'Our aim is to ensure Mary Lou is Taoiseach': Former Cork Sinn Féin TD on candidate selection for next election

Former Cork TD Jonathan O’Brien talks to John Bohane about his new role as Sinn Féin’s political director.
'Our aim is to ensure Mary Lou is Taoiseach': Former Cork Sinn Féin TD on candidate selection for next election

Former Cork TD Jonathan O’Brien has been tasked with selecting the candidates to contest the next general election for Sinn Féin in his new role as their political director.

FORMER Cork TD Jonathan O’Brien, who has been tasked with selecting the candidates to contest the next general election for Sinn Féin, said the party is focused on leading the next Government.

“We are going into the next general election with the aim of being the largest political party coming out of it,” he told The Echo.

“Our aim is to ensure there is a Sinn Féin-led government with Mary Lou as Taoiseach. That is the goal. We will do everything we can to achieve that.”

Sinn Féin received the highest share of first preference votes in the 2020 general election but only succeeded in returning 37 seats after running just 42 candidates, which thwarted their hopes of forming a coalition government.

The former TD for Cork North-Central has now been charged with identifying suitable candidates to go before conventions nationwide as his party seeks to win the next general election.

Mr O’Brien, who served two terms in Leinster House, is enjoying his new role as political director of Sinn Féin.

“I’m in an organisational role with the head office. Part of that role is helping ensure all our areas in the 26 counties are election-ready. I’m loving it. It is nice to be in the background again for a change,” he said.

“I’m engaging with a lot of the grassroots members throughout the country which is vital,” the Sinn Féin party stalwart said about the many remits he has in his new role.

“The official title is political director of the party so I’m responsible for the organisation such as membership and helping areas set up new structures. Ahead of elections, I’m responsible for identifying candidates and making sure the structures are ready for an election. It is a pretty comprehensive role and elections make up a big part of it.”

The former TD has impeccable political credentials. He topped the Cork North-Central poll in the 2011 general election and retained the seat in 2016, before announcing his decision in January 2020 not to contest that year’s general election.

His party colleague Thomas Gould subsequently retained the seat for Sinn Féin.

Jonathan O'Brien celebrates with Sinn Féin supporters, at the City Hall count centre after being elected to the Dáil in 2016.
Jonathan O'Brien celebrates with Sinn Féin supporters, at the City Hall count centre after being elected to the Dáil in 2016.

Does Jonathan regret his decision and miss the cut and thrust of politics in the Dáil?

“No, not at all. It is a tough business and you have to be 100% committed to it. I think Tommy is doing an excellent job so I made the right decision. I prefer this work anyway rather than the work that Tommy does. Everyone has their own role. I enjoyed it while I was there, but I don’t miss it.”

The process for selecting candidates to contest the next general election in the various constituencies throughout Cork city and county is well underway from a Sinn Féin perspective. Jonathan is pleased with their progress to date.

“We are doing well. In Cork North West we have the process completed. We have our candidate selected in Liadh Ní Riada. In Cork South West we have our candidate selected and gone to convention in Clare O’Callaghan.

“In Cork East, we are going to be running two candidates. Pat Buckley is the sitting TD and we are looking at running a female candidate from the northern end of the constituency. There are a number of women who have expressed an interest in that, so when the time comes to call a convention the membership will select one of the candidates,” he added.

Mr O’Brien said they also plan to run two candidates in both the Cork South Central and Cork North Central constituencies to ensure they maximise their expected large vote.

“In Cork South Central we are looking at running two candidates. We have Donnchadh as our sitting TD and a number of female candidates have expressed their interest in running alongside Donnchadh. Once it comes to the convention, again the membership will select the candidates. We are also looking to run two candidates in Cork North Central.”

Female candidates

Sinn Féin currently has 13 female TDs serving in Leinster House. The party intends to run 18 candidates in Munster in the next general election, of which 50% will be female.

Jonathan said the party is very impressed with the calibre of female candidates who are seeking to stand for the party.

“Women in all of the constituencies have come forward and have expressed an interest in contesting the election.

“We are very encouraged by the calibrate of candidates putting their hand up to get on the party ticket. We have a very good line-up.

“The party has a gender designation rule so where we have a male sitting TD and we are running a second candidate it must be a female. The party has engaged with the membership locally as they seek to identify potential female candidates. 

"Obviously, that means sitting down with the women themselves and seeing what are the barriers to them running for election and how the party can help them overcome those barriers. In Munster alone, we are going to be running a minimum of 18 candidates. So far nine of them will be men and nine will be female so we have a good 50/50 balance there,” he added.

“The role that I have is helping identify potential candidates and encouraging them to put their names forward,” the former Cork TD said as he outlined the party’s selection policy.

“Once a convention is called every member in that constituency gets a vote and they will decide who the final candidate will be. It is a very transparent and democratic process. No candidate is imposed on an area. It is the members themselves who will decide.”

General election

Mr O’Brien rejects suggestions that Sinn Féin should have run more candidates in the last general election, saying the party themselves didn’t forecast their exceptionally strong performance.

“You can only judge off your previous performances. You have to have a strategy in place. We had a very poor performance in the 2019 local elections so you have to cut your cloth accordingly. We decided to try and maintain the number of seats we had going into the election. No one could see how well we were going to do. Maybe in the last two or three weeks, we saw it on the doors but at that stage, it was too late to add additional candidates.”

A big part of Jonathan’s new role is to ensure Sinn Féin is ready for the next general election. With the party poised to run two candidates in as many constituencies nationwide as possible, he said their vote management strategy will have to be very ‘disciplined’ to ensure they achieve their aims.

“We have to be as prepared as possible. We have election directors established in all areas. If there was an election called this year we need to be in a position to run enough candidates to elect a government. The number of first-preference votes coming out of the last general election really means you have to run more than one candidate in a number of constituencies. We are well down the road of meeting our targets to run multiple candidates in all of the constituencies.

“Part of my role is sitting down with local organisations and making sure we have a good and disciplined vote management strategy in place. It won’t be a case of having two candidates running their own election campaigns, it will be one election team running two candidates and it will be very co-ordinated. My role is one thing, but it is all about the people who actually go out and implement the vote management strategy. We have a really good team,” he added.

Opinion polls

Recent opinion polls indicate that Sinn Féin is firmly on track to form the next government. Jonathan believes their hard work in the communities is resonating with the general public.

“It is encouraging. It shows we are connecting with a large section of the electorate, but the only poll that matters is the one on election day. We are relevant on the issues that matter to the general public. We are actually coming up with positive solutions.

“We have a very good Leinster House team and a very good front bench team who are active. We are engaging with stakeholders and developing our policies all the time. People are seeing us as a possible future government. A huge part of that role is going out and talking to people in communities.

“We are looking to be in government the next time around so a big part of that is to run enough candidates to be in that position.”

The Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, recently questioned Sinn Féin’s international policy. Jonathan said his party is used to criticism from political opponents, but they are focused on getting on with the job.

“We have been dealing with that for the last 20 years and it hasn’t stopped our growth,” he said. “People can write what they want, but what people see is Sinn Féin’s activists doing great work in every community which tells its own story.”

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