Northern Ireland news

Sinn Fein 'shut down internal debate' over John O'Dowd challenge to Michelle O'Neill

John O'Dowd is challenging Michelle O'Neill for the post of Sinn Féin vice-president. Picture by David Young/PA Wire

SINN Féin is understood to have moved to shut down internal debate around John O'Dowd's challenge to Michelle O'Neill as deputy leader.

The former Stormont education minister, who announced in August that he would contest the vice-presidency at next month's ard fheis in Derry, is not expected to make his case at hustings events or through the media.

The Irish News also believes that a veteran republican and senior party member has sought to quell internal debate by instructing elected representatives not to talk about the Upper Bann MLA's challenge to the current northern leader.

Mr O'Dowd is the first Sinn Féin figure in decades to publicly contest a leadership position.

When he announced his bid, which was welcomed at the time by Ms O'Neill, he signalled that he would take soundings from party colleagues before speaking to the media.

However, the Upper Bann MLA has gone to ground over the past six weeks, making no television or radio appearances.

Commentator Chris Donnelly said he has been "notable by his absence".

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"John O'Dowd is one of SF's most articulate and effective representatives yet since he announced his challenge against the deputy leader he has been not been put forward to speak to the media – that doesn’t augur well," he said.

"Given the challenges facing the party in the time ahead, SF can not afford to marginalise one of its best communicators."

Michelle O'Neill faces a challenge to her deputy leadership from John O'Dowd. Picture by Hugh Russell

A fortnight after Mr O'Dowd revealed his challenge, Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew voiced support for the former education minister.

However, neither Mr O'Dowd nor Ms Gildernew were last night available for comment.

A Sinn Féin spokesman defended the decision not to hold hustings events.

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

"The ard chomhairle has adopted the same process in respect of the contested position at last year's ard fheis," he said.

"With almost 400 cumainn and 60 comhairlí ceantair across the island it was deemed impractical to organise hustings for the position of Leas Uachtarán, however all candidates will be afforded the opportunity to distribute material to all party structures and to speak with all ard fheis delegates."

Mr O'Dowd, who in 2011 stood in as deputy first minister when Martin McGuinness ran in the Irish presidential election, announced his plan to contest the deputy leader's position on Twitter.

"I look forward to the debate across the party and island," he said at the time.

In a Sinn Féin statement responding to his announcement, Ms O’Neill said: "Sinn Féin is a democratic party and I welcome democratic debate and choice within the party."

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