Mystery over Michelle Gildernew's demise and future

A re-run selection convention in Fermanagh-South Tyrone has seen former MP Michelle Gildernew cast out into the cold. Political Correspondent John Manley tries to make sense of a Sinn Féin PR disaster

Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew is said to be disappointed at her deselection. Picture by Justin Kernoghan.
Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew is said to be disappointed at her deselection. Picture by Justin Kernoghan. Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew is said to be disappointed at her deselection. Picture by Justin Kernoghan.

She is a popular, personable ex-MP who was once also part of Sinn Féin's ministerial team but now Michelle Gildernew's political future is in significant doubt.

If that is the case, it will not reflect kindly on the party, who on Sunday night selected three Fermanagh-based men to contest an assembly seat that extends far beyond the lakeland county.

For a party that actively promotes gender equality, the move is particularly bad for the optics.

Ms Gildernew was unavailable for comment yesterday but is understood to be deeply disappointed by the outcome of the latest selection convention, though on social media she was doing her best to appear upbeat.

"I've been blown away by all the messages; don't be worrying about me; could be a blessing in disguise!" she tweeted.

Hours earlier, the former MLA had used social media to dismiss speculation that she would switch constituencies, taking the place of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness as he moves from Mid Ulster to contest his home seat of Foyle.

She insisted Mid Ulster had "excellent candidates" and that her heart was in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

Her mood yesterday no doubt contrasted with the days running up to Christmas when the former agriculture minister was selected to contest May's assembly election alongside sitting MLA Sean Lynch and Councillor John Feeley.

That convention saw the surprise deselection of Phil Flanagan, who is among Sinn Féin's most high-profile assembly members but also one of its most controversial.

An ardent Twitter user, Mr Flanagan has been censured over his social media use on a number of occasions.

Last month he was successfully sued by Fermanagh-South Tyrone MP Tom Elliott for over comments in a tweet.

It was widely believed that with December's selection convention Mr Flanagan had paid the price for his indiscretions. However, Sinn Féin's Ard Chomhairle ordered that the vote be rerun.

Second time around, Ms Gildernew lost out, with Mr Flanagan taking her place as one of the three candidates in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

Sunday night's convention also saw party activists reject sitting MLA Browyn McGahan, who having previously announced she was stepping down from the assembly, threw her hat into the ring again.

Sinn Féin's explanation for the turnaround that saw not one but two female candidates defeated is that it was simply democracy at work and that delegates changed their minds.

Many greet this line with scepticism and instead speculate as what Ms Gildernew, herself a member of the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle, could have done to upset the party leadership. It's unlikely we will ever know the full story.

Whatever the motivations, from the outside it appears to be a bad move electorally.

The former MP and her family have strong republican credentials and could be described as 'Sinn Féin royalty' in Co Tyrone.

Her profile and personality are in contrast to the largely unknown Councillor Feeley and the all-but invisible Sean Lynch.

The geographic clustering of the three male candidates is also sure to create difficulties for Sinn Féin's vote management in an expansive rural constituency.

And what now for Michelle Gildernew? Sinn Féin HQ last night described her as a "highly respected and valued member of our party".

"She continues to work for Sinn Féin in a senior capacity and brings more than 25 years of experience, activism and commitment to her role," a statement said, but didn't elaborate on the options open to the former Stormont minister.

Though as blogger Fitzjames Horse quipped: "...she could always take a seat in the House of Lords".