Belfast Telegraph

Francie Molloy fears John O’Dowd leadership challenge may fracture party

Michelle O'Neill and Francie Molloy
Michelle O'Neill and Francie Molloy

By Our Political Staff

A veteran Sinn Fein figure has voiced disappointment that former Stormont Minister John O'Dowd is challenging Michelle O'Neill for the party's vice-presidency.

Mid-Ulster MP Francie Molloy also said he was 'surprised' that his party colleague Michelle Gildernew had endorsed Mr O'Dowd's move.

Mr O'Dowd, an MLA for Upper Bann, told the Belfast Telegraph last month that he would contest the position at the party's annual conference in November.

On Thursday, Michelle Gildernew was the first senior figure to voice her support for Mr O'Dowd.

A number of party members have come out in support of Ms O'Neill.

Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme yesterday, Mr Molloy felt it was 'the wrong time' for such a leadership challenge to be made.

"I'm disappointed that people have put in a challenge at this particular time, before the new leadership had had the opportunity to develop and come at the process and to start delivering," he said.

"In Sinn Fein, leadership comes from the Ard Comhairle, and both Michelle and John O'Dowd are on the Ard Comhairle - that's where the decisions are made.

"The president and the vice-president both take their directions from the Ard Comhairle, so the leadership has to come from the base, and the membership."

Mr O'Dowd's challenge to Ms O'Neill's position received a boost this week when Ms Gildernew, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP, said she would be backing his bid for the vice-presidency.

Asked about Mr O'Dowd's reasons for mounting his challenge, Mr Molloy said: "I haven't heard anything different between what Michelle Gildernew and John O'Dowd are saying and what Michelle O'Neill is saying."

But Mr Molloy added: "I think if you are challenging, you actually have to set out what's different, what way you would do things differently to what the present leadership is doing."

The Tyrone MP spoke of his surprise at Ms Gildernew's endorsement of Mr O'Dowd.

"I'm disappointed, when we're trying to promote young women in the party, disappointed that that support is not there from Michelle Gildernew to Michelle O'Neill," he added.

And while recognising Mr O'Dowd's talents and service to the party, Mr Molloy told the Inside Politics programme that "a decision has been made in putting Michelle O'Neill into position as the vice-president, and I think that needs time to develop.

"The leadership of the Assembly group is what Michelle's prime objective is, and the leadership she has given there -through negotiations, making the deal last February that the DUP rejected, and going again to try to get an agreement to bring back (the Assembly). I think that's all good, and I think it's wrong to change the leadership at this particular time."

Mr Molloy believed the unprecedented contest could usher in a new era of internal challenges and factionalism in the party - in contrast to what he called the 'steady leadership' of Gerry Adams over three decades.

"I think that once you open up the whole issue of challenges, then other people will actually get the idea as well, and will follow on," he continued.

"We're into that type of structure within the party, that there will be challenges for positions - there will be very little that will go unchallenged in the future, as the party is changing," Mr Molloy added.

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