O’DOWD CHALLENGE – IT’S NOT AN ORGANISED COUP – By Brian Rowan

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There is nothing inevitable about the outcome of John O’Dowd’s decision to challenge Michelle O’Neill for the position of Sinn Fein Vice President.

This is not one of those rehearsed moments when the big decision-makers inside that party have determined change and are choreographing events. 

Instead, O’Dowd has stepped outside the huddle. This is his decision.

While he confirmed Saturday’s Belfast Telegraph report that he wants to run for the post of Leas Uachtaran, he was not the source for that story. 

As I understand things, several days earlier he had informed a senior party manager of his decision and spoke subsequently with others, as well as at a local level. 

O’Dowd is a significant party figure. Elected as an MLA in Upper Bann, he was Education Minister and, for a short period in 2011, acted in the role of Deputy First Minister.

So, this is not some stalking-horse challenge, but something more significant. 

It may go nowhere – change nothing. There is no pre-determined outcome. 

What it has done, is make people sit up and think.

So, what has brought John O’Dowd to this decision; to the point where he has stepped outside that party huddle – that closed circle within which decisions are made to be rubber-stamped?

As explained to me, it is about the transition at the top of Sinn Fein; the what-next after several decades of the Adams-McGuinness leadership and what he sees as the lack of debate within the party about all of that;

So, his decision is intended to open-out a discussion about leadership and about the next stage or phase of the Irish Peace Process – a debate on the  current and latest negotiation, about the role of Stormont and about whom should lead the party there.

On the latter, his decision to challenge Michelle O’Neill is a statement from him that he believes there is a need for change; and that he is the person to lead.

Ms O’Neill has made her position clear.

After the collapse of the political institutions in January 2017, weeks later, with Michelle O’Neill now northern leader, Sinn Fein closed to within one seat of the DUP in the Assembly elections. Unionists lost their overall majority at Stormont – part of a changed and changing political landscape.

There have been several protracted negotiations since – including a draft agreement in February 2018 – but, as yet, no restoration of the Executive and Assembly.

Despite collapsing the institutions, Sinn Fein has remained in the building; acquiescing – some might argue – in the pretence of politics on Stormont’s hill. 

I am told that in internal discussions O’Dowd reminded the party that its best result was achieved when it brought the institutions down and that he has argued that Sinn Fein should have taken its leadership, party management and press office out of Stormont.

In the here and now, and on the prospects for agreement, I am told his view is that the talks have gone as far as they can go; that there are not the conditions to allow for a deal at this time.

That said, I am also told that it is his view that the outworking of the next phase of the peace process will mean power-sharing institutions with unionists – that this will be part of the transition from stalemate to resolution however long that takes.

John O’Dowd has long been viewed as one of Sinn Fein’s most capable politicians – someone often chosen to handle those difficult media moments.

He will have thought long and hard about stepping outside the huddle and the circle; and that decision will now give others something about which to think and about which to talk.

He has broken the Sinn Fein way of doing things. It is not a coup, but it is most certainly a challenge from a significant and serious figure within that party.

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About Author

Brian Rowan is a journalist, author and broadcaster. Four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Journalist-of-the-Year awards. He was BBC security editor in Belfast and now contributes regularly to the Belfast Telegraph and UTV. Rowan has reported on the major pre-ceasefire and then peace process events. He is the author of four books.

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