Vice grip: Michelle O’Neill backed to overcome unusual challenge

Current vice-president seems likely to be re-elected to role despite John O’Dowd test

As Sinn Féin gears up for a pre-Christmas general election in the North, the party’s deputy leader is in the midst of an election contest of her own.

The party is in Derry this weekend for the Sinn Féin ardfheis, where delegates must choose between O’Neill and a challenger, former education minister John O’Dowd, as party vice-president.

O’Neill – who is also the party’s leader in the North – was elected vice-president unopposed two years ago, so the challenge to her is regarded as unusual. Unusual too has been the lack of public discourse around the contest, though those within the party play this down, stressing that this is an internal decision for party members.

A request through the party's press office to speak to O'Dowd did not receive a response. Of the few who have publicly declared a preference, all but one – the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew – is backing O'Neill, though the very fact of O'Dowd's candidacy indicates he has supporters.


O’Neill is expected to win comfortably, as she is popular with the party grass roots and elected representatives, among them Foyle MP Elisha McCallion.

“I stand full square behind Michelle O’Neill,” says McCallion. “I have found her to be an incredible leader and she’s certainly been very helpful to me in my role.”

There is also a feeling that amid the political paralysis engendered by the continuing lack of a devolved Assembly, successive Brexit deadlines and frequent elections – the general election next month is the third poll this year in Northern Ireland – O'Neill has not fully been given a chance to shine and that, with less than two years as deputy leader under her belt, it is too early for a challenge.

Sharp person

"I'd be fairly confident she'll come through [the vote] without any problems," says the MP for Mid-Ulster, Francie Molloy.

He knows O’Neill better than most. Both are from the mid-Ulster area, and O’Neill’s first job in politics was working for him. She later became a councillor and was the first female mayor of Dungannon and South Tyrone.

His first impression of her was of “a very sharp person”. From those early days, he says, he could see O’Neill was “heading for that leadership role”, adding that he jokes with her that he was the person who prepared her for it.

He cites her experience as a minister, her demeanour – “she’s friendly with people, very down to earth” – and her determination as qualities that make her popular among party members. “She has that ability to see things and make decisions and stand by those decisions.”

O'Neill says she is 'never complacent' and 'would never take the membership for granted'

As an MLA, O’Neill was minister for agriculture and then minister for health until the collapse of the Assembly in January 2017 following a row over a botched renewable heating scheme.

O’Neill took over from the late Martin McGuinness – another veteran of Mid-Ulster as a former MP for the area – as the party’s Northern leader, and she would have been the North’s deputy first minister had the Assembly been sitting.

Political flux

“I’ve absolutely no hesitation in saying that for me Michelle’s doing a good job and I don’t see any need for change,” says MLA Raymond McCartney.

For him, he explains, “it’s about the future, it’s about the long term, and I think collective leadership, a collective approach with Mary Lou [McDonald] and Michelle leading it is good for me.”

O’Neill herself says she is “never complacent” and “would never take the membership for granted”.

“I have a strong track record of leadership,” she says. “We are in a time of huge political flux right now, and the role I want to play in all of that is building our party, making sure we’re fit for purpose, we’re ready for a unity referendum.”

This is what she has put to the party’s membership. “They’ll call it,” she says.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times