For Independent councillor Deirdre Donnelly the nightmare that endures to this day began in the early hours of Friday morning in autumn 2018 at a hotel in the south of the country.
riends and family say the Donnelly they knew before that night — a sociable person who liked to get out, go for walks, to the gym, to meet friends for coffee or a lunch — became introverted and is someone who rarely leaves the house. “I still don’t sleep properly over this,” Donnelly says. “I always worry that there is someone outside the door.”
That night Donnelly alleges she was sexually harassed and assaulted by a Fianna Fáil councillor at a social gathering in the hotel.
She would later be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and prescribed antidepressants. Medical reports show what happened that night exacerbated pre-existing health issues. “I have spent most of the last two years at home ill with a respiratory problem that has worsened because of the stress,” she says.
A political ally of Shane Ross when he was in cabinet, Donnelly believes she was let down by almost everyone she turned to for help, including the gardaí, who confirmed they investigated her allegation, and the DPP who concluded there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the man. Her troubling message to people who experience what she did is: “Just don’t report it and move on.”
The Sunday Independent can also reveal Donnelly told Fianna Fáil about the councillor’s alleged actions and met with Micheál Martin six weeks after the incident. While initially reluctant to file a garda complaint as Fianna Fáil advised, Donnelly hoped the party would broker an apology from the councillor and she understood from her conversation with the now Taoiseach that he would be disciplined.
But she was later told by the party that this would put the anonymity she had sought at risk. Even after she had filed a formal garda complaint in early May 2019, Fianna Fáil told her the man could not be disciplined while under investigation.
The councillor, who Fianna Fáil had known since the previous November was accused of sexual harassment and assault and also knew was the subject of a garda complaint, was allowed to stand in the local elections later that same month.
“We take all allegations such as those involved in this issue very seriously,” a party spokesperson said. “Fianna Fáil is satisfied the party dealt with this matter entirely appropriately and in an empathetic manner and we fully refute any assertion to the contrary.”
Donnelly’s recollection of that night is clear and consistent. She alleges the Fianna Fáil councillor began pestering her in the hotel bar area. Whilst she chatted politely with him at the start, she found some of what he was saying, including derogatory remarks about other people in the room, odd and offensive.
She repeatedly sought to move away but claims the man followed her around throughout the night and at one point rubbed his crotch up against her.
Later Donnelly says the man made a number of sexually suggestive remarks as she went to the hotel lift to go to her room, including asking which of their rooms they should go to. They ended up in the lift together where she says he made lewd comments about how she had been turning him on all night. She was now “terrified” and as she left the lift to get to her room as quickly as possible, she tripped, stumbled, and twisted her left knee, exacerbating pre-existing osteoarthritis.
Two of Donnelly’s friends, her two sisters and three political colleagues recall Donnelly telling them what had happened that night in the weeks and months that followed. Independent Senator Sharon Keogan, who was then a councillor and was also at the event, confirmed she made a witness statement regarding the night in question after being asked to do so by gardaí. She declined to comment further.
Medical reports compiled by doctors and specialists Donnelly saw in the weeks that followed set out a consistent retelling of her story and repeatedly record her upset, anxiety and stress. One reads: “A man who she knew vaguely was harassing her in the bar. She described how he made physical contact, she moved away but he followed.”
Her knee injury left her on crutches and within two weeks she was diagnosed with PTSD.
When approached last week and asked about his account of events, the man she accuses said: “I’ve nothing to say on it, the matter was dealt with, nothing happened, thanks for the call.” He hung up the phone and later issued a solicitor’s letter in response to written questions.
She did not immediately contact gardaí after the incident. “[I] really just wanted to get better and walk again. That was my priority,” she says.
But she did want to speak to Fianna Fáil to ensure the councillor didn’t do it again. She met with Seán Dorgan, the party’s general secretary in early November, outlined what happened, asked for anonymity, an apology and a meeting with Micheál Martin.
Dorgan told her that the seriousness of the matter warranted a garda complaint and encouraged her to do this, but he promised to help with her requests. Solicitors for Donnelly, the man and for Fianna Fáil became involved at an early stage as the party sought the apology Donnelly wanted.
Within days, Donnelly met Martin and his chief of staff Deirdre Gillane in the Fianna Fáil leader’s office in Leinster House on the evening of November 14. She recalls Martin being very critical of the man during the 40-minute discussion. “He seemed very put out about it and extremely annoyed with the individual in question, which is why I took it that something would be done,” she recalls. “My clear recollection is he would be disciplined.”
Fianna Fáil did not provide an account of this meeting on the record, but the party is understood to strongly deny that it was asked for or that it gave an undertaking to discipline the man.
Donnelly was later told by Dorgan, who had spoken to the councillor, that his version of events was different from hers. As well as telling Fianna Fáil, Donnelly was anxious to get CCTV footage from that night “to be clear in my mind did he really behave in that way”. To do this she approached gardaí in Dundrum in late November 2019 and told them what happened but she did not file a formal complaint at that stage.
Around the same time, she had lunch with Shane Ross and told him what had happened.
On November 28, two weeks after her meeting with Micheál Martin, Donnelly’s solicitor received a letter from the Fianna Fáil councillor. The man said he wished to “apologise” for the “offence that I caused you when we met recently”.
“I would like to assure you that it was not my intention to make you feel offended in the manner which you felt and I want to offer my heartfelt and unreserved apology for my actions which led you to feeling this way.”
He concluded that he was “mortified that you felt offended and hurt because of my actions”.
It was, Donnelly says, a “mealy-mouthed” apology, which made no acknowledgement of what he had done.
She told Fianna Fáil she had received the apology and the party believed the matter was now closed but by mid-January 2019, Donnelly’s health was deteriorating. Her respiratory consultant, who was treating a flare-up of her respiratory condition, known as sarcoidosis, recorded that she was “extremely anxious, tearful and [in] very low mood”, linking her state of mind to what had happened the previous autumn. He recommended she see a psychiatrist as “a matter of urgency”.
She reached out to Shane Ross, then transport minister and asked him to talk to Micheál Martin about it. Ross rang Martin and expressed concern on Donnelly’s behalf. The Fianna Fáil leader indicated to Ross that the party was handling the matter. Fianna Fáil did not respond to questions about this conversation.
Donnelly began seeing a therapist in February around the same time that she wrote an email to her solicitor, Dorgan, and Gillane about the long-term impact the incident was having on her health.
“What I want from this person is a decent apology,” she wrote, adding that when she received one she would be prepared to draw a line under the matter and move on. “His party meanwhile can take whatever measures they feel are appropriate in disciplining him.”
In the letter, Donnelly said gardaí had told her he could face a serious assault charge and that her solicitor had advised her she had a strong civil case against the man. But she said it was not her intention to do either.
Dorgan responded 10 days later, on February 25, to say: “We are very sorry to hear that you have still to get satisfactory closure with regard to this matter.”
He noted that Fianna Fáil’s position was, as was the case when they first met, that the matter should be reported to gardaí, but assured her the party was willing to “act as an intermediary in an effort to get satisfactory closure for you”, and suggesting their solicitors re-engage.
Donnelly responded, saying she would not pursue criminal or civil proceedings if she received a “proper apology”, adding: “I would then expect your party to take whatever disciplinary measures necessary against him.”
Over the following three months, Dorgan and Donnelly exchanged emails, texts and spoke on the phone. Their written exchanges were considerate, polite and cordial but their positions were intransigent.
Donnelly repeatedly inquired about disciplinary action, Dorgan repeatedly encouraged her to go to the gardaí, and while willing to help resolve the matter as much as he could, he was clear disciplinary action against the councillor would impinge on the “privacy and confidentiality” she had sought.
Efforts continued to procure an improved apology from the councillor, after which Dorgan said Fianna Fáil would “communicate” with him “on the substantive and serious issue and the very serious implications ensuing from same”.
He again asked Donnelly to request her solicitor engage with the party’s lawyers at Arthur Cox.
But as March passed into April no resolution had been reached — and it was becoming clear to Donnelly that it wouldn’t be. On May 3, as the local election campaign got underway, she made a formal garda complaint against the man.
A week later she asked Dorgan again for an update on disciplinary proceedings. Dorgan reiterated much of what he had said previously.
“At this stage, our primary and immediate focus remains on assisting you to bring satisfactory closure to this matter. Be assured of our goodwill in this regard,” he said.
Donnelly responded within half an hour. “My question is quite simple,” she wrote. “I was told disciplinary measures would be taken against him. I would like an update on that please.”
A few days later Donnelly’s solicitor contacted Arthur Cox setting out her position that she wanted Fianna Fáil to investigate the councillor she had now formally reported to the gardaí.
By this stage she had learned that the man was running for re-election when she saw him on television. “I take it then that absolutely no disciplinary measures have been taken against the individual in question and that he is still allowed to run for election on 24th May as one of your party candidates. Is this true?” she wrote to Dorgan.
On May 21, Arthur Cox responded to her solicitor setting out Fianna Fáil’s position that given its understanding that Donnelly had reported the matter to gardaí and that civil proceedings were possible, the party could not investigate. “We have advised our client that it should not, at least for now, commence a disciplinary process against Councillor [redacted].”
It was the last time Donnelly heard from Fianna Fáil or its lawyers and she did not pursue the matter further. “I took it that the gardaí were going to interview the man and we would go to court and he would be found guilty,” she says. “Fianna Fáil dragged it out and dragged it out and then said they couldn’t discipline him.”
The garda investigation continued into 2020 and a file with details of CCTV footage from the hotel, medical records, and details of a cautioned interview conducted with the councillor was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
It considered whether to prosecute the man for sexual assault, but concluded in September 2020 that there was insufficient evidence. The DPP told her it was not a question of who it believed, but rather whether it could have sufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the man was guilty. She asked for a review and to consider prosecuting the man for harassment and assault under the non-fatal offences against the person act.
In March 2021 the DPP said time had run out for a prosecution under that law and stood by its original decision.
Last summer Donnelly spoke about what happened that night in 2018 on RTÉ’s Liveline though she did not specify the man was a politician or the involvement of Fianna Fáil.
She contacted politicians to raise her broader concerns about the criminal justice system’s treatment of cases like hers — the delays, the availability of counselling records to a defendant’s legal team, and the pro forma responses of the DPP — and called for reforms.
Between February and August of 2020, as Covid-19 engulfed the nation, Donnelly attended some 50 therapy sessions, mostly over the phone, and remains in counselling to this day.
She is on numerous medications for her chronic health conditions and antidepressants.
She feels let down by everyone she turned to for help — Fianna Fáil, the justice system, and her own local authority who told her it had no duty of care policy for elected representatives. A Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Councillor confirmed this but said councillors can avail of support and counselling when required.
Earlier this summer Donnelly decided she would not run for election again.
“There’s one less woman in politics now because of this, because of what they’ve done,” she said in June.
She has since reconsidered and may run in 2024 but she wants politicians to take her calls for reforms more seriously.
Her therapist’s medical report for the garda investigation, said Donnelly’s trauma was linked to the events of that night.
Its stark conclusion reads: “In my 15 years in practice as a psychotherapist, I have seen very few clients who have presented as Deirdre has, with the level of continuous pain and distress, as I have witnessed in her. I have witnessed her cry to the point of nausea and disgust at what she experienced on the night.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/harassment-by-a-fianna-fail-councillor-left-me-sick-and-unable-to-sleep-41979518.html ‘Harassment by a Fianna Fáil councillor left me sick and unable to sleep’