Sinn Fein’s Assembly election campaign in Fermanagh and South Tyrone has got off to a disastrous start with two selection meetings ending in its most high-profile local member being surprisingly deselected.
At a selection meeting on Sunday night, former MP Michelle Gildernew was dropped as a potential candidate – having initially been chosen at a selection meeting the previous month before that result was set aside.
The December selection meeting had deselected sitting MLA Phil Flanagan and chosen three candidates – Mrs Gildernew, sitting MLA Sean Lynch and Councillor John Feely.
Sitting MLA Bronwyn McGahan – who was co-opted into the Assembly to replace Mrs Gildernew when she stepped down as an MLA to concentrate on her Westminster role – had initially said that she was not going to stand again and did not contest December’s selection meeting.
However, between that meeting and the rerun process which led to Sunday night’s decision, Ms McGahan changed her mind and put her name forward for selection.
On Sunday night, around 150 Sinn Fein members chose Mr Flanagan, Mr Lynch and Mr Feely as their candidates.
The decision to reinstate Mr Flanagan comes after he last month publicly admitted to libelling Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott – who defeated Mrs Gildernew for the Westminster seat last year.
Mrs Gildernew, who is a prolific user of social media, responded to her shock deselection on her Twitter account. Cryptically, she said that the decision “could be a blessing in disguise”.
And, among comments retweeted by Mrs Gildernew on Monday, were several which were critical of Sinn Fein.
One said: “Cannot believe Michelle Gildernew not selected as candidate by Sinn Fein. She is great asset #genderparity? #womeninpolitics”.
When asked if she would stand as an independent, Mrs Gildernew suggested that she would not – but did not rule it out conclusively, saying: “Don’t think so ... I’ve always been a team player.”
Mrs Gildernew ruled out moving to the neighbouring constituency of Mid Ulster, saying that her heart was in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
Another option, if Sinn Fein wants to find an elected role for Mrs Gildernew, would be for her to move in the other direction to the neighbouring constituency of Cavan-Monaghan.
Three years ago Mrs Gildernew spoke about her battle with depression.
She said at the time that giving up the chairmanship of the health committee – a decision taken for her by Sinn Fein – “probably did have an impact [on her mental health]”.