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Michelle O'Neill: the new face of Irish nationalism

By AFP

February 3, 2024 09:59 PM


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Michelle O'Neill, who on Saturday made history by becoming the first nationalist head of Northern Ireland's provincial government, embodies a new generation of progressive Irish republicans.

The 47-year-old Sinn Fein politician has waited patiently to take up the role of first minister since her party became the British territory's biggest after elections in May 2022.

O'Neill, whose immediate concerns will be tackling a budget crisis and crumbling public services, comes from a family well acquainted with the dark days of sectarian strife that began in the 1960s.

Her father was jailed for being a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and a cousin was killed by members of Britain's elite Special Air Service (SAS) regiment.

But O'Neill is from a generation that came of political age after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, also called the Belfast Agreement, brought about peace, and promises to be "first minister for all".

She paid tribute to British head of state Queen Elizabeth II after her death in 2022, and attended King Charles III's coronation.

Both would have been unheard of when Sinn Fein was the political wing of the IRA.

O'Neill hailed her appointment as "historic" shortly after it was confirmed.

"That such a day would come was unimaginable to my parents' and grandparents' generation," she told Northern Irish lawmakers.

  Contrast

 O'Neill's left-wing liberalism, glamorous appearance and slick politicking have found favour with younger voters angry at the lack of secure jobs and housing since the 2008 financial crash.

It is also in sharp contrast to the male-dominated and dogmatic political atmosphere during the era of violence -- and to the current unionist leadership in Northern Ireland.

Instead of a singular focus on bringing about the republican dream of a united Ireland, O'Neill's party emphasised at the assembly elections policies to tackle surging inflation and encourage stability following the shock of Brexit.

O'Neill was born in County Cork, in the south of the Irish republic, on January 10, 1977.

Her father Brendan Doris served jail time at the height of "the Troubles" due to his membership in the IRA paramilitary group, and later became a Sinn Fein councillor.

UK authorities believed her 21-year-old cousin Tony Doris was part of a brigade planning to kill a senior security force member in 1991. He died when his car was ambushed by the SAS.

Another cousin, IRA volunteer Gareth Malachy Doris, was wounded during a firefight in 1997.

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.

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

 Symbolism 

 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.

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 O'Neill as first minister, meant a united Ireland was now "within touching distance".

O'Neill was married to Paddy O'Neill until they separated in 2014, and has two children. A grandmother since last year, 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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