Michelle O’Neill: the new face of Irish nationalism

Political career

Mrs O’Neill turned to politics after training as an accounting technician, working as an advisor to Sinn Fein politician Francie Molloy in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

After winning election to the devolved legislature in 2007, she became minister for agriculture and rural development in 2011, and minister of health in 2016.

It was here that she served notice of her liberal philosophy, lifting Northern Ireland’s ban on gay men donating blood.

Mrs O’Neill became Sinn Fein leader in the north in 2017, following the resignation of veteran republican and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness.

She became deputy first minister in the Belfast executive in 2020, sharing power uneasily with the Democratic Unionist Party before the DUP walked out in protest at the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union.

She lost that position when the executive collapsed in February 2022. Now she will have the prized post with a unionist as deputy.

Symbolism

Although the first minister and deputy first minister have equal powers, the symbolism for Northern Ireland is huge – and reflects a shift in demographics with a Catholic plurality.

The DUP or other unionist forces had always controlled power since Northern Ireland was established as a Protestant majority pro-UK state in 1921, when the rest of Ireland achieved self-rule from Britain.

The nationalist party fragmented south of the border during the Irish civil war but Sinn Fein is now leading in Irish opinion polls too, after coming within a whisker of seizing power in Dublin in 2020.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the deal to restore the assembly, and appoint Mrs O’Neill as first minister, meant a united Ireland was now “within touching distance”.

Mrs O’Neill was married to Paddy O’Neill until they separated in 2014, and has two children. A grandmother since 2023, she credits her toughness to being a teenage mum.

“I know what it’s like to be in difficult situations, I know what it’s like to struggle, I know what it’s like to go to school and have a baby at home, and to be studying for your exams,” she told the Belfast Telegraph. AFP

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