crippling  | 

Sinn Féin councillor quits due to death threats and mental health issues

'There’s no point being a dead politician’

Sinn Fein Cllr John Costelloe, who is retiring from politics for health reasons. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

David Raleigh

A SINN FÉIN councillor has opened up about his decision to resign his seat after suffering for years with crippling anxiety and depression, leaving him on the brink of suicide last January.

In a candid interview, Sinn Féin Limerick city councillor John Costelloe (57) told how an ongoing threat to his life from a local drug gang has also played a part in his decision to leave politics for good.

“There’s no point in being a dead politician, I want to be a live person, it’s up to the authorities to act on it,” the separated father-of-four said after speaking to gardaí.

Co-opted on to Limerick City Council, after Maurice Quinlivan was elected to the Dáil in 2016, Cllr Costelloe – who was a member of the IRA – had retained the party’s local seat in 2019 which he will officially resign on March 28.

He said: “Enough is enough. I gave it my all for the last six years, but I will not be going back into politics. The first week of January was the worst, it was black. I wasn’t sleeping, I was getting severe headaches, nosebleeds, anxiety, it was awful.”

Sinn Fein Cllr John Costelloe, who is retiring from politics for health reasons. (Photograph Liam Burke/Press 22)

He admitted he should have sought help for his depression sooner, but made matters worse by “ignoring it”.

"I didn't go to see my GP because I felt embarrassed by it, my mental attitude was very poor and it still is.”

Living alone exacerbated his mental anguish, he said, and triggered a previous call for help, when he “took too many painkillers” in his 30s.

“The walls start speaking to you after a while when you are living on your own; they were caving in on me, and you just come to the end of the line.

“You would be contemplating doing serious things to yourself. There were days where I was contemplating going for a long walk and not coming back, really bad days.”

The frantic pace of local politics provided some welcome distraction, but he said, in the end, his busy workload left him “burnt out”.

“The rot was setting in about three years ago. I went to a psychological counsellor and I broke down, it was all just piling up upon me, and again I ignored it, and I know now I shouldn’t have.”

Cllr Costelloe said he has “no regrets” leaving politics, and that he is looking forward to “spending more time” with loved ones.

He plans to reopen a family business premises on Nicholas Street restoring and trading in antique furniture.

However, he said more needs to be done to protect politicians’ mental health.

Working closely with people who would often be at their lowest ebb often triggered his own feelings of anxiety and depression, “and left an indelible effect on me”, he explained.

“There is no psychological training for local politicians, you are thrown in at the deep end. Some councillors might be used to dealing with wandering heifers, but I was dealing with missing people, housing, drugs, and I am not trained for that – we are councillors not counsellors.”

Intimidation against him by a local drug gang in renowned local estate St Mary’s Park is “still going on” and is so bad that he “can’t pass” a certain part of the estate “as the edginess is still down there, the threat is live”.

Local gardaí said their “superiors in Dublin” had advised that he “pull back” and allow local gardaí tackle the ongoing drugs problem.

“I brought it thus far, I can’t bring it any further. There’s no point in being a dead politician, I want to be a live person, it’s up to the authorities to act on it. Yes, you take a live threat seriously, and when you are told to step back you have to step back.

“I did my best, I raised the issues, I don’t regret it at all,” he added.

In 1998 he received a three-year suspended sentence after admitting before the Special Criminal Court to being a member of the IRA on July 23, 1996.

The court heard that during garda interviews following his arrest, Mr Costelloe admitted being “a foot soldier” in the republican movement.

Speaking for the first time about his conviction, he said he remains “proud” of his republican roots. After the Good Friday Agreement was approved in 1998, he said he supported a non-violent path to peace.

This was, he said, despite his staunchly republican parents backing an “anti-ceasefire” route to a united Ireland.

“My parents were deeply republican. My mother’s family were burnt out in the 1920s during a loyalist pogrom. My father, who worked in the cement factory in 1962, I remember him selling old republican newspapers to collect money for (IRA) prisoners in Ireland, England and America.”

Gardaí started to follow, stop and search him in his mid- teens and “I remember our house being raided several times and being stopped constantly”.

The irony of later sitting on the Council’s joint policing committee – alongside a garda who had years earlier detained him during a raid on his house – was not lost on him.

“It’s funny how the wheel turns. it was a different time then, and to find myself 30 years later, sitting alongside the same garda, was very surreal.

“My mother was tougher than my father in terms of republicanism – women are tougher I think. She had a big portrait of Countess Markievicz on the landing at home, and it’s in Mary Lou (McDonald’s) office now.”

While he said he was “not ousted” from Sinn Féin, he admits to feeling a little out of step with the party, despite its upward trajectory in the political polls.

“The (party) is attracting a new generation, more educated, adept at social media, crossing the rubicon from arms struggle to constitutional politics, which is a big step.

"My father and mother were anti-ceasefire but I was pro-ceasefire, so you can see what kind of divisions happened.”

Returning to current issues on the ground, he warned more needs to be done for disadvantaged communities that he believes have been “failed” by the multi-million euro regeneration programme, set up over a decade ago following the burning of two children in an arson attack on a car in Moyross.

“People out there are vulnerable. We’ve had the pandemic, depression is rife out there, the drugs epidemic, there is a myriad of problems and they are gong to continue,” said Mr Costelloe.

Despite it all, he remains hopeful of “a new beginning for me” and he offered advice to those suffering stress.

“If you feel anyway inclined to being in a dark place, stop and think of the consequences – I’m glad I did.”

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