Northern Ireland: Michelle O’Neill, from Sinn Fein, officially elected Prime Minister

Michelle O’Neill officially became, on Saturday February 3, the first Republican, in favor of the unification of Ireland, to take the helm of the Northern Irish government

Northern Ireland: Michelle O’Neill, from Sinn Fein, officially elected Prime Minister

Michelle O’Neill officially became, on Saturday February 3, the first Republican, in favor of the unification of Ireland, to take the helm of the Northern Irish government. This election marks a historic milestone for the British province dominated for decades by unionists, and with a past marked by three decades of bloody conflict.

The 47-year-old leader of Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein was appointed prime minister after the restart of the province's institutions, boycotted for two years by unionists to oppose post-Brexit trade arrangements, which they denounced as a threat to Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom.

In 2022, Michelle O'Neill brought Sinn Fein, the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary group, to the top, which won local elections, something unheard of in Northern Ireland. But it took almost two years for her to take the helm of the government, because the unionists, attached to Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom, blocked the local assembly in Belfast. She notably won the election by highlighting everyday issues, such as improving health services in Northern Ireland.

“A historic day”

In front of elected officials gathered at Stormont Palace on Saturday, Michelle O'Neill hailed "a historic day", a "new era", and promised an assembly "for all", recalling that it would have been "unimaginable for the generation of [his] parents” that a nationalist heads the local executive.

On her arrival at Stormont, Sinn Fein leader for the whole island of Ireland, Mary Lou McDonald, said the Northern Irish government “could not be in better hands”. “It’s a victory for everyone today, a demonstration that equality and inclusion are on the agenda,” she added.

Under the co-governance resulting from the 1998 peace agreements, the unionist Emma Little-Pengelly (committed to maintaining Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom) was chosen as deputy prime minister.

A new generation entering politics

Michelle O'Neill embodies a new generation that entered politics after the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, which ended thirty years of violence between nationalists, mainly Catholics and in favor of the reunification of the island of Ireland , and loyalists, mainly Protestants, attached to maintaining the province under the British crown.

Breaking with republican tradition, she attended the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022 and then the coronation of Charles III in May 2023. She is particularly appreciated by young people for her left-wing ideas, facing unionists with conservative positions on issues. topics like abortion.

Michelle O’Neill has put Sinn Fein’s historic objective, the reunification of Ireland, on the back burner. In 2019, at the party congress, she declared that “the question [was] no longer if, but when the referendum on reunification will be held.” But his speech is now more moderate, calling the partition on Wednesday “a failure for all the inhabitants of the island”: “Our people were forced to live back to back instead of living side by side”. She called for an “inclusive” debate, about British and Irish identities, “all together”.

Months of negotiations

After months of negotiations with the British government, the unionists of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) announced their decision this week to end their boycott. This led to the paralysis of the Assembly and the local executive, where power is shared between the unionists – committed to maintaining Northern Ireland in the British fold – and the republicans.

Discussing the difficult road ahead, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson argued that his party had “brought about the change that many described as impossible”. He hailed a “good day for Northern Ireland”, where “our place within the United Kingdom and its internal market is respected and protected”.

An argument far from convincing the hardest unionists, like Jim Allister (TUV, Traditional Unionist Voice), for whom Northern Ireland remains "directed largely by foreign laws", those of the EU .