Sheltered from the rain in a doorway in the heart of London’s swish Green Park area, last Thursday, was a 47-year-old woman, who was waiting for her car to be brought around. At that moment, the woman, Michelle O’Neill, looked like just another Londoner trying to avoid the rain. She is anything but.
Just days earlier, on February 3, Ms. O’Neill had been appointed Northern Ireland’s new First Minister — an Irish republican leading a U.K. region whose merger with the Republic of Ireland she hopes to usher in.
“This is a day that my parents and grandparents thought would never come about, just with the nature of how the north was founded,” Ms. O’Neill said in an interview on Thursday, referring to the origins of Northern Ireland just over 100 years ago, when her party, Sinn Fein, formerly the political wing of the militant Irish Republican Army (IRA), declared the independence of all of mostly Catholic Ireland from centuries of British rule. Six northern counties comprised of mostly protestants and unionists (those wanting to remain with Britain) remained with the U.K.
Ms. O’Neill was supposed to become First Minister in 2022 after her party, Sinn Fein, beat the pro-U.K. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) by a margin of two and won 27 seats. However, a constitutional arrangement precluded her from doing so.
As part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the peace treaty that ended three decades of violent struggle in the region, called ‘the Troubles’, the largest republican and largest unionist parties are required to share the leadership of the Stormont or legislative Assembly, through the two politically equal posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. When the DUP pulled out of the arrangement in 2020, angry over the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, there was no Deputy First Minister and the twin position of First Minister also ceased to exist.
The impasse was resolved following the British government’s publication on January 31 of the Safeguarding the Union agreement. The deal does away with regular checks on goods from Great Britain (i.e., the U.K. excluding Northern Ireland) to Northern Ireland. It also involves legislation to affirm the place of Northern Ireland in the U.K. The DUP agreed to return to power-sharing and Ms. O’Neill was appointed First Minister, with the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly as Deputy First Minister.
Ms. O’Neill’s words and moves are being carefully scrutinised. She was asked about why she attended the coronation of King Charles III in May last year. Last week she was asked about the use of the terms ‘North of Ireland’ along with the term ‘Northern Ireland’. She was questioned on her reaction to U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s warm greeting — a hug rather than a formal handshake. In her responses, she emphasised the need to create space for multiple identities and respect.
“I will serve everyone equally and be a First Minister for all,” Ms. O’Neill said in her inaugural speech in Belfast. On her subsequent visit to London last week, she emphasised the existence of multiple identities in Northern Ireland: British, Irish, other.
Ms. O’Neill was born in 1977 to a family of Republicans, almost a decade after the Troubles began, in a village in Northern Ireland’s County Tyrone. She did not have an easy adolescence, becoming a mother at the age of 16. Her own mother gave up her job to look after the baby so that Ms. O’Neill could go back to school. Her father, Brendan Doris, was a member of the IRA, for which he was jailed. He later went on to become a Sinn Fein councillor. Her cousin Tony Doris, also an IRA member, was shot by special forces in 1991. Her uncle Paul Doris, based in Philadelphia, was a fundraiser for the Irish republican cause.
“I am sorry for all the lives lost during the conflict. Without exception,” Ms. O’Neill said in her inaugural speech. She was asked, as per a BBC report, if this was a “coded apology” to those murdered by the IRA. She stopped short of declaring it was, instead saying she wanted to acknowledge historic difficulties and not burden today’s generation with the past.
In 2005, following her father’s decision to quit local politics, Ms. O’Neill won his seat on the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council. She became the first female mayor borough shortly thereafter, and then a member of the Stormont. In 2011, she was appointed Agricultural Minister and in 2016 Health Minister. In 2017, she went on to become Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, after the death of Martin McGuinness, who had walked out of a coalition government in 2017, leading to its collapse. When the Stormont reformed in 2020, Ms. O’Neill became Deputy First Minister.
The sporadic nature of governance has exacerbated the region’s cost of living and public sector challenges, leaving Northern Ireland grappling with long healthcare waitlists as well as affordable housing and childcare crises. Addressing these issues is on the agenda for Ms. O’Neill and Ms. Little-Pengelly, as is the publication of a revenue-raising plan. Now that the government has reformed, a £3.3bn funding package from Westminster will be available. However, both the DUP and the Sinn Fein have said this will not be adequate.
Also looming is the Sinn Fein’s political goal: reuniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. Its president, Mary Lou McDonald, told journalists in London last week that she expected a referendum by 2030. The Good Friday Agreement requires the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a British official, to call a ‘border poll’ if it appears “likely” that the majority of those voting would wish to leave the U.K. and merge with Ireland.
The current Secretary, the 56-year-old Chris Heaton-Harris, recently said he did not believe Irish unification would happen in his lifetime. Both Ms. O’Neill and Mr. McDonald have said this view fails to take into account the change that is happening, as evidenced by Ms. O’Neill’s appointment. The Sinn Fein leadership has also acknowledged that it will need to work on its own lower polling numbers. Both Ms. O‘Neill and Mr. McDonald have talked about the atmosphere for a referendum being inclusive and democratic. There is also a recognition that the U.K. will have to be part of the conversation, especially with regard to those in Northern Ireland who identify as British.
During an ITV interview last week Ms. O’Neill defended her party’s ability to address Northern Ireland’s many pressing challenges and work towards holding — and winning — a referendum.
“I think we can do the two things at the one time,” she said.