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Could Michelle O’Neill be Northern Ireland’s final first minister?

How Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader prevailed – in a province whose existence she wants to end.

By Martin Fletcher

Sinn Féin is the polar opposite of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. It thinks long-term. It is patient, strategic and disciplined. Thus, five years ago, to advance the cause of Irish reunification, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were succeeded by two personable women untainted by IRA violence – Mary Lou McDonald across Ireland as a whole and Michelle O’Neill in Northern Ireland.

That rebranding exercise has just reaped its first huge dividend. Aided by the DUP’s spectacular mishandling of Brexit, Sinn Féin emerged as the biggest party from the 5 May’s Stormont elections, making O’Neill the putative first minister of a province whose name she will not use, and whose very existence she wants to end. Sinn Féin may likewise become the republic’s biggest party in 2025.

Its next great challenge is to secure a referendum on Irish unity – a ballot that the Northern Ireland secretary must call if he or she deems it “likely” that a majority would back reunification.

With support for reunification presently standing at roughly 35 per cent, that moment remains far off, but Sinn Féin’s game plan is clear. It is to use O’Neill to woo the growing demographic labelled “others” – the predominantly young, urban, socially liberal voters who reject tribalism, loathe Brexit and contributed to the surge of the centrist, non-sectarian Alliance Party on 5 May. More gradually, Sinn Féin will start fleshing out its seemingly emollient vision of a new “shared” Ireland that protects the rights of all.

Superficially, O’Neill seems a strange proponent of that plan. She comes from such a hardcore republican family that the incorrigible Daily Mail once labelled her “the beauty from a family drenched in blood”.

Born in 1977 and raised in the village of Clonoe near Dungannon, County Tyrone, she was the daughter of Brendan Doris, a Provisional IRA “volunteer” who was imprisoned during the Troubles. Adams delivered a eulogy at Doris’s funeral in 2006.

She also had a cousin who was killed in an SAS ambush of an IRA assassination squad in 1991, and another cousin was wounded while attacking a police station in Coalisland in 1997. An uncle led Noraid, the republican fundraising organisation in the US.

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O’Neill has defended IRA violence herself. After becoming leader she addressed a ceremony commemorating four IRA men killed by security forces in Clonoe in 1992. “These were four ordinary young men who faced extraordinary challenges,” she said. “And they responded in defence of their community and also of their country. They never went looking for war, but it came to them.”

She has also accused the British government of concealing its own crimes during the Troubles. “They don’t want the world to know about the death squads, about shoot-to-kill, about the torture and the full extent of collusion.”

But she never embraced violence herself. On the contrary, she joined Sinn Féin following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, aged 21, and has practised peaceful constitutional politics ever since.

She worked for Francis Molloy, a Sinn Féin member of the Stormont assembly, before inheriting her father’s seat on Dungannon and South Tyrone Council in 2005.  She became the council’s first woman mayor in 2010, by which time she had herself been elected to Stormont from Mid Ulster.

There she became a protégée of McGuinness, then the deputy first minister. He appointed her minister for agriculture and rural development in 2011, then minister of health in 2016. When McGuinness died in 2017 she helped carry his coffin. “[I am] proud to have learned from the best,” she said of her mentor when she took on leadership of the party.

Mary Lou McDonald, Martin McGuinness, Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Adams at Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

O’Neill was considered an able, hard-working minister. She claims to have delivered Northern Ireland’s “largest ever rural development programme”, and to have “developed cross-party support for a plan to fix our health service”. She lifted a ban on gay men giving blood, underscoring her social liberalism.

In 2017 she became Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, vaulting past McGuinness’s presumed successor, Conor Murphy, who had been imprisoned for IRA membership in the 1980s and later became an MP.

O’Neill’s elevation marked a clear break with the past. She was of a new generation. She had never joined the IRA. She was a child of the peace process. She was a bit wooden and relentlessly on-message, but cheerful, empathetic, well briefed and a good listener.

She also had a compelling personal story. Aged 16, she became pregnant. Her mother stopped work to tend the baby while O’Neill returned to St Patrick’s Girls Academy in Dungannon. She has complained of being “put in a box – single mother, unmarried mother, nearly written off”. But the experience made her more determined, she said. “[It] helped to make me a stronger woman today.” (O’Neill subsequently married the father of her daughter, Saoirse, and they had a son, Ryan, but separated in 2014).

When she became deputy first minister in 2020, O’Neill did much to change Sinn Féin’s menacing image. As the public face of her party’s collective leadership she has focused on bread-and-butter issues, notably the cost of living and health service. She has met the Prince of Wales, and talked to the Queen during Covid. She posts pictures on social media of herself at home, in the gym or cuddling babies. She supports gay rights and access to abortion. She has become a more confident public performer.

For now she has the wind behind her. Unionism is in disarray over Brexit. Britain treats Northern Ireland with disdain. Tribal allegiances are breaking down. Nobody under 30 remembers the Troubles. The Republic is now more prosperous and socially progressive than Northern Ireland.

Could O’Neill conceivably be the first minister who presides over Northern Ireland’s demise? “We’re closer than we’ve ever been previously,” she allowed recently. “Now is the time to plan.”

[See also: Is a united Ireland now inevitable?]

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer