Former Stormont education minister and Upper Bann Assembly member John O’Dowd has said he is to run for the party’s deputy leader’s job. The post is currently held by Mid-Ulster Assembly member and former Six County Agricuture and Health Minister Michelle O’Neill.
He confirmed the plan to trigger an unprecedented contest for a Sinn Féin leadership position in a tweet.
“I can confirm I will be seeking nominations for leas uachtarán [vice president] of Sinn Féin as we approach the ard fheis [annual conference] and the annual election of party leadership,” he wrote. “I look forward to the debate across the party and island.”
If he wins the nomination he would take the position of deputy first minister in a future Stormont executive.
It is the first time in decades a top Sinn Féin leadership figure has faced a contest. The party did not say if Mr O’Dowd had received the approval of the party’s officer board which is responsible for managing the party between annual conferences.
The unusual development may stem from successive electoral disappointments. Sinn Féin’s transition from traditional left republicanism to centre-left populist progressivism, although partially reversed, generated significant dissonance. Ms O’Neill is closely identified with the backroom leadership and its decision to rebrand the party.
Commentators suggested the Tyrone woman might be sacrificed in an effort to steady the ship despite the party largely maintaining its vote share in the North in this year’s elections. But in the context of Brexit, the growing demand for Irish reunification and the entrance into the political arena of Aontú and Fianna Fáil, there have been calls for a return to more traditional ‘green’ republicanism.
“I am more than happy for John to put his name forward,” Ms O’Neill said. “I have spoken to him about it. We are comrades, we will be comrades through the election campaign and afterwards.
“Ultimately, the party membership will decide. I too will go forward and seek the endorsement of the party and refresh my mandate which they gave me at the last Ard Fheis. This is the nature of politics. It’s open, it’s democratic, it’s the nature of the party.”
Ms O’Neill was given her first leadership position by the party in 2017 when she took over from Martin McGuinness who stepped down due to illness, when she was announced as Sinn Féin’s new ‘leader in the North’. Alongside Mary Lou McDonald, who replaced the retiring Gerry Adams as party leader in an unopposed transition, she became the face of ‘New Sinn Féin’.
Mr O’Dowd briefly took on the duties of deputy First Minister in 2011 while Martin McGuinness ran in the 2011 Irish presidential election.
Born in Banbridge, County Down, his political career began at Craigavon Borough Council where he led the Sinn Féin group. Described as a “safe pair of hands” with good communicaton skills, his rise within the party was rapid. In 2003, he became an Assembly member for Upper Bann and he went on to become education minister in 2011.
Political commentator Brian Feeney said it was important that Sinn Féin held an open contest that demonstrated it was democratic party. For decades the party has been quietly managed through a system of patronage.
“In many ways this is a necessary step that Sinn Féin needs to take if it wants to be seen as a modern party – the culture of appointments and coronations should be left behind,” Mr Feeney said.
“This should be a template for all future leadership elections, otherwise people will look askance at them.”
In a related development, Sinn Féin has played down a large bequest from a retired English mechanic. William E Hampton, who had no known links to the party or Irish republicanism. He died last year in Pembrokeshire in Wales, where he was living in a nursing home.
Ms O’Neill said she welcomed the support in helping “lead the challenge towards a new and agreed Ireland”. She said she “didn’t know Billy personally”, adding: “I understand that it is a juicy story but I mean there’s nothing to see here.”
Dismissing any concerns over the donation, she said: “In terms of financial rules, complying, all those things, we’re fully comfortable and relaxed about all of that. We have complied and did our due diligence on all of those things.”