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Daithi McKay resignation over Jamie Bryson coaching claims: Whatever the truth, losing MLA is body blow Sinn Fein will struggle to recover from

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 19/08/2016

Daithi McKay inside his Sinn Fein office in Dunloy, Co Antrim
Daithi McKay inside his Sinn Fein office in Dunloy, Co Antrim
Two Nama-related posts by McKay retweeted by Thomas O’Hara
Two Nama-related posts by McKay retweeted by Thomas O’Hara

Clever political parties don't lose talent like Daithi McKay, though Sinn Fein is particularly careless about nurturing talent. Otherwise Mairia Cahill would probably be on the Ard Comhairle now and Pearse Doherty would already be the party leader.

The usual strategy is to give a lot of activists a little time in public positions and then to move them aside.

Consider that just a year or two ago Gerry Kelly was the routine spokesperson to field issues on the Nolan Show and that he is hardly heard of now.

Similarly invisible are Conor Murphy, Alex Maskey and Caitriona Ruane. Remember Lucilita Bhreatnach?

But the loss of Daithi McKay was an unpremeditated reshuffling of the team. It's one thing to take a bright spark and shape him to party needs, then hold him in check lest he gets cocky. It's quite another to suspend him from membership and force his resignation.

Martin McGuinness might be personally appalled at the behaviour of McKay, if we are to believe he knew nothing about it. But he can not be anything but sorry to have lost him.

If the best service a member can give a party is to take the bullet for it, to absorb the full blame for a little mischief, then that is too high a price paid this time for too little gain.

What was the gain after all, but to enable a truculent loyalist, Jamie Bryson, to make allegations against the then First Minister Peter Robinson? This was hardly even a poke in the eye for Robinson.

Maybe those who planned the attack on him had higher hopes than that the whole thing would blow over and get lost in the welter of last year's more interesting news. Maybe there was a threat of other disclosures implied in it. But it seems the party that has taken a real hit is Sinn Fein itself.

It would have been clever to sacrifice a pawn to topple a king. But to lose a knight?

For now the official version is that the knight, McKay, was acting on his own initiative, rather than on the instructions of party schemers.

That would be a first, a Shinner who thinks for himself.

Well, maybe.

Daithi McKay at 34 is one of the new generation that made the party credible to a generation which did not have the sound of bombings ringing in its ears. The party in the south has been built on the charm and energy of people of that generation.

He was born in the year after the hunger strikes. He was only 16 when the Good Friday Agreement was completed. He took a big interest in Palestinian rights and the Basque Country when he was in the Sinn Fein Youth.

He was exactly what the party needed - an intelligent and genial activist who would appeal to younger voters and be the foundation of a future leadership when the crusty old Provos had stepped aside, as some day they must.

At just 23 he was a councillor in Ballymoney and at 25 he took an Assembly seat on a first count. And though hardly a blooded warrior, he faced physical danger, once when confronting republican youths building a bonfire in Ballymena and once when his own house was attacked in Rasharkin.

Much of his political interest has been in environmental issues. He was one of the cycling MLAs. He created the taxing of carrier bags with a Private Member's Bill and transformed the character of shopping.

There are dolphins in the Irish Sea who don't know how much they have to thank him for.

As the Economy spokesperson, the party chose him to represent its thinking on taxation and fiscal policy during last year's cold war with the DUP over welfare reform.

He went on to the media to argue that devolution of corporation tax powers would have to be part of a general devolution of fiscal powers to Stormont. It sounded at the time like a threat to raise the bar on any possible reconciliation between the two main parties in the Executive.

Once the Fresh Start Agreement was signed to settle that period of deadlock, these claims for taxation powers were set aside. And Daithi McKay's turn at being the party spokesperson on a big issue in the media was over for the time being.

But he is young and he had an assured political future until yesterday morning and the disclosure that he had directed Jamie Bryson towards a slick operator who would coach him on how to circumvent assembly committee procedures so that he could accuse Peter Robinson.

It was the tutor appointed by Daithi McKay, Thomas O'Hara, who coined the killer device of referring to people by letters of the alphabet, as if you are preserving their anonymity, before blurting out the real names with seconds to spare.

Now the whole country knows that trick.

But the leaked tweets explaining it unveils something we never see - the sophistication and the cynicism of the political tactics of a master game player.

McKay at least had the clarity of vision to face the political reality yesterday and go. Jamie Bryson, the puppet in this stunt, was still contradicting himself. He told the BBC that there was no truth in the charge that he had been coached by Sinn Fein, then later tweeted that the leadership of the party knew all about it.

So he doesn't know that Sinn Fein coached him but he does know that the leadership was involved. That's not so clever.

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