Belfast Telegraph

Two women at the top could tick many boxes for Sinn Fein north and south

By Suzanne Breen

Had it been predicted at the height of the peace process that Sinn Fein would one day be led by a Dublin woman with a female Tyrone republican as her deputy, political pundits would have unanimously agreed on the likely candidates.

Lucilita Bhreatnach would have been a sure bet as the future leader, with Michelle Gildernew odds-on for the number two position.

In the late 1990s, both women were rarely off our television screens. As Sinn Fein general secretary, Bhreatnach was Gerry Adams' right-hand woman.

In the footage of Sinn Fein delegations visiting Downing Street or coming and going from the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, she is almost always by his side.

Gildernew looked like she was destined for the top table. Intelligent, articulate and with an openness and affability that too many Sinn Fein politicians lack, her qualities seemed clear.

Yet Bhreatnach has long left the big political stage, and it is former Fianna Fail-er Mary Lou McDonald who is Sinn Fein president-elect.

Gildernew, from Co Tyrone, is still there but, as an MP and not MLA, is seen as having been sidelined.

It's another Tyrone Michelle leading the party in Northern Ireland and seemingly on course to become Sinn Fein vice-president next month.

They may not have the history of the Adams-McGuinness partnership but McDonald and O'Neill complement each other. McDonald is clearly the more capable but O'Neill has the impeccable republican pedigree.

Her family was prominent in the local civil rights movement. Her late father Basil was a republican prisoner. Her cousin, Tony Doris, was one of three IRA men shot dead by the SAS in Coagh in 1991 and is immortalised in an Irish Brigade song, Ambush at the Bridge.

The shift in power in Sinn Fein towards the south is clear but still needs balanced with a deputy from this side of the border with whom the broad republican community will identify.

While nominations don't close until Monday, O'Neill is evidently the leadership's favoured candidate.

She tweeted a video announcing her candidacy hours before nominations opened.

So far no-one else has declared. O'Neill was swiftly supported by the late Martin McGuinness's son Fiachra. She was also backed by Sinn Fein's North Belfast Westminster candidate John Finucane and by Belfast Sinn Fein, but most of the party's politicians and cumann have so far not publicly shown their hand.

Were one of her senior Stormont colleagues to step forward and challenge her, it would allay suspicions that the party's entire "process of generational change" isn't entirely stage-managed.

No contest for both the top jobs would seem unnatural in a huge party with such an array of elected representatives. Two coronations would sit uneasily in any republican organisation.

O'Neill has a reputation as a real grafter and someone who will always toe the party line. She worked ferociously in two unglamorous ministries - health and agriculture.

She is not viewed as a party strategist. Conor Murphy is the Shinner most highly rated by political opponents here in that regard.

While O'Neill's media performances have so far been competent, she doesn't have the punch or gravitas of the likes of John O'Dowd who impressed so many with his handling of the Kingsmill video controversy recently.

But O'Neill's age and gender appeal to the younger voters that Sinn Fein desperately doesn't want to migrate to People Before Profit.

Like McDonald, she is fiercely loyal to Gerry Adams. It's a family tradition. Her uncle Paul Doris, a former Noraid national president, has previously criticised Press negativity towards Mr Adams who would "go down in history as one of the great ones", he said.

Unionists are familiar with Mary Lou mainly from her media performances as they have had few personal dealings with her.

The Sinn Fein president-elect has been at a few Stormont talks' meetings but her lack of active involvement in the process means that until now she hasn't been viewed as a key player.

Her hands-on experience in Northern Ireland is extremely limited.

The ascendancy of two women in Sinn Fein reflects increasing equality in nationalist politics.

In the SDLP, two of its three most senior figures are women - deputy leader Nichola Mallon and South Belfast MLA Claire Hanna. Although the DUP has a woman leader, only one of the party's 10 MPs, Emma Little Pengelly, and a fifth of its MLAs are female. The UUP fares even worse, with only one woman, Rosemary Barton, in its 10-strong Stormont team.

The onus is surely now on the two unionist parties to up their game on gender equality.

Belfast Telegraph

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