Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin leadership: Gildernew backs O’Dowd's bid

Michelle Gildernew (right) with Michelle O'Neill when she won the Fermanagh South Tyrone Westminster seat in 2017 Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Michelle Gildernew (right) with Michelle O'Neill when she won the Fermanagh South Tyrone Westminster seat in 2017

The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP, Michelle Gildernew, has said she is backing John O'Dowd to become Sinn Féin vice president.

The MP told the BBC that the challenge is "a healthy thing" and said she believed Mr O'Dowd had "the skill-set that potentially we need".

Mr O'Dowd is to challenge Michelle O'Neill's position as vice president.

In August, he said he would be seeking nominations ahead of the party's annual election for leadership roles.

This will take place in November at the party's ard fheis (annual conference).

Speaking to BBC One Northern Ireland's The View, Ms Gildernew said a debate in the party would also show that the leadership was not taking grassroots supporters "for granted".

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Michelle O'Neill and John O'Dowd were both ministers in the Stormont executive

Ms Gildernew, a former Stormont minister, is the most high-profile person to back Mr O'Dowd's leadership challenge.

His bid to be vice president caught many observers by surprise last month.

It was first reported by the Belfast Telegraph and then confirmed on his Twitter account.

After Mr O'Dowd confirmed his decision to stand, Ms O'Neill took to Twitter to confirm she would fight to retain her position.

She also said she welcomed "debate and choice" within Sinn Féin.

Ms Gildernew has told the BBC that after recent elections it is now time to ask questions about the party leadership.

She said: "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.

"This has given them an opportunity to have a debate in the leadership of the party and that can only be a healthy thing."

Ms O'Neill works alongside Dublin TD Mary Lou McDonald who is party president.

Mr O'Dowd, who has so far declined to give any interviews about his leadership bid, was once education minister and briefly served as acting deputy first minister.

'No disrespect to Michelle'

Ms Gildernew said she believes Mr O'Dowd has the right qualities to become Sinn Féin's number two.

She said: "I think John has the skill-set that potentially we need coming into this next phase of the struggle for Irish freedom and bringing about an Ireland of equals.

"That is no disrespect at all to Michelle who I have worked with really well and have an awful lot of time for.

"I just think John has potential. I think the fact we are having this competition is healthy."

'John is my comrade'

Speaking at a party event on Wednesday close to the border, Ms O'Neill said she intended to fight the challenge from Mr O'Dowd and said it was an internal party matter.

She said: "John is my comrade. John is perfectly entitled to challenge, perfectly entitled put his name forward.

"It is not an issue of being hurt or offended or any of that - this is politics."

She also told journalists she was "acutely aware" of the need to "respect our membership".

"Our membership will decide the future of leadership of this party and that is where it sits," she added.

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Image caption Michelle O'Neill took over from a terminally ill Martin McGuinness in January 2017

Ms O'Neill was chosen to succeed Martin McGuinness in 2017 and, last year, she was unopposed as vice president.

Some in the party now think she should have been challenged 12 months ago.

Ms Gildernew told the BBC: "I think people felt, last year, that it all happened very quickly and we did not get the opportunity to discuss it and this has given us this opportunity now.

"I think people, just, in general feel that the party is more democratised that we have the opportunity to have those discussions internally."

A number of Sinn Féin MLAs and MPs have already supported Ms O 'Neill's leadership in recent weeks including the Foyle MP, Elisha McCallion, and Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy.

You can watch this episode of The View on Thursday 12 September at 22:35 BST on BBC One NI.

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