O’Dowd’s ‘audacious’ challenge will falter if SF party machine backs O’Neill

John O'Dowd MLA of Sinn Fein
John O'Dowd MLA of Sinn Fein

John O’Dowd openly challenging Michelle O’Neill for the post of Sinn Fein vice-president has been decribed as “unprecendented” by a former Sinn Fein politician.

Peadar Toibin said it is not yet clear if the “party machine” supports a sudden change in direction, and is backing Mr O’Dowd, but believes the challenge will be snuffed out if Mrs O’Neill retains the confidence of party’s national executive.

Sinn F�in vice president Michelle O'Neill has said 'there's nothing to see here' ' but fresh questions keep emerging

Sinn F�in vice president Michelle O'Neill has said 'there's nothing to see here' ' but fresh questions keep emerging

On Saturday, former Stormont education minister Mr O’Dowd signalled his ambition to replace Mid-Ulster MLA Mrs O’Neill in the senior leadership role.

Wihin hours, Mrs O’Neill confirmed that she would be seeking re-election to the vice presidency, and said: “I welcome democratic debate and choice within the party.”

Mr Toibin resigned from Sinn Fein in 2018 over its support for a more liberal abortion policy, forming the new Aontú party. He now sits as an independent TD for Meath West.

He said: “This is unprecedented in Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein is a very centralised organisation. Decisions are made by a small number of people at the very top of the party and then the decision are given to the rest of the members who normally accept the decisions.

“Obviously with the retirement of Gerry Adams there has been a change politically within the party. Gerry had a political gravity which kind of held all the different wings of Sinn Fein together.

“Gerry had the ability to hold those different wings together and that has changed with the new leadership of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill.”

Mr Toibin said the change has brought electoral setbacks.

“The change from [Irish] unity and economic justice towards the identity politics has brought electoral setbacks. They lost half of their councillors in the south of Ireland in the last election, and two thirds of their MEPs, and we know there is serious dissatisfaction within Sinn Fein.”

Speaking on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster on Monday, Mr Toibin added: “My own instinct is, that the machinery of the party will be used to maintain the status quo, and that John’s challenge will be unsuccessful. It remains to be seen...is this a managed change of direction within the party, or is this a solo run?

“He will have an uphill struggle working against the party machine, no matter how well thought of he is around the country.”

Asked if he believed a change in culture, where Sinn Fein members could openly challenge for leadership positions, could been seen as positive, Mr Toibin said: “I think so. The biggest weakness of Sinn Fein is how centralised it is.”

• Irish News political correspondent John Manley has described Mr O’Dowd’s bid to replace Michelle O’Neill as “audacious,”

He said that if it fails, “it could lead to ostracisation by colleagues and ultimately signal the end of his political career”.

However, he describes current vice-president’s performance so far as “underwhelming and far from inspirational”.

Commentator Chris Donnelly said the decision “will have sent shockwaves through Sinn Fein,” and added: “Openly challenging an incumbent figure in this manner is not the done thing within the party.”

Irish News columnist Brian Feeney said: “In many ways this is a necessary step that Sinn Fein needs to take if it wants to be seen as a modern party – the culture of appointments and coronations should be left behind.”