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Suzanne Breen: Exiled John O’Dowd is one blip on horizon for an invigorated and upbeat party

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John O’Dowd was sitting up in the gods at the Millennium Forum as Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald embraced on the stage below at the end of the Sinn Fein ard fheis.

The image seemed to be speak 1,000 words. The man who laid down a bold, unexpected challenge to his party’s leadership – and lost – had been banished to political Siberia.

He clapped at all the right places during Ms McDonald’s presidential address but, from a distance anyway, his heart didn’t seem to be in it.

And who could blame him? O’Dowd launched his vice-presidential bid just over two months ago saying he looked forward “to the debate across the party and island”.

It never happened. There were no hustings, no TV studio head-to-heads, and the initial social media discussion between Sinn Fein members after O’Dowd’s declaration was shut down swiftly.

Here’s the irony. The number, energy, enthusiasm and age-profile of the delegates at this weekend’s ard fheis make Sinn Fein the envy of every political party on this side of the border.

I’ve been at SDLP, Ulster Unionist, Alliance and DUP conferences, and they’re not in the same league as Sinn Fein.

But the veil of secrecy behind which the party still operates detracts from all those positives.

We were told at the ard fheis – twice actually – that O’Neill had beaten O’Dowd – but we weren’t told the margin of her victory.

That’s neither normal or healthy. Leadership contests are uncomfortable for any party but, hey, it goes with the territory that’s called democracy.

So we know that Colum Eastwood defeated Alasdair McDonnell by 172 votes to 133 in Armagh in 2015, and we know how many votes McDonnell secured to beat three rivals for the leadership four years earlier.

But we are totally in the dark about how well or badly O’Dowd polled. If he polled strongly – and some sources suggest that he did – then it strengthens his position in the party significantly.

So will he stay or will he go? His tweet immediately after his defeat suggests he’s not for moving.

“Comhghairdeas to Michelle on being elected Leas Uachtáran Sinn Féin. I look forward to working with you in the time ahead,” he said.

But he really is restrained in commenting about how his party conducted the vice-presidential contest, and that disappointing lack of public debate.

He’s Sinn Fein’s Westminster candidate in Upper Bann in less than four week’s time. Speaking his mind now wouldn’t enhance his electoral chances, nor his party’s, and he would be labelled a wrecker.

In her presidential address, McDonald name-checked two Johns but neither was O’Dowd. It was extradited alleged IRA bomber John Downey, and Sinn Fein’s North Belfast election candidate John Finucane, who were singled out.

Sinn Fein’s response to O’Dowd’s challenge and defeat will be interesting. McDonald has promised that he won’t be punished for his actions.

But if the party reaches a deal with the DUP to restore power-sharing, will the Upper Bann MLA be on its ministerial team and, if so, for how long?

O’Dowd’s was held in high regard when he was Education Minister. He took over from Caitriona Ruane who was regarded as disastrous.

“It wasn’t that he brought a dramatic change of policy,” one Stormont official told me. “It was just that she would rub everyone in the room up the wrong way whereas he was somebody others found easy to do business with.

“He was straightforward, independent-minded, and very much on top of his portfolio.”

While some commentators believe Sinn Fein is now interested only in a border poll and has no intention of returning to Stormont, it didn’t feel like that at the ard fheis.

Mary Lou McDonald said there must be a border poll within the next five years but she stressed that her party’s Irish unity goal wasn’t in any way contradicted by restoring devolution.

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Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald giving her keynote speech during her party’s ard fheis (annual conference) at the Millenium Forum in Londonderry. Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Having lost two of her party’s three Southern MEPs and 78 council seats in the Republic just six months ago, the Sinn Fein president delivered a confident and flawless performance.

The bulk of her address was directed at a Southern audience which wasn’t surprising given that only RTE was broadcasting it live. The BBC’s electoral guidelines prevented its transmission.

McDonald didn’t hide her ambition to enter a coalition government after the next Dail election.

Although how that will play out with grassroots is another matter. The biggest response from delegates was when she attacked Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and in particular their abstentionism “from the North for almost 100 years”.

The importance of the fight for Foyle in next month’s Westminster poll was clear from proceedings. Time and time again, speakers referred to Elisha McCallion – “our very own Derry girl” – and she was given not one, but two, key spots just before McDonald’s address.

MEP Martina Anderson even wore an ‘I’m Voting Elisha’ shirt in support of her niece. As the ard fheis ended Anderson and McDonald raised McCallion’s arms aloft in a show of solidarity.

Then McDonald remembered that another female candidate is also battling to hold her seat. She beckoned over her Fermanagh and Tyrone MP who had boldly backed O’Dowd in the leadership race.

Mary Lou’s embrace of Michelle Gildernew offered perhaps a flicker of hope in what was an otherwise dismal day for Big Bad John.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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