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Conor Murphy is the 'front-runner' to lead Sinn Féin into an upcoming Assembly election, says Brian Feeney

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill, Gerry Kelly and Conor Murphy speak to the media in the Great Hall at Stormont. Picture by Mal McCann

CONOR Murphy is the "front-runner" to lead Sinn Féin into any upcoming Assembly election, the author of a book on the party has said.

Irish News columnist Brian Feeney, the author of 'Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years,' said that Mr Murphy, an MLA for Newry and Armagh and a former executive minister, would be the favourite to lead the party into an election campaign and would also be the top pick as Deputy First Minister in a future coalition.

Asked on Monday if he would stand in the election, the outgoing Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said that question was "for another day".

While Sinn Féin have insisted that political difficulties with the DUP were responsible for his resignation, Mr McGuinness has been undergoing treatment for health problems in recent weeks and appeared extremely frail at the announcement on Monday.

The first mention of his ill health was in early December when a long standing trade trip to China along with Arlene Foster was cancelled at the last hour to allow him to receive treatment.

The party has dismissed suggestions it will avert an election by nominating a new Deputy First Minister.

On Tuesday, Sinn Féin said that election conventions to select candidates would begin this weekend.

Mr Feeney said: "Martin McGuinness won't be back again. I am pretty sure that the fact that he didn't answer the question means that he won't stand.

"I have even heard it suggested that they might bring Pearse Doherty (Donegal South West TD) in and stand him in Derry, and that Adams could come north again.

"I don't believe any of these exotic things; Pearse Doherty has spoken of having a young family, and for Adams, it would be a bit of a demotion to go from leading Sinn Féin in the Dáil to move back north."

Although health minister Michelle O'Neill has been "pushed to the forefront" in recent weeks in the party's negotiations and media performances, Mr Feeney said that the favourite would be Newry and Armagh MLA Conor Murphy.

"The front runner is Conor Murphy. People have suggested that he was moved back from Westminster to the Assembly so that he could take over," said Mr Feeney.

"Conor Murphy is the most experienced - he's been an MP, an MLA and a minister. He is not a bad media performer either."

The Irish News reported on Tuesday that sources close to the party were indicating that former Mayor of Derry Elisha McCallion is already being lined up to stand in any future assembly election in the Foyle seat currently occupied by Mr McGuinness.

Former chair of the health committee Maeve McLaughlin, who lost her seat in May's election, is also thought to have been approached to stand in any future election.

Sinn Féin did not respond to a request for comment yesterday on who will lead the party into the next Assembly election.

A spokesperson for Sinn Féin said on Monday that the decision on whether to stand again "would be for Martin McGuinness alone to make" adding that his resignation was "solely triggered" by the current political crisis.

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