Disaffected Sinn Fein members voice grievances at meeting in Chinese restaurant
The first meeting of disaffected Sinn Fein members took a place in a Chinese restaurant in Waterford over the weekend, with between 30 and 40 people turning up to share grievances over alleged bullying and intimidation within the party.
The meeting, organised by Melissa O'Neill, a councillor who was expelled from Sinn Fein last December, has led to a confidential email hotline being set up for members.
The group also agreed to form 'support hubs' in towns around the country. The prospect of setting up a rival republican party to Sinn Fein was also not ruled out, according to Ms O'Neill.
She said it was agreed at the meeting that the identities of those who attended would be kept under wraps. They included "dozens" of like-minded members and former members who felt "disrespected" or "disenfranchised" from the party.
Further meetings of Sinn Fein dissenters are scheduled to take place in Athlone, Tipperary and Limerick ahead of the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in November.
The meetings are likely to embarrass Sinn Fein, which has faced a growing swell of criticism over its internal structures and disciplinary process, which have been slated as dictatorial and intimidating by some members.
Sinn Fein has repeatedly denied that there is a culture of bullying within the party.
However, claims of bullying have gathered momentum following a string of expulsions and resignations. Many have complained about bullying, intimidation and whispering campaigns. Others who have challenged the party's decisions have been subjected to internal disciplinary processes.
Last month alone, three Wicklow councillors were expelled from Sinn Fein after they challenged the party in a dispute over internal leadership roles.
Lisa Marie Sheehy, who at 23 was Sinn Fein's youngest councillor, also resigned from the party last month, claiming she had been "undermined, bullied and humiliated".
Melissa O'Neill said she was aware of hundreds of Sinn Fein people who are not happy with the party structures but were fearful of speaking out.
"We don't want anyone to go through what we went through," she said. "The sense of the weight of the world off their shoulders, the energy in the room of a psychological sense of relief, after being gagged for so long. The people leaving that room were different to the ones that came in. We all felt it."
Tara Reynor O'Grady, a human rights campaigner who was expelled from Sinn Fein in June, said people felt "emancipated" as a result of the meeting.
"There was a sense of encouragement, and a tremendous conviction that they were justified in their grievance," she said.