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Daithi McKay: I never coached Jamie Bryson and I wasn't made scapegoat for top Sinn Fein figure

Months after being forced to resign as a Sinn Fein MLA, Daithi McKay talks about his fall from grace... and his new role in politics

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 02/12/2016

Daithi McKay
Daithi McKay
Daithi McKay with Malachi O’Doherty
A leaked tweet
Daithi McKay speaking at a Stormont committee

He had seemed to be a high-flyer within Sinn Fein, one of its bright young activists and a slick operator in the Assembly, particularly on committees.

But Daithi McKay was brought low by allegations that he had coached the loyalist Jamie Bryson. Someone had shown Bryson how to feed allegations against then First Minister Peter Robinson to an Assembly committee that McKay chaired.

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Bryson had been advised not to name Robinson as the target of his allegations until the end of his presentation, and then to announce it before any intervention could prevent him. And that is what he did.

The person whose job it would have been to make that intervention was McKay himself.

In August McKay was forced to resign as MLA and was suspended from the party. He had been outed in the media for sending a Twitter message to Bryson referring him to another Sinn Fein member who would coach him in this trick.

Yesterday, in his first interview since resigning, McKay denied that he had coached Bryson.

He also denied that he had "taken the bullet" for a more senior member of the party.

He says that he has no desire to return to the Assembly as a Sinn Fein MLA. Nor will he seek a position through any other political party.

His career as a feisty committee investigator is over.

During that career he led an investigation into the planning process around a Heritage Centre at the Giant's Causeway.

Then Environment Minister Arlene Foster had said that she was "of a mind" to give planning permission to Seaport Investments, a company owned by property developer Seymour Sweeney.

But there was controversy when it emerged that Mr Sweeney was a member of the DUP, and that he had sold a house to Ian Paisley junior.

It was McKay who had taken the lead in the Sinn Fein challenge to the process.

Mrs Foster then decided firmly against giving permission to Seaport Investments, on the grounds that "it could adversely affect the character of the area".

It was an embarrassing stand down for Mrs Foster.

Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy quipped in the Assembly at the time: "It appears that the DUP has left Mr Sweeney on his tod."

McKay's Private Member's Bill for a plastic bag levy led to a lot of us going back to using shopping baskets. The final form of the legislation included all carrier bags.

And he chaired the committee that insisted on investigating the sale of a massive Northern Ireland property portfolio by the Irish 'bad bank' the National Assets Management Agency.

That was the investigation that landed him in trouble, and he still insists on saying little to nothing about it.

Many of the allegations seeping out about property developers paying a massive 'cut', or fee, to unnamed political figures were coming then from Bryson, the loyalist flag protester who was shaping up as an internet activist, breaking stories that the mainstream media had to be much more wary of.

McKay called Bryson to his committee to tell MLAs what he knew, and tweets leaked to the media in August appeared to connect McKay to a plan to manage the delivery of the allegations in such a way that they would not be interrupted before Bryson had time to drop his bombshell claim - fiercely denied - about Peter Robinson. This exposed a huge conflict of interest. As chair, McKay's responsibility was to manage the meeting with impartiality and not to engineer devices by which the spirit of its rules could be broken. The exposure cost him his job as an MLA. He was also suspended from Sinn Fein.

In his resignation letter McKay acknowledged his conduct was "inappropriate, ill-advised and wrong". He was replaced as MLA by Causeway Coast and Glens Borough councillor Philip McGuigan, who had previously campaigned for McKay's election.

And while several members of Sinn Fein resigned from the party in support of him, McKay has, until now, evaded media attention.

Eighteen party members, including councillor Paul Maguire, signed a statement saying that it was "inconceivable" that they could stay in the party after the way in which McKay was treated.

It was a huge upheaval in an organisation renowned for strong internal discipline, but McKay himself is measured in his response to a party that his friends say treated him shoddily.

Indeed, he says he is now content to be outside the Assembly.

"I moved on from my resignation the very day after I left the Assembly. Life goes on and I hold no ill feelings towards anyone," he said.

"I'm quite philosophical about things, there's certainly more to life than late nights listening to Alex Attwood in Stormont."

This is a hint, if one were needed, that he has no intention of defecting to the SDLP.

What he does want to do is write. And his first article as an independent commentator appears in the Belfast Telegraph today.

His agenda is to stir up debate as a republican at a remove from party structures which insist on members keeping to a party line.

"We always need to have more debate and critical analysis, and that in my view is intended to be as beneficial to those that the criticism may be levelled towards, as members of the public," he said.

"I see myself as being progressive and Left, and that will certainly come through in my analysis."

And he will have things to say directly to Sinn Fein.

He added: "Increasing the popular vote whilst in government in the north is not an easy task, and sooner or later the party will have to consider the possibility of entering a coalition in the Dail."

That defines two of the immediate problems. The vote has perhaps peaked and has no more growth available to it. And power may only be available in the Dail through partnership and compromise.

But there are others, including the inevitable departures of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and the questions of who will replace them.

He might have added a party that curtails opportunities for its brightest young members like himself is cutting itself off at the knees.

Some would argue that even the fresh new generation that emerged in the Republic is already tiring, has missed its moment to take over with energy and impact, because Adams has stayed on too long.

McKay says that success for the party will depend on "remaining relevant and rooted in communities".

Not so easy when members who are angry with the leadership resign because they don't trust that their protests will be heard. That's what happened when McKay was dropped.

But trying to get him to say things to Sinn Fein that might wound the party is difficult. He knows what the problems are, but he wants to air his criticisms tactfully so that they will be heard and not dismissed as driven by grievance.

"Sinn Fein has always been good at using its political initiative and taking risks. The challenge for them will be to keep that momentum going," he said.

He is aware that the party is taking flak from supporters who believe it has conceded more to unionism than it has got back in return.

McGuinness's expressed respect and affection for the Queen have not been significantly reciprocated by unionists.

He said: "It cannot be all one-way traffic and republicans on the ground will want to see the DUP more robustly challenged when there are justifiable grounds for doing so."

He intends to be part of that robust challenge, not from the floor of the Assembly, but in the media.

He added: "Martin McGuinness absolutely did the right thing in meeting the Queen.

"We all can be respectful without necessarily surrendering any of our principles or views.

"However, the challenge as I see it is ensuring that the DUP also takes similar steps forward in the coming years to become more respectful and accommodating of the minorities within our community."

McKay is part of a new generation of republicans who have little experience of the Troubles.

He describes his republicanism as "non-sectarian, internationalist, egalitarian and realistic".

He was born in 1982, a year after Bobby Sands died on hunger strike.

He was only 15 years old when the Provisional IRA brought its campaign to an end in 1997. So he has not been fashioned in his attitude out of the grief in Long Kesh and the violence on the streets.

He said: "The former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown once said that if he had been born a Catholic in the north and had suffered discrimination, he could not dismiss the possibility that he may have joined the IRA himself.

"We're all a product of our environment and the times we live in. Myself and many others will never have to consider this question because of the peace process, and thank God for that."

What he has been shaped by is party politics, and that creates the expectation that battles will be fought over ideas and principles, that some of those battles will be won and some lost.

He says he has not left politics.

"Politics is much more than just the Assembly. It's the lack of housing in your village; it's watching the 6 o'clock news at the dinner table; it's the evening chat over a pint in the pub. It's a constant in my life, and always will be."

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