Billy Leonard — one of the few former Protestants and unionists to become a Sinn Fein elected representative — has spoken for the first time about his reasons for leaving the republican party.
Talking in advance of the launch of a new book, Dr Leonard has spoken of his time within Sinn Fein ranks, saying he believes that “the tentacles of the army”, the IRA, extended throughout it.
He also claims that released republican prisoners still dominated the party’s structures when he left last year.
“While you had so called democratic structures, there always seemed to be other meetings and the majority of them had people in key positions who were ex-army,” he said.
Dr Leonard, who joined the SDLP while studying political science at the University of Ulster, is preparing to launch his new book, Towards a United Ireland.
It recounts an unusual transition from fundamentalist lay preacher, Orangeman and part-time RUC officer to Sinn Fein politician.
Dr Leonard says a disagreement over “support arrangements” led to his suspension from Sinn Fein and his decision to leave the party last year.
The term “support arrangements” refers to Sinn Fein’s policy of requiring MLAs and full-time public representatives to surrender their wages and expenses into a central pot from which they are paid an allowance.
“If you are going to put effort into a job, you have got to have the working support mechanisms to do the job as an MLA and I didn’t feel I had them,” Dr Leonard said.
This reflects criticisms by Sandra McLellan, a Sinn Fein TD, who said that she paid in €92,000 (£74,000) and only got €34,000 (£27,000).
This has sparked an inquiry from the Republic’s Standards in Public Office Committee because expenses were allegedly not put to the intended purpose and the party had not allegedly declared the full extent of the donations.
He says that in his time, last year, Sinn Fein’s “evolution from the paramilitary structures of the Troubles to a democratic party” was still under way.
He describes “deep ambivalence and cynical laughter among many” republicans after the IRA denied the December 2004 Northern Bank robbery which netted £26m.
Dr Leonard left the SDLP because he didn’t believe the party put enough emphasis on Irish unity. He now wants to launch an organisation to promote a united Ireland called ‘Vision Ireland’.
Billy Leonard (57) has worn many hats in his time. He was an Orangeman, a Seventh Day Adventist lay preacher, an RUC reservist and then an SDLP councillor before joining Sinn Fein.
He served as an Coleraine SDLP councillor from 2001 and says he was due to take up office as chairman when he switched allegiance to Sinn Fein three years later.
The party co-opted him as an MLA in January 2010, but suspended him from membership in March last year.