Belfast Telegraph

No difference between O'Dowd and O'Neill: Sinn Fein MP says not time for 'disruptive' leadership challenge

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill and Francie Molloy
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill and Francie Molloy
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

A Sinn Fein MP has voiced his unease at John O'Dowd's bid to oust Michelle O'Neill as the party's leader in Northern Ireland saying it was the wrong time for a challenge.

Francie Molloy said it was disappointing to hear Michelle Gildernew come out in support of the Upper Bann MLA challenger.

"Particularly at a time we are trying to promote young women within the party," he told the BBC Inside Politics.

"When we have that personality there - that young person - that drive and enthusiasm that can develop the party at this present time."

The Mid-Ulster MP said there had to be a difference in approach offered which he did not see coming from Mr O'Dowd.

In a revealing interview Mr Molloy also voiced concern the move could open the floodgates to further contests through the ranks of the party. While before Gerry Adams was the leader "and that was it".

An open leadership contest, the veteran politician claimed, could be viewed as "disruptive".

John O'Dowd exclusively revealed in the Belfast Telegraph he would contest the position at the party's ard fheis in November.

A number of party members have come out in support of Ms O'Neill. And on Thursday Michelle Gildernew was the first senior figure to voice her support for Mr O'Dowd.

Francie Molloy said Michellle O'Neill needed an "opportunity to develop and to come at the process and start delivering".

"With the Assembly not up and running obviously those opportunities weren't there."

There has been speculation Mr O'Dowd's decision to run is a sign of discontent among the grassroots of the party at the direction of the current leadership. Mr Molloy said ultimately the party was governed by its membership.

"We are all really saying the same thing. Which is good for the leadership of the party.

"When you are challenging you have to set out what's different to the current leadership.

"John is a very skillful person and good in putting the case for Sinn Fein. I see him as a comrade.

"I think decisions have been made in terms of a leadership and putting Michelle O'Neill into a position of the [vice president] and that needs time to develop."

He said Ms O'Neill has shown her leadership credentials through last year's collapsed deal to restore Stormont and in her efforts to broker a deal with the DUP since.

"I think that is all good," he said.

"I think it is wrong to change the leadership at this particular time when we are in process of getting the Assembly up and running."

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald dismissed a suggestion an open leadership debate was out of the normal for the party. Ms O'Neill welcomed the challenge while Mr O'Dowd has yet to set out his stall on his bid.

However, Mr Molloy admitted it was a change in how it had operated in the past. He admitted that in the past the leadership of the party - after Gerry Adams - was not always clear.

"Obviously Gerry was there for 30 years. That will probably not happen again in the same way," he said.

"Very often you did not know who the vice president was in any sort of public domain.

"Gerry Adams was president and that was it.

"Some would say it is a change in the party and some would say its good, others would question it and that it can be disruptive.

"You need leadership in place to implement policies and strategies."

He added: "Once you open up the issue of challenges others will get the idea. I think we are in that type of structure now there will be challenges for positions.

"There will be very little that will go unchallenged.

"The steady leadership we had with Gerry Adams for 30 years was very important for the difficult times we were going through.

"I think equally we are in difficult times. We are trying to get the Assembly up and running, drive politics forward, Brexit is a major issue.

"It is just the wrong time."

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