Northern Ireland news

Michelle Gildernew backs John O'Dowd in Sinn Féin leadership challenge

Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O'Neill and Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew. Picture by Mal McCann.
Paul Ainsworth

MICHELLE Gildernew has revealed she is backing John O'Dowd to become Sinn Féin vice president.

The MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone said the Upper Bann MLA had the "skill-set" required to replace Michelle O'Neill as the party's vice president, a position she has held since 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness stepped down from the role due to ill-health.

At the time of her appointment Ms O'Neill was the only candidate to stand.

Mr O'Dowd, a former Stormont education minister, confirmed reports last week he was going to challenge Ms O'Neill for the position at the party's ard fheis in November.

Speaking of his leadership challenge, Mr O'Dowd said: "I look forward to the debate across the party and island."

Reacting to the news of Mr O'Dowd's challenge, Ms O'Neill described him as a "comrade".

Read More: Silence of senior Sinn Féin figures on John O'Dowd challenge 'signficant'

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

Upper Bann Sinn Féin MLA John O'Dowd is challenging Michelle O'Neill for the position of party Vice President.

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."

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

Chris Donnelly: John O'Dowd is challenging Sinn Féin's modus operandi

In an interview on BBC NI's The View, Ms Gildernew, who held the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat from 2001 to 2015 before regaining it from the UUP's Tom Elliott in 2017, said that after recent elections it was now time to ask questions about the party leadership.

"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."

Regarding her backing for John O'Dowd 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."

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