Sinn Fein has refused to say whether it will make public how many votes John O’Dowd gets in his attempt to replace Michelle O’Neill as the party’s northern leader.
The former education minister’s unprecedented challenge to the party leadership was initially welcomed by Ms O’Neill as something entirely normal for a democratic party.
However, since then the contest has been deeply unorthodox with no public statements from Mr O’Dowd as to why he is challenging Ms O’Neill, no hustings and no interviews.
One Sinn Fein member told the News Letter: “Basically, the Belfast senior leadership circled the wagons and did everything possible to ensure there would be no leadership contest that would result in a bad result for O’Neill.”
The individual also said that “the party decided there would be no speeches by the leadership candidates at the upcoming ard fheis [party conference]”.
The News Letter asked the party if it would allow the candidates to address delegates at the ard fheis before they vote on which of them should be vice president.
The party was also asked why it had ruled out hustings and whether it would publish the exact result of the vote.
The party did not answer the first two questions. All it said in a statement was: “The Ard Chomhairle has adopted the same process in respect of the contested position at last year’s Ard Fheis.
“With almost 400 Cumainn and 60 Comhairlí Ceantair across the island it was deemed impractical to organise hustings for the position of Leas Uachtarán. However, all candidates have been afforded the opportunity to distribute material to all party structures and to speak with all Ard Fheis delegates.”
However, although Sinn Fein claimed that it was impractical for it to organise hustings because of the size of Ireland, British parties have been able to organise leadership debates across a far larger territory.
Yesterday Sinn Fein published the agenda for Saturday’s ard fheis. The 41-page document does not make a single reference to Mr O’Dowd and appears to confirm that he will not even be allowed to argue his case to delegates.
The election will be announced at 8.10pm on Saturday night just ahead of Mary Lou McDonald’s main speech.
In an interview with The Irish News yesterday, Ms McDonald insisted that Mr O’Dowd was being treated fairly. She said that he would not be punished for challenging the leadership as he had done. She said that the party’s ard comhairle had taken a decision around the “best, most orderly and fair way” to conduct the contest.
However, former Sinn Fein TD Peadar Tóibín, who is now leader of Aontú, said: “Sinn Fein’s great competitive political advantage before and after the peace process was its iron internal discipline. But it’s now its greatest threat.
”There is the infrastructure of democracy within the party for sure, but it’s not working. Not allowing a person standing for office within the party to have a platform to present his or her vision as regards the future of the party prevents the party making an informed decision.”