| 14.3°C Belfast

As schoolboy, Sinn Fein's Eoin Ó Broin found himself following the Troubles in Northern Ireland and trying to work out why there was so much division

  • In 1997, Ó Broin was arrested after scaling the roof of Belfast City Hall


Eoin O Broin

Eoin O Broin

Eoin O Broin

Eoin Ó Broin is not your average Sinn Féin TD. Originally from Cabinteely in south Co Dublin, Ó Broin is one of the new breed of Sinn Féin politicians looking to get his party to the holy grail of government. Just don't expect him to become taoiseach.

He was born to middle-class parents who sent him to be privately educated in Dublin's exclusive Blackrock College. He has since risen through the ranks within the party to become one of their most reliable performers.

Described as a "brain-box" by party leader Mary Lou McDonald, the 48-year-old Ó Broin represents a new generation of Irish republicans whose journey into politics has been built on activism and peaceful protest.

Before he took up elected office in both Dublin and Belfast, Ó Broin was involved in music and played at Irish rock and folk festivals where he supported Rory Gallagher in his last concert, as well as busking with Glen Hansard. It was during his short-lived music career that he dabbled in drugs.

"I was a double bass player, with dreadlocks," he smiles. Influenced by the punk movement, he says there was "a lot of hash about the place".

"A lot of hash and weed would have been smoked, and at some point I am sure there would have been a little bit of speed. I was part of that culture… it's not something I regret."

Ó Broin says he was "very lucky" to have been born into a comfortable family "and at no stage during my upbringing did we want for anything".

Daily Headlines & Evening Telegraph Newsletter

Receive today's headlines directly to your inbox every morning and evening, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

It was the mid-1980s when he took an interest in politics while attending Crown Woods Comprehensive in London after realising "the world we lived in wasn't fair". He found himself following the Troubles in Northern Ireland and trying to work out why there was so much division.

"In Dublin in the 1980s there was very little discussion about the conflict in the North, very little debate or discussion going on in schools and we never discussed it.

"Living in London I met lots of people from the North from a unionist, Protestant, nationalist, republican background which helped me to understand… and the media coverage in Britain was more open than in the South," he says.

One of Ó Broin's "motivating factors" in getting involved in Sinn Féin in 1995 when he moved to Belfast was because the ceasefire "opened up an opportunity for conflict resolution". While he says he understands why the IRA and loyalist groups got involved in violence, he believes the Troubles "should not have happened".

"There are different views on the causes of the conflict, on what conflict resolution is. I don't think you can understand any conflict without understanding the political causes of it - and that's not about justifying the violence of one group or another group."

In 1997, Ó Broin was arrested after scaling the roof of Belfast City Hall as part of a protest by Saoirse, the republican prisoners' freedom organisation. Pretending to be painters, he and others climbed on to the dome and displayed a banner which read: "Free all PoWs now."

"The RUC arrived and tried to get access to us from the windows but unfortunately the officers were heavier than the ladder's load would bear, and they had to get the fire brigade with a raised platform to get us down - it took four hours."

Months later the group tried it again, only to be intercepted by an armed response unit carrying machine guns. "The RUC thought we were loyalists planning to kill Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly [a former IRA prisoner] who was due to speak at an event later that day," he explains.


Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly

Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly

Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly

He accepts that his party's past links with the IRA are anathema to many voters, explaining that some have "very honestly and politely told me they won't vote for me because of Sinn Féin's relationship with the IRA". Even many of his former schoolmates have "found my political trajectory difficult to understand for a long period of time".

"I respect that," he says. "In a conflict, everyone believes their particular position is justified, I am not interested in those debates. When people ask me my attitude to the conflict, my answer is an honest one - it would have been much better if it had never happened.

"Peace-building, listening to others and understanding the views of others" were crucial in finding peace in the North, he says, adding that "this has yet to happen fully in the South".

"I think one of the things we need in the South is for people to try and start doing the same. That doesn't mean people have to change their views, such as those people who blame the IRA for the conflict in the North, or those people who believe the IRA were justified in what they did.

"But the politics I learned my trade in is the politics of moving beyond that, so there is never a generation of republicans or loyalists who would even think about that [a return to violence]."

In those early days, Ó Broin rode a scooter from Dublin to Belfast "where I would be going no more than 50mph". After the two-and-a-half-hour journey "you'd walk like a cowboy afterwards".

He remembers the moment he was hit by a joyrider in Belfast the night before the annual Twelfth of July celebrations and taken to hospital where "the only people admitted were people who were injured or hurt from the 11th night".

"There was me - a southerner - and a UDA lad who hurt his hand having banged the Lambeg drum all day. I was scared senseless, not speaking a word behind the curtain."

Ó Broin would go on to work with families who lost loved ones to the IRA and collaborate with unionist organisations while representing one of the most deprived wards in the North, from 2001 to 2004, a time of heightened tension in north Belfast.

Another issue for his party is trying to keep a lid on some of its supporters' inappropriate - and often highly offensive - content on social media, including that of Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley, who had to apologise last year after comparing a 1920 IRA ambush in Co Cork to the killing of British soldiers by the Provisional IRA at Narrow Water, Co Down, in 1979.


Sinn Fein TD Brian Stanley (Oireachtas TV/PA)

Sinn Fein TD Brian Stanley (Oireachtas TV/PA)

Sinn Fein TD Brian Stanley (Oireachtas TV/PA)

Ó Broin says the toxicity of social media is a problem "for all political parties" and not just his own, which has repeatedly found itself embroiled in controversy due to so-called 'Shinnerbots'.

"We have a really big problem in cyberbullying and social media needs to be regulated like publishers. I don't need Sinn Féin supporters being on social media attacking my political opponents," he says, citing the "daily abuse" that some politicians, including his colleagues, receive on Twitter and Facebook.

"Some of it is the most appalling, racist, homophobic, sexist abuse. That must be tackled and some of that comes from, by the way, people who might consider themselves supporters of Sinn Féin or other parties. We need to legislate; we need to be cleaning up our act."

He has been subjected to online death threats from Donald Trump supporters "who say the Covid restrictions are infringing on their liberties", and "terribly dull trolling from Fine Gael supporters". But says, having been warned of loyalist death threats while working as a councillor in Belfast, "I make a judgment on what I should report to gardaí".

As for Sinn Féin's political aspirations, Ó Broin says he is "open to the possibility" of a left-led government which, he says, could include Fianna Fáil given its "ideological promiscuity and the fact they have a working, middle-class base and a soft republican base".

"Could I envisage a situation with Fianna Fáil as a junior partner in a progressive, left republican-led coalition? Certainly, I would be open to negotiations around that… I would be up for sitting around the table with others." But such an arrangement, he adds, "would have to include a programme of government that we have never seen before in the history of the State".

Despite believing his party could do a better job in charge, he says he would "absolutely not" like to be taoiseach. He says he "never saw myself as an elected politician" but has made no secret of the fact he'd like to be housing minister one day, having spent his career advocating for the homeless. The royalties for his book, Home: Why Public Housing is the Answer, were donated to Inner City Helping Homeless.

"I have a vision of what we can do in that office in the right government. Beyond that, I have no ambitions to be in elected office or higher office."

The overlapping of homelessness, mental health and addiction has put "a very vulnerable group of people at greater risk of premature death", explains Ó Broin. "The support measures are not adequate; these are people who should not be dying. Senior government ministers need to spend a day with those working on the frontline."

A fan of comedy, including impressionist Oliver Callan, Ó Broin says political satire is important because politicians "should not get ideas above our station".

Politics aside, he has just finished writing his next book, Defects - Living with the Legacy of the Celtic Tiger, which will include extensive interviews with people who bought homes, including at Priory Hall. Another short book - a celebration of the building that houses Busáras - will include photographs by Brian Teeling and words by Ó Broin.

He lives with partner Lynn Boylan, a Sinn Féin senator and a "formidable politician in her own right", and admits to being "desperately romantic".

His Twitter feed outside working hours is usually awash with the couple's love of seafood and fine drink, prompting his critics to brand him a "champagne socialist". He laughs this off.

"For me, what matters in politics is not where you come from. None of us controls where we were born or where we grew up, what matters is what you do with the advantages that life may have given you.

"I don't mind what people call me, but my drinking choice is whiskey, not champagne," he says.

Top Videos