Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: No more united front within Sinn Fein... but that's no bad thing

Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd (Brian Lawless/PA)
Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd (Brian Lawless/PA)
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew on TV saying that John O'Dowd would make a better Sinn Fein vice-president than Michelle O'Neill.

Her South Down colleague Chris Hazzard appearing on the very same programme supporting the incumbent.

Mid-Ulster MP Francie Molloy on Radio Ulster the next day expressing his disappointment at both O'Dowd's challenge and Gildernew's support for it.

Just a year after Gerry Adams stepped down as Sinn Fein president, the iron discipline that characterised the party is breaking down. The united front that its rivals so envied is no more.

Gildernew is the first heavy-hitter to join O'Dowd's corner. He is the choice of many in Fermanagh, parts of Tyrone, and chunks of Sinn Fein's rural base.

"I think John has the skill set that potentially we need coming into this next phase of the struggle for Irish freedom," Gildernew told BBC's The View. "There have been some disappointments across the island from electoral terms. We don't want our party membership to think we are taking them for granted." Ouch.

As the programme was being aired, the two Michelles were at the same GAA awards night in an Armagh hotel. The atmosphere was described as "a little frosty" when Gildernew approached O'Neill.

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The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP's stance shouldn't surprise anybody. Despite being one of Sinn Fein's most natural and likeable performers, she was sidelined by the leadership pre-O'Neill.

An incident just weeks after the Mid-Ulster MLA took over from Martin McGuinness at Stormont was revealing.

Gildernew was overheard telling party supporters at an Enniskillen meeting that O'Neill would "put manners on Arlene Foster". The Sinn Fein vice-president described that language as inappropriate and said she had "spoken to Michelle". It was a very public slapping down.

Most senior Sinn Fein elected representatives, who have revealed their hand in the deputy leadership race, are supporting O'Neill. Martina Anderson and Elisha McCallion are passionate backers along with Gerry Kelly and Caral Ni Chuilin.

O'Neill has a right to feel aggrieved at the challenge to her position when Adams and McGuinness survived so long without rivals.

Sinn Fein's performance in the council and EU elections on this side of the border wasn't fantastic, but it wasn't the disaster that it was down south.

Francie Molloy sounded nostalgic for the days where the top positions were uncontested. "There will be very little that will go unchallenged in the future," he said.

That's no bad thing.

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