Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: O'Dowd v O'Neill a tussle that highlights grassroots dissatisfaction with Sinn Fein direction

Michelle O’Neill
Michelle O’Neill
John O'Dowd
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

For decades, Sinn Fein's greatest strength has been unity in the ranks. In the pre-ceasefire days, the media regularly presented Martin McGuinness as a hawk to Gerry Adams' dove.

It was nonsense. You couldn't put a cigarette paper between them on policy issues. While senior figures in the SDLP squabbled and sniped at each other, in Sinn Fein they always sang off the same hymn sheet.

There was no equivalent of the Hume-Mallon ding-dongs. In 2011, Alasdair McDonnell defeated three rivals for the SDLP leadership. Four years later, Colum Eastwood won it from him.

Recently, Claire Hanna opposed her party's new partnership with Fianna Fail.

How the SDLP must have envied the military-like discipline that prevailed in its rival's ranks long after the IRA ceasefire.

Sinn Fein didn't do leadership contests, it had coronations. When Adams and McGuinness left the stage, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill were effectively handed their crowns.

But the days of no competition for the most senior positions in Sinn Fein are well and truly over. Regardless of whether he wins or not, John O'Dowd's deputy leadership candidacy is a milestone for the party. He has set an example that others will surely follow in coming years.

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Sinn Fein could be now on the road to doing business just like every other party - its representatives no longer shy and silent about airing their personal ambitions and views.

Splits in the Sinn Fein monolith post-Adams and McGuinness were always on the cards. But it is remarkable that they have appeared so quickly after the old guard's departure. It's just over a year since the backdrop to the ard fheis at Belfast's Waterfront Hall was lit in purple and green, the colours of the suffragettes, as the new female leadership duo took to the stage.

With a Westminster election likely around the corner, a leadership contest is the last thing Sinn Fein wants or needs. O'Dowd's candidacy reflects grassroots dissatisfaction with the party's direction, or rather the lack of it.

Under the Adams-McGuinness leadership, it was a constant upward trajectory at the polls since the 1994 ceasefire.

The Sinn Fein base has become accustomed to electoral success and is not used to setbacks. Mary Lou McDonald was meant to sweep the party into power in Leinster House, not lose half its council seats and two of its three MEPs in the Republic just a year into her leadership. The Irish presidential election was equally disastrous with the party's candidate Liadh Ni Riada managing only a 6% vote - less than half Martin McGuinness's 14% in 2011.

While McDonald is respected as a political heavyweight, O'Neill is viewed as lacking gravitas. She is not a strategist and is seen as robotic - the very characteristics that may have got her the job in the first place.

A middle-ranking Sinn Fein source said: "Michelle works very hard - you couldn't fault her on that - but she's not a leader. It's horses for courses and I'm backing John.

"He's forthright and he's got a bit of charisma and drive. We're stagnating at the minute and we need to change that."

The party insider criticised the leadership's "overwhelming focus" on identity politics. He said while he fully supported LGBTQ rights and progressive social campaigns, other more hardcore political and economic issues weren't securing the same attention.

The source did not believe O'Dowd would win. He appears to be securing support in Lurgan, Tyrone, and Border areas with O'Neill very strong in Belfast and Derry.

Some observers believe that the real target in the leadership contest is Mary Lou but that challenging the president was regarded as a step too far.

Yet her days will be numbered if Sinn Fein doesn't perform well in the next Dail elections.

A senior unionist politician - not known for his admiration of Sinn Fein - has long viewed O'Dowd as that party's most impressive operator at Stormont.

Conor Murphy was regarded as favourite to succeed McGuinness when he was passed over in favour of O'Neill. However, Murphy is viewed as "too regimental" by some observers.

Talks sources told the Belfast Telegraph that O'Neill was up for a deal with the DUP but is unable to "bring her people with her".

The Sinn Fein vice-president is the clear favourite to win in November but, despite the brave face, she will be unnerved by O'Dowd's candidacy announcement, which came as she holidayed in Portugal.

Belfast Telegraph

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