of Ireland. He was one of the people who led the flag protests against not having a British flag flown over Stormont each and every day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. He came before that committee and he named Peter Robinson, the head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and later it was revealed or there was correspondence – Daithí McKay resigned from Sinn Féin as an MLA and now this past week eighteen members of the party have resigned. Have I sort of summarised that for you leading up to what happened during the past week?
SB: You have indeed. You have summarised it very well. Jamie Bryson appeared before the Stormont Committee in September last year. There was a lot of controversy in Northern Ireland about whether he should be allowed to appear. Some people, including the DUP, thought he shouldn’t – that he was going to be making unsubstantiated allegations. As it turned out he did make a very stark allegation. He alleged that of the millions, seven point five million, that were transferred into an Isle of Mann bank that some of that money had been for Peter Robinson – that was Jamie Bryson’s allegation and he named Peter Robinson in his evidence to the Stormont Finance Committee. Jamie Bryson had been making all sorts of allegations on his own blog but once an allegation is made in Stormont at the committee it carries ‘privilege’ which means that the media can report on it whereas if they had been to report on allegations in Jamie Bryson’s blog they would have found themselves likely to be sued so giving his evidence at Stormont provided Jamie Bryson with legal protection.
MG: Alright and then it was subsequently revealed that prior to his appearance, Jamie Bryson, who in his blog he writes:
I’m opposed to Sinn Féin as I ever was. My enemy’s enemy was never my friend but rather a useful tool in my pursuit of a public interest story. If Sinn Féin were manipulated as what is in the public domain appears to suggest then that is a matter for Sinn Féin.
And it turned out that he had been coached or there had been written communications between him and Daithí McKay as to how he should testify and wait to hold Peter Robinson’s name until the very end. Is that correct, Suzanne?
SB: Daithí McKay was basically advising Jamie Bryson on procedures, on the best way to get his evidence to the Finance Committee so that other members of the Finance Committee couldn’t interrupt or actually end Jamie Bryson’s evidence. It was important that Jamie Bryson was able to give it without interruption, without being challenged so Daithí McKay basically off-the-record, privately, secretly – he advised Jamie Bryson on the best way to do this. Now this was in conflict with Daithí McKay’s role in the committee of being objective, of being impartial, of not effectively helping witnesses. Had Daithí McKay met Jamie Bryson in public with a civil servant and given him advice that would have actually been okay but because he set up a back-channel, because there were messages through social media that was regarded as not acceptable – it wasn’t transparent – and in his advice Daithí McKay appears to cross the line from giving sort of cold clinical advice to basically schooling Jamie Bryson.
MG: Alright and Peter Robinson, of course, denied Bryson’s allegations but he did subsequently resign as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest Unionist party in The North of Ireland and a party which is in coalition with Sinn Féin in government and Daithí McKay, when this became public, he immediately, or very quickly, resigned – admitted that it was wrong – what he had done and people thought that that would be the end of it – the Democratic Unionist Party did not pursue it. But last week there were further ramifications. What happened last week?
SB: Well Daithí McKay was replaced as a Assembly Member in Stormont by a man called Philip McGuigan who had been a previous Assembly Member for Sinn Féin in the North Antrim area and Daithí McKay had actually replaced him as the party’s representative so Philip McGuigan was brought back in. There already were a lot of divisions in Sinn Féin in North Antrim and Daithí McKay and Philip McGuigan and their relative supporters, to put it politely, wouldn’t see eye to eye , they wouldn’t get on very well – Philip McGuigan would maybe not be the most popular character in Sinn Féin in the area. So this week eighteen members of Sinn Féin announced that they were resigning in support of Daithí McKay and against Sinn Féin’s decision to parachute Philip McGuigan into the constituency. They said that Sinn Féin had done this without proper consultation. And there was also reference to Daithí McKay effectively having been a sacrificial lamb for Sinn Féin. They talked about how some people were hung out to dry in the party when others were protected and the insinuations there would be that there were people more senior than Daithí McKay in Sinn Féin who were involved in this project with Jamie Bryson, helping Jamie Bryson, but that they were regarded as too important to have resigned so that Daithí McKay was offered up there on a plate to the DUP to ensure the power-sharing government at Stormont is maintained.
MG: Alright. Now Suzanne, you had written a story for the Irish Independent – ‘Ex Sinn Féin Man at Centre of NAMA Storm is Urged to Reveal All’- and you quoted a number of former Sinn Féin MLAs who said that Daithí McKay should reveal what has happened and that you also had previous stories in which you said that people were very sceptical that Daithí McKay would have acted on his own without conferring and consulting with members above him in Sinn Féin – that that is not the way that Sinn Féin operates. Is that correct?
SB: Yes. I mean people, observers, generally don’t believe that Daithí McKay was a lone wolf. Sinn Féin is a party in which there is very centralised control, there is an awful lot of discipline it really is not the norm for political parties in Ireland to behave in the way that Sinn Féin does. I mean people joke that if a Sinn Féin cumann is ordering paper clips they have to consult the leadership so the idea of this free-lance activity of Daithí McKay taking this on himself to do such a controversial thing as help a Loyalist blogger to bring down, effectively, Peter Robinson, the leader of the party Sinn Féin was in government with – people are very, very sceptical that he acted alone. The belief when he resigned – when he resigned he accepted responsibility, he admitted what he did – the belief would have been among journalists that he was taking a bullet for the party and that further down the line he would be rewarded. We would see Daithí McKay appear maybe at some stage next year in some job, an important job in his constituency in the community sector – something like that, that he would be, to put it in Irish terms that he would be ‘boxed off’ that he had made the sacrifice, he laid down his career for the sake of his party and that when a decent interval of time had passed DaithÍ McKay would be back in some lower-profile role and we believe therefore he wouldn’t be talking now, he wouldn’t be saying anything, he wouldn’t be spilling the beans, he wouldn’t be disclosing who else in Sinn Féin was involved with him that he had agreed to be a part of this game. The eighteen people resigning in North Antrim changes that totally because it would be inconceivable that they would have resigned without Daithí McKay’s blessing. I mean, undoubtedly these members have been very close to him, they would have been in communication to him over recent weeks and they would have told them what they are going to do and at the very least Daithí McKay didn’t say: No. Don’t do this – and that is what leads us to believe that Daithí McKay is very much not a happy camper and some former Sinn Féin MLAs have said: Look, the party sacrificed you, they didn’t care less about you and it is up to you now to come forward, name the names, tell the truth because at the moment your reputation is in the gutter. You’re regarded as this silly little boy who colluded with a Loyalist – you really need to come out here and explain what had happened and try and regain your public image and your reputation.
MG: Alright now, some of the people who resigned from Sinn Féin they include councillors, former councillors, people who have been party activists for many, many years – what is going to be the impact of those eighteen people resigning on Sinn Féin in that area?
SB: Well North Antrim isn’t a Sinn Féin stronghold. It is an area where the party has been trying to build its profile and to win votes. I know a lot of the people who resigned will be the people at election time who put up posters, who knocked doors, who were the workers on the ground so they will be missed. We had greater numbers – we had seventy people in Cork last year resign in protest of the treatment of two local councillors down there but it is in The North that the leadership’s iron grip really has been well-known so this is just unprecedented. The eighteen didn’t just resign privately they resigned in a blaze of publicity.
They wrote a very scathing letter, scathing about Sinn Féin, to a local newspaper, the Ballymena Guardian and one of their members, Monica Digney, who had been the first Sinn Féin Councillor on the very staunchly loyalist Ballymena Council – she had taken a lot of grief and there had been a lot of harassment and intimidation when she was first elected so she would be known as a fairly steely woman – she took to the airwaves and in interviews for UTV and BBC Northern Ireland she made some very strong statements against Sinn Féin. She said that she loved the party with all of her heart – she’d given a hundred and ten percent to it. She said she’d been a lifelong Republican – she would die a Republican but she just didn’t have to die a Sinn Féin Republican. And she added she would not be selling herself short because she had what was commonly known as integrity. And when she was asked did Sinn Féin have integrity she said no, she didn’t think that it did and it had lost the run of themselves so this was very strong and emotional language and also suggested that perhaps there are issues at play here that are bigger than Daithí McKay and bigger than it being just a local dispute. It seems to me to be another example of Sinn Féin really losing touch with its grassroots.
MG: Alright Suzanne, we want to thank you for that. We’re looking forward seeing whether Daithí McKay does say anything or take any further actions in response to these people who were loyalists or supporters of his resigning and whatever the next step is going to be we’ll hope to read your stories about them.
SB: It’s one to watch. They key here is is Daithí McKay going to speak out himself now or is he going to continue maintaining his silence? The spotlight really now is on Daithí McKay.
MG: Well it would seem strange if he had other people resign on his behalf or supporting him but then did nothing further himself after they resigned but we’ll wait to see. Thank you, Suzanne.
SB: Thank you. (ends time stamp ~ 29:20)