By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Irish Examiner Political Reporter
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams has hauled in a sitting party TD subjected to an allegedly bullying campaign earlier this year after it emerged she has held exploratory talks about joining rival group the Independent Alliance.
The Louth TD confirmed this morning he spoke to Cork East TD Sandra McLellan "by telephone a short while ago" after the Irish Examiner revealed the embattled representative has met with Independent Alliance TD John Halligan in recent weeks about the potential move.
Speaking to reporters at the launch of his party's private members bill on rent certainty and homelessness on the Dáil plinth, Mr Adams said he was not aware of Ms McLellan's meeting until today.
However, the Sinn Féin leader said after the discussion this morning the Cork East TD - who confirmed earlier this year she will not run for the party again after she was the subject of a bullying campaign by constituency colleagues - has said "she never had any intention" of leaving the organisation.
"I spoke to her very briefly by telephone just a short while ago, and you know it is my position and I've been very clear that she should have contested the convention [to decide who should run as Sinn Fein's Cork East candidate for the upcoming general election].
"On this story, she did tell me that she was in a very brief informal conversation with [Waterford-based Independent Alliance TD] John Halligan who raised the issue of her joining this Independent Alliance, and she told me that she never had any intention of so doing," he said.
Asked whether the fact Ms McLellan met another TD to discuss joining a rival party is proof Sinn Féin has yet to adequately address the bullying allegations in Cork East, Mr Adams said:
"I haven't talked to Sandra about that specific matter today, and there clearly are difficulties in the area which are entirely local difficulties. The party has to at all levels work to ensure that there's no reoccurrence of this but, however, I'll talk to Sandra in due course.
"The main thrust of today's story is that she was approached to join this Independent Alliance, and she said to me she never had any intention of doing so."
As revealed in today's Irish Examiner, Ms McLellan held informal talks with Mr Halligan - a former TD for Sinn Fein's historic rival the Workers' Party - in recent weeks about joining the Independent Alliance after a year which has seen her face down allegations she was subjected to severe bullying by party colleagues in the constituency.
Under the Independent Alliance's rules, Oireachtas members are able to hold discussions with aspiring candidates about the general election without necessarily clearing it with their colleagues.
While Ms McLellan has declined to respond to a number of phone calls about the issue in recent days, one TD aware of the meeting said she is "cagey" and "fearful" about a potential move due to the potential implications of the step.
Ms McLellan said earlier this year she did not want to run for Sinn Féin in the upcoming general election and "risk this [bullying] for another term", despite assurances from senior party figures the matter would be resolved.
At the party's Ard Fhéis in Derry in February, she put down a motion calling for the organization to instigate a root and branch reform of its internal anti-bullying policies.
While Sinn Féin councillors Melissa Mullane and Kieran McCarthy had both expressed an interest in contesting the Sinn Féin nomination to stand in Cork East in May, on June 22 the Irish Examiner revealed that Mr McCarthy had been expelled from the party and Ms Mullane had been suspended following an internal party review led by Cork North Central TD Jonathan O Brien.
Mr McCarthy is now to contest this constituency as an independent candidate and has threatened legal action against Sinn Féin, while Ms Mullane’s suspension was lifted in September following an appeal.
Cllr Pat Buckley was selected Sinn Fein candidate at a recent party convention and, if successful, will replace Ms McLellan who was the second woman to ever win a seat in Cork East.