Michelle O’Neill becomes first nationalist to lead Northern Ireland government

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Michelle O’Neill was sworn in as first minister of Northern Ireland on Saturday, the first time a nationalist has held the post in a region created by partition in 1921 as a bastion of pro-UK unionism.

O’Neill, from the Sinn Féin party that is committed to Irish reunification, walked down the imposing staircase in the Stormont parliament building, past a statue of James Craig, Lord Craigavon, the region’s first prime minister and into the 90-seat chamber to take up her post.

It was two years to the day since the Democratic Unionist Party paralysed the institution in a row over Brexit trade rules.

“I am a republican. I will be a first minister for all,” O’Neill said, pledging to serve all sides equally, including “those who cherish the union”.

She added: “For the first time ever, a nationalist takes up the position of first minister. That such a day would ever come would have been unimaginable to my parents and grandparents’ generation.” The republican slogan Tiocfaidh ár lá means: our day will come

O’Neill spoke some words in Irish but described the region both as the “North of Ireland” — the term favoured by her party — and “Northern Ireland”.

The DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest pro-UK party, came second to Sinn Féin in the region’s elections, held in May 2022, and so took the post of deputy first minister.

Emma Little-Pengelly, a barrister and former MP, was sworn in as deputy first minister. She was not elected to Stormont but was drafted into party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s seat while he remained an MP at Westminster.

While the post legally has the same powers as the first minister, and neither can function without the other, some unionists smart at the perception that they are playing second fiddle to Sinn Féin.

In a dig at any suggestion she had a lesser role, Little-Pengelly hailed the nomination of “Michelle and myself as First Ministers”.

Sinn Féin is anathema to some unionists because it was considered the mouthpiece of Irish Republican Army paramilitaries who fought to end British rule during three decades of conflict known as the Troubles that ended in 1998.

Both women have family links to the Troubles, which also involved loyalist paramilitaries fighting to keep Northern Ireland as part of the UK as well as British security forces.

O’Neill’s father was an IRA prisoner; Little-Pengelly’s father was convicted in Paris in 1991 for his role in a loyalist gun-running plot, but has denied having been an arms buyer.

Edwin Poots, who was briefly leader of the DUP in 2021, was elected Stormont’s speaker. He said Stormont had “so much to do and I trust everyone will put their shoulders to the wheel”.

Donaldson agreed to return his party to Stormont after MPs at Westminster this week passed legislation that he said would restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and its ability to trade freely with Britain.

“Today is a good day for Northern Ireland,” Donaldson told reporters outside the chamber. “It is a day when we come together and take up all our responsibilities.”

Naomi Long, whose Alliance Party is the third force in Northern Ireland, said it was a hugely important day on which “the focus moves from drama to delivery for the people outside this building”.

Sinn Féin was criticised by some analysts and politicians for not taking the crucial health portfolio with Northern Ireland enduring the longest NHS waiting lists in the UK. Robin Swann of the small Ulster Unionist Party, who held the post in the last executive, resumed responsibility for the portfolio.


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