- 31 Jul 19
So says JONATHAN O’BRIEN, the Sinn Féin TD who’s being touted in some circles as a successor to Mary Lou McDonald. In a highly revealing interview, he talks family, drugs, football, activism, Brexit and the challenges facing his party with STUART CLARK.
If there’s any such thing as a totally safe seat, it probably belongs to Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien, who’s topped the poll in Cork North Central two general elections in a row. The Farranree man had previously done the same in local elections, having been a Cork City Councillor between 2000 and 2011.
“It’s a proud political achievement of mine that I’ve topped the polls in local elections and I’ve topped the polls in general elections,” he reflects. “Somebody’s set me the challenge of topping the poll in a European election. I may just take him up on that one day, but at the moment I’m totally committed to my work in the Dáil.”
Identifying as a Republican for thirty-six of his forty-seven years, O’Brien has been mentioned as a potential successor to Mary Lou McDonald should Sinn Féin decide it needs to reconnect with its working class base.
The socialism he bought into as a kid was of the decidedly non-champagne variety. In addition to trying to get his head round the hunger strikes, O’Brien had to watch as his brother descended into homelessness and drug addiction. In 2015, he told Eric Byrne to “shut his mouth” when the then Labour backbencher suggested in the Dáil that the family wasn’t doing enough to help him.
When I proffer that he’d be an obvious contender to replace Mary Lou if she were to jump/be pushed from her current position, O’Brien looks at me askance and says, “Nothing could be further from my mind – or that of anybody in the party. She’s doing a superb job.”
While the loyalty seems genuine, Sinn Féin’s recent poor performance in the local council and European elections has brought McDonald’s honeymoon period as leader to an end. As Director of Elections for Liadh Ní Riada in the European contest, O’Brien professes to being “deeply, deeply disappointed” that her Ireland South MEP seat was taken off her by Grace O’Sullivan from the Greens. Add in a resurgent Finna Fáil and the growing popularity of left-leaning independents in the Republic, and the significant electoral damage the Alliance Party has inflicted on them in the North, and these are worrying times for Sinn Féin.
Having been cooped up all day in his Dáil office, O’Brien optd to go outdoors onto the Leinster House lawn for his first sit-down with Hot Press. He’s affable but clearly wary. With O’Brien’s meticulously barbered hair, copiously inked arms and tales of tucking in behind Roy Keane, you could easily be talking to a professional football player who’s recently hung up his boots. You know he’s a Sinn Féin politician, though, when talk turns to Brexit.
STUART CLARK: Given the potential loss of 120,000 jobs island-wide and the threat to the Good Friday Agreement as a result of Brexit, did anyone in Sinn Féin say, “We should, on a strictly once-office basis, reconsider our policy of abstentionism”?
JONATHAN O’BRIEN: No, never. There was no conversation about or consideration of that at all.
Shouldn’t there have been given the disproportionate power the DUP have been wielding in Westminster?
No, I don’t think we should have looked at it. You know what happens in Westminster: politicians go and swear allegiance to the Queen. That’s just not going to happen with the Sinn Féin MPs who are elected in the North on that strict understanding, but are no less effective in representing the people than someone who does attend Westminster.
We’ll come back to Brexit. You’re a proud Cork man…
Best place on earth!
… but spent your early years in England.
Yeah, my father got a bit of work in England so we moved over during the early ‘70s when I was just nine months. We spent six or seven years in Morecambe, in Lancashire. We’d have been over and back a fair bit, so I was always very aware of Cork and the family I had there.
Did your pals think of you as being English or Irish?
My mother and father obviously were Irish. I started in a Catholic school so everyone there was either an English-born Catholic or had emigrated over from Ireland.
Are your parents still alive?
My father is deceased and my mother is still alive. When I was elected as a TD in 2011, my father was terminally ill with motor neuron disease. It was the first election campaign where he was unable to canvas with me. The proudest moment of my life was probably him being at the count.
Was yours a religious household?
Very religious, yeah.
What did your mum make of you changing from being pro-life to backing Repeal?
She was actually in favour of it. Just because you’re Catholic doesn’t mean you’re opposed to women’s health care. I think that’s how we won the argument. It was, “What’s best for women?” My mother voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum and she’d consider herself a very staunch Catholic.
Are you in favour of exclusion zones around abortion clinics?
I am in favour of exclusion zones, yeah. They shouldn’t have to be necessary, but unfortunately they are. There’s no point providing services if people are afraid to access them.
Irish friends of mine living in England during the ‘70s and ‘80s were sworn at, spat at and beaten up as a consequence of the IRA bombing campaign there. Did your family suffer that sort of hostility?
Not outright hostility, but with The Troubles going on it was a difficult time. There would have been a few incidents – Aldershot, Birmingham, Woolwich – where tensions would have risen towards the Irish community. I don’t recall any hostility on a personal level.
What was Cork like when you moved back towards the end of the ‘70s?
Brilliant. And I don’t just say that as a Corkonian. We had family in Cork, so we settled back in pretty quickly. It literally has its own culture, it’s own unique lingo. The communities are very, very parochial. Once you’re from Cork, that’s it, you’re born and bred.
How welcoming has the city been to the new Irish?
Very. Over the last ten years, we’ve seen the demographics in Cork change dramatically. We have a lot of new communities but they assimilate very well into Cork culture and tradition. It’s very laid-back and welcoming.
Which, in the eyes of Ireland’s far right, makes you a traitorous George Soros schill who cares not one jot about The Great Displacement.
I don’t buy into all that “our culture is under attack” stuff. These people obviously have very warped political agendas and prey on those who may not have a voice themselves. When there’s a recession or other things going wrong, they need to point a finger at somebody. They’re agitators more than problem solvers. It’s telling that they rarely stand for election and, if they do, they usually lose their deposits.
The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were heady times for music in Cork, with the Franks, the Sultans and Sir Henry’s.
‘Where’s Me Jumper?’ would’ve been a Cork anthem and we had some big names, Michael Jackson and Prince among them, come to Pairc Uí Chaoimh. I’m into music, but not a massive concert fan, but I would have been in Sir Henry’s and the club in the Metropole before it, Spiders.
Did you avail fully of rave culture?
No, I didn’t fully avail of rave culture.
Not even a sneaky half an ‘E’?
No, I never even smoked a joint.
Unlike Leo Varadkar who admitted in a Hot Press interview that he’d smoked cannabis at college. Would it be hypocritical of the Taoiseach not to support decriminalisation?
That’s a very difficult one. Our own party policy is a bit nuanced in relation to decriminalisation. On a personal level, though, I go beyond decriminalisation and would be in favour of legalisation.
Of all drugs?
I’d struggle with the legalisation of heroin for personal use... I think decriminalisation is the essential first step. A young guy smoking a joint suddenly has a criminal record following him around for the rest of his life. It doesn’t benefit him, it doesn’t benefit society. It’s a waste of Garda resources. I think decriminalisation is probably closer than it’s even been before.
Watching your brother go through heroin addiction must have been tough.
It was tough for us as a family. Thankfully he’s cleaned up, but he had a few tough years. I didn’t see him as an addict or ‘a junkie.’ To me, that’s as offensive and de-humanising as the N-word. You’re somebody who, for whatever reason, came to drugs. Maybe you started off recreationally. Maybe it’s because you have mental health issues. Whatever the route in, it doesn’t make people with addiction issues any less human. It certainly doesn’t mean we wash our hands of them. Actually, ‘them’ isn’t a great term either. These people are your neighbours and your friends and your relatives. One of them was my own brother. Drug use and addiction can hit absolutely any family at any time.
What would you say to the businesses who are holding up the Merchant’s Quay Medically Supervised Injection Facility with objections?
Having a medically supervised injecting centre doesn’t mean that their locality is suddenly going to become an epicentre for drug use. If they look out their front doors closely enough, they’ll see that drug use is happening in every community, rich, poor and inbetween. Nowhere’s immune. You need to differentiate between those who are making money from the illegal drug trade and those who are the victims of that trade who are the addicts themselves.
In Cork, the Local Drug and Alcohol Task Force have, with the support of the HSE locally, identified a building in which to set up their own injecting facility.
When the legislation was going through, one of my objections was that the pilot scheme was limited to just the one centre in Dublin. I’m very much in favour of having one in Cork. Sometimes that doesn’t go down well locally. There’s a lot of misinformation and a lack of understanding about what exactly a medically supervised injecting centre is. When Merchant’s Quay does open, it’ll be 18 months before the Department of Health even considers Cork having its own safe injecting centre – which is ridiculous. They’re ready to open more or less straight away.
When drug use exploded in the ‘80s, Sinn Féin was quick to declare itself the protector of communities. Does your pro-legalisation stance bring you into conflict with your fellow party members?
I think they get that there’s a difference between the guy who’s selling heroin to a 14-year-old, and the 14-year-old who may be addicted to heroin. I have absolutely no time for anyone who profits financially off someone else’s addiction or misery. The full force of the law should come down on them. The guy who’s addicted to drugs, he’s not preying on someone else’s misery.
How did the stigma affect your family?
I really didn’t care what people thought. I would be the first person to defend my brother. Other TDs criticised me and there was one very widely publicised incident within the chamber. But there certainly is a stigma around it, which comes from, maybe, a lack of education.
Was yours a Sinn Féin supporting family?
No. My uncle would have been heavily involved in Fianna Fáil. As was my godfather, until he became one of the founding members of the Progressive Democrats in Cork. My mother’s family would mainly have been Fine Gael. I was taught very early on by my parents that everyone is equal no matter what the colour of their skin or what their financial status. So, they probably unintentionally instilled that Republican ideology in me.
Can you pinpoint your political awakening?
It was in the early ‘80s in school during the hunger strikes. I would have been ten, almost eleven and it was a topic of discussion. We couldn’t understand what drove somebody to starve themselves to death. That introduced us to the national question at a very early age.
My first time visiting Ireland was in May 1981 when Francis Hughes died after 59 days without food. The feeling of grief and anger was palpable.
Mairéad Farrell stood in Cork North Central as an H Block candidate. I remember it vividly. All of the streets had black flags. People were out protesting because of the injustice of the hunger strikes.
Did you feel rebellious supporting Sinn Féin?
No, at that age I didn’t see it as rebelling against the system or the State. As I looked more deeply into the hunger strikes, I realised the root cause of them was that part of my country was occupied. When something awakens within you, you get as much information as possible. You become self-politicised, really.
Back then, the Gardaí were often heavy-handed with Republicans.
When I joined Sinn Féin in the mid-90s, you would have had a heavy police presence. There was an animosity between the forces of the State and Republicans, but that has completely changed now. I work very well with the local guards around community development.
Did joining Sinn Féin mean you supported the armed struggle?
No, I mean, look… I joined Sinn Féin because of their political ideology and their Republican outlook. They were the one party who were actively involved in campaigning for Irish re-unification. So, I didn’t associate joining Sinn Féin as implicitly supporting the IRA.
Was becoming involved in paramilitary activities ever an option for you?
No. I don’t know where the media get these stories, but there was nobody in a black leather jacket waiting to recruit you into an armed struggle. That’s just a fallacy. It doesn’t happen. You’re joining a political party involved in community campaigns. At that time, it was the only party trying to do something around unemployment in working class communities and the scourge of drugs.
When was your first time crossing the border?
It would have been the late ‘80s going to see Derry v. Cork City in the Brandywell. I didn’t regard it as going into occupied territory – I was just there for a football match.
Much the same as going to Milltown for an away game against Shamrock Rovers?
(Laughs) Err, a bit different! I’d heard horror stories about crossing the border, but we weren’t stopped or searched. The context is a lot different now, but I still feel passionate about removing that border.
What turned you on to football?
My dad was a Birmingham fan, so the first team I shouted for was City. They weren’t doing very well, which is probably where my love of the underdog came from. There were some great Cork teams down the years; Denis Law and George Best both played for Cork Hibs out at Flower Lodge before it was sold to the GAA. My father would have taken me to games when the current club, Cork City, was founded in 1984. I just fell in love with it.
You were a pretty handy player.
I played with a very popular club called Rockmount and won a number of trophies with them. I also made it onto the Cork schoolboy side, so I wasn’t bad.
One of your Rockmount teammates was a young Roy Keane.
Yeah, I played with him for about six or seven years. You could see there was something special about Roy. He was a very, very small kid. Not like he is now. But the determination and the passion and the commitment that he showed throughout his career, he had that when he was 12 and 13. Off the pitch he was a very quiet character, but on it he was just a natural leader.
When did you realise that he was good enough to make it in England?
We had a number of good players on that team – people like Len Downey who went on to play with Cork City and Paul McCarthy who ended up at Brighton – but Roy was head and shoulders above everyone else. His two brothers were really handy footballers as well with a club called Temple United. When Roy went to Cobh Ramblers, you knew it was a springboard to something greater.
Did he ever take you out with a tackle?
(Laughs) No, but I remember some of the bollockings he gave me! I didn’t take them personally. Roy’s a nice guy. He’s done pretty well as a manager too. He’s got an unbelievable footballing brain on him.
It must have been a proud feeling in 2010 when the supporters’ trust you were a founder member of, FORAS, took control of Cork City.
Yeah, it’s a very proud achievement for football fans in Cork to own their own club, and feel that it’s going to be there for a long, long time. We wouldn’t always have had that security.
How did you find dealing with John Delaney?
(Laughs) If you were going to ask me, “Did you get any free tickets off him?” the answer is, “No.” I’ll be honest; I found John to be a very passionate football supporter. He was heavily involved with Waterford United and has a deep love of the League of Ireland. I don’t think anyone can take that away from him. Obviously in his latter years at the FAI, he made mistakes. I was one of the people who felt the time had come for the FAI to have a complete shake-up. We have a very poorly financed and marketed League of Ireland. John Delaney described the league as the problem child of Irish football. I couldn’t disagree with him more. I think the League of Ireland is the heart and soul of Irish football. We’ll see where it goes.
Are you in favour of the plans for an All-Ireland League, which would mean Cork visiting such Loyalist strongholds as Ballymena and Portadown?
I went to see the Linfield v. Cork City game when we were drawn against them in Europe, and felt very welcome. I was at Portadown for a Setanta Cup game. Same story. We had Glentoran play the Setanta Cup Final in Cork. Great boys. Marketed right, an All-Ireland League would probably attract the sort of TV money you don’t get now. A stumbling block is that UEFA aren’t going to give the new league the six or seven European places that the existing leagues get between them. A lot of clubs rely on the revenue they get from Europe, so that’d have to be addressed.
The local and European elections in June were pretty disastrous for Sinn Féin. What went wrong?
It’s the nature of elections. You know, you’re up one, down the next. All political parties go through those cycles. What went wrong in the local election? Possibly a combination of things. Probably the organisation wasn’t as tuned in as it should have been.
The Green Party did well because of their focus on environmental issues.
While we probably knew the issues that were affecting people who voted for the Greens, we didn’t campaign as much as they would have liked us to on them. We’d just come out of the recession, all the talk had been about recovery. We had a bit of a disconnect with our base and need to reconnect with them.
Sinn Féin used to be synonymous with grassroots activism. Now at marches, it’s all People Before Profit, Solidarity and Social Democrats banners.
We were seen as a very activist-based party – and we have probably lost that. We need to be more vocal on the issues affecting the communities we represent. It’s all well and good standing up in the chamber and giving out to the relevant Minister, but I’m not sure the people we represent appreciate that. They want to see us standing shoulder to shoulder with them.
The Greens seem to have engaged with younger voters.
I don’t know if the Greens have engaged. They don’t actively campaign on community issues in my constituency. People voted Green because climate change has become more prevalent. There’s a tradition of the Green Party being seen as the ones who are in favour of climate change action and have the solutions to it. But maybe people aren’t aware of the exact nature of their policies. If you went to a lot of people who voted Green and said, “They’re in favour of carbon taxes, which are going to take money out of your pocket regardless of your income”, they’d have a different opinion of the party.
A lot of the voters who defected to Sinn Féin from Fianna Fáil have gone back.
Fianna Fáil obviously had a good election. There’s no doubt about it; politics is changing. Just look at the movement these last few years on marriage equality, the 8th amendment, divorce. Now we’re moving into another big social issue, which is the decriminalisation of drugs. The whole of the Catholic Church, a critical establishment, is broken. The big two main parties’ grip on power is weakening all the time.
Would you prefer the Church not to be involved in health and education?
Yeah, not to be involved. They should stick to religion.
Would you support Sinn Féin going into coalition with Fianna Fáil?
My personal opinion is, no, I wouldn’t be in favour of that. But obviously you have to wait until the election happens and see how the numbers stack up. I’m not willing to compromise my Republican principles just to get my bum on a Ministerial seat.
Which of your Republican principles would be compromised by power-sharing with Micheál Martin?
It would involve not dealing with the core issues of health and housing and waiting lists. Treating our elderly with respect and making sure people don’t have to live in hotel rooms. If you’re not going to adequately deal with those then we’re not willing to share power with you.
There’s a perception of you and your parliamentary colleagues slavishly toeing the party line.
There’s this perception that we’re all robots controlled by some sort of puppet master who tells us what to say. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t have a beeper and, second of all, we don’t get daily messages. Like any political party, we have an electoral strategy and part of that is messaging. There’s probably more room in Sinn Féin to articulate your own point of view than there is in most other parties.
Sinn Féin not being able to make electoral capital out of the Government’s mishandling of health and housing must raise serious issues about Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership.
We all share responsibility for the poor election performance. Obviously, as leader of the party, Mary Lou has the added responsibility of bringing morale back. I think she’ll do it. If anyone looked at her performance before she became leader of the party, they’d say she was one of the most effective performers within Leinster House. You don’t just lose that overnight. I know it weighs heavily on Mary Lou’s shoulders that there’s now that added responsibility on her. Maybe the media needs to realise this: when they attack us politically, it just makes us more determined.
I was thinking of voting Sinn Féin in the last general election, but didn’t when Mary Lou described Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, a convicted tax evader, as being “a very nice man.”
I don’t know Slab Murphy but I’ve heard he is a very nice man.
Sinn Féin is trying to distance itself from criminalty, but your leader is fawning over a man who’s been dawn raided by the Gardaí and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Maybe he’s a very nice man, I don’t know. Maybe Mary Lou does know Slab Murphy and her opinion is he’s a very nice man,
But he was found guilty of nine charges of tax evasion.
Legally, it means you’re classed as a criminal but, I mean, how many people running banks or standing for election have avoided paying tax? Obviously it was an issue for yourself and I respect that.
How do you sever Sinn Féin’s connection to criminality once and for all?
Hang on, what connection? People said that if we got rid of Gerry (Adams) that connection would be severed. Gerry is gone. Now people are saying, “Oh, we need to get rid of Mary Lou” or “We need Mary Lou to come out and say something that severs that connection.” I think it’s just ridiculous.
The success of the Alliance Party in the North seems to indicate that people are fed up voting along traditional Loyalist/Republican lines.
I can’t read people’s mindsets up there. We had a hard-working out-going MEP in Martina Anderson and she was re-elected. So from our point of view, it was a successful campaign. We still have an MEP in the European Parliament who is doing huge work in relation to promoting Irish reunification and also on Brexit.
Until October 31, when Sinn Féin may well have no MEPs from Northern Ireland, no MPs in Westminster and no MLAs at Stormont. Would you compromise on the Irish Language Act to get the institutions up and running?
Why would we? This is one of the things that frustrates me. We’re being asked to compromise on issues that are basic human rights. Should we compromise on issues such as marriage equality or abortion rights? We aren’t asking for heaven and earth here. We’re asking for parity of esteem in relation to languages. It’s not the fault of Sinn Féin. We had a deal with the DUP to get the Assembly back up and running. They reneged on that. The DUP don’t seem to realise that they can’t have it all their own way. They’re opposed to marriage equality; they’re opposed to the Irish Language Act; they’re opposed to women’s healthcare in terms of access to terminations. What exactly are they in favour of?
A mother is being prosecuted for allegedly obtaining abortion pills for her 15-year-old daughter.
It’s stupid. Stupid.
Where were you when you heard about Lyra McKee’s death?
In Cork. It was an incredibly sad day.
The New IRA clearly have some level of support in places like Derry.
I think they have a very small amount of support. People need to realise that those days are gone and they’re gone for a reason. We now have other means to achieve our political goals. Anyone involved in dissident Republicanism needs to ask themselves whether they’re doing more damage than good.
Minority or not, there are people on the Creggan who aren’t buying into the peace process. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know, I haven’t spoken to them. I do know what they are buying into at the moment is not what’s good for their communities.
Should the New IRA’s political wing, Saoradh, be proscribed?
It’s not for me to say whether or not they should be proscribed. Maybe they should stand for election. Just put your mandate before the people and they can decide whether they want you or not.
Two days after Lyra was murdered, Saoradh were allowed to march down O’Connell Street with their dark glasses, berets and army surplus gear.
If we’re consigning terrorism/armed struggle to the past, shouldn’t we say, “No paramilitary attire at any event on the island of Ireland?” Look, I’m not here to tell anyone what they can wear when they commemorate their patriot dead. That’s for them to decide. I’m not going to comment on that.
What’s your preference: Johnson or Hunt?
It makes no difference to me. The Tory party is all about self-preservation. Maybe Unionists within the North need to realise that, when push comes to shove, the Conservatives look after themselves. Boris will probably become the leader of the Tory party and they will do some sort of deal. I don’t think anyone on the island of Ireland, regardless of your background, wants a hard Brexit.
What happens if they do crash out and the EU insists on us policing Frontier Europe?
It’s for Irish politicians then to stand up to the EU. They don’t have a good track record doing that, but they’ll have to.
What’s the likelihood over the next five years of there being a united Ireland?
Will we achieve it in five years? I don’t know. I think it’s more possible than it’s ever been in my lifetime and probably in a lot of people’s lifetimes.
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