Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein: Michelle O'Neill sees off John O'Dowd challenge to keep vice-president position

Michelle O'Neill after she survived a challenge to her position as the vice president of Sinn Fein at the Millenium Forum in Londonderry. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Michelle O'Neill after she survived a challenge to her position as the vice president of Sinn Fein at the Millenium Forum in Londonderry. Brian Lawless/PA Wire

By Eimear McGovern

Michelle O'Neill has been re-elected as the vice-president of Sinn Fein following a leadership contest at her party's Ard Fheis.

Several party members claimed earlier this week she was expected to "resoundingly win" the leadership contest despite being challenged by Upper Bann MLA John O'Dowd.

He tweeted his congratulations to Mrs O'Neill and thanked those who supported him.

Former Stormont education minister Mr O'Dowd signalled his ambition to replace Ms O'Neill in the senior leadership role in August.

In a party known for long-serving leaders, there was surprise at Mr O'Dowd's challenge as Mrs O'Neill was championed by ex-party president Gerry Adams and her predecessor Martin McGuinness, who died in 2017.

Speaking at the ard fheis on Saturday in Londonderry's Millennium Forum, Mrs O'Neill thanked delegates who voted for her. The exact details of the vote have not been made public.

Party delegates attending the ard fheis in Londonderry on Friday and Saturday cast their ballots over the two days, with the winner announced on Saturday evening.

"The contest was conducted in a very comradely way across the party where John O’Dowd and I campaigned internally and put forward our platform and vision to the Sinn Féin membership.

"John is a longstanding republican and a highly regarded colleague and I very much value his political contribution and friendship.

"We are both committed to advancing our party, so that we are fit for purpose as a political movement now and in the future.

"Working alongside Mary Lou McDonald and our senior team I want to maximise the positive growth and development of the party across Ireland."

Ms O'Neill became vice president in January 2018 when her predecessor, Mary Lou McDonald, succeeded the retiring Gerry Adams as president.

A year earlier, Mrs O'Neill was appointed the party's Stormont leader after the late Martin McGuinness stood down on health grounds.

The Times reported that Sinn Fein's popularity has "waned" since Mary Lou McDonald took over as leader without contest in February 2018.

This includes losing two of its three European Parliament seats and 78 council seats in the Republic. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein's vote share dropped by almost 1% in May's council elections and over 3% in the European election.

Speaking earlier on Saturday, Mrs O'Neill said the foundations of a new Ireland are already being laid.

"It is no longer a question of if – it’s a question of when the referendum on Irish unity will be held.

"For many people from all traditions and backgrounds Irish unity is seen as the best way to stay within the EU.

"Many of those of a British or unionist identity are now considering the merits of reunification - not to become republicans, but to remain European.

She added: "A referendum on Irish Unity is coming and that the foundations of a New Ireland are being laid.

"An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar continues to ignore this reality. Leo, you need to catch up - Because the people and society are miles ahead of you. You said that northern nationalists would not be left behind. It seems they are leaving you behind.

"Unifying Ireland through peaceful means isn’t a new idea, but it’s the big idea of our time and more and more people are coming to that conclusion.

"We are entering a decade of opportunity where the freedom to choose our own future will be decided by the people on this island alone.

"It is time to unite all of the people who share this island - seizing what is the opportunity of a lifetime."

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