The Sinn Fein figures who quit over the Daithi McKay scandal “broke the mould” by showing a degree of independent thinking, one MLA has claimed.
Sinn Fein is known for its intense discipline, with public splits and disagreements being a rare occurrence.
Robin Swann, UUP MLA for North Antrim, said the resignations of a serving councillor and 17 others were a sign of an “unprecedented” split in Sinn Fein within that constituency.
The move (announced in a statement to the Ballymena Guardian) was sparked by the republicans’ discontent about the treatment meted out to Daithi McKay.
Mr McKay had resigned within hours of news emerging this month that he had helped to set up a secret line of communication via the internet to Jamie Bryson – a loyalist activist who was due to give evidence at a hearing chaired by Mr McKay.
The secret messages show Mr Bryson was guided in what to say in the witness seat.
Some, like the TUV’s Jim Allister, had voiced incredulity at Sinn Fein’s claims that Mr McKay (and another party member called Thomas O’Hara) had acted purely by themselves when they communicated with Mr Bryson.
Mervyn Storey, DUP MLA for the area, said the resignations are a possible sign that even Sinn Fein members themselves do not believe such claims.
North Antrim MLA Mr Swann told the News Letter that the resignations have “broken the mould” of the party’s traditional discipline.
“We’ve seen other councillors resign from Sinn Fein, but not to the extent that they take 17 or 18 party activists with them, including former councillors as well,” he said.
“The hurt they must be feeling from the party hierarchy must have been significant for them to take those sort of actions...
“It’s bound to be a big blow to the Sinn Fein machine in North Antrim to lose that many activists.”
He added: “In North Antrim, it’s broken the mould and the activists and political reps in North Antrim have shown that freedom of thought that hasn’t been evident elsewhere in Sinn Fein.”
He said that he imagines the party had between 30 and 40 dedicated activists who would help canvass during elections – although the party indicated that the figure is likely to be higher.
Mr Swann added: “In the past, when we’ve seen resignations from Sinn Fein, it’s usually those from the more distant, extreme wings of the party – whereas actually Paul Maguire and Monica Digney were actually more interested in trying to build relationships with people in Mid and East Antrim [council area] and North Antrim.
“They were more sort of moderate-style.”
The DUP’s Mervyn Storey said: “This is entirely a matter for Sinn Fein, however it does show that there are members who perhaps don’t buy into the explanation that Mr McKay acted alone. They are clearly unhappy with the way in which he was used as a ‘scapegoat’.
“Sinn Fein has indeed been caught on the hook where this is concerned.
“These resignations prove that investigations by the Assembly Standards Commissioner and the Police must take place, as pressure on Sinn Fein is now coming from within the party.”