An Irish nationalist made history on Saturday as Northern Ireland’s first minister as the government returned to office after a two-year boycott by unionists.
Sinn Fein Deputy President Michelle O’Neill is the first government to share power equally between Northern Ireland’s two main communities – British unionists who want to stay in the UK and Irish nationalists who want to stay in the UK – under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. Minister was elected. We are trying to unite with Ireland.
Northern Ireland was founded as a unionist, Protestant-majority part of the United Kingdom in 1921, following the independence of the Republic of Ireland, so O’Neill’s candidacy was seen as a highly symbolic moment for nationalists.
“This is a historic day that represents a new dawn,” O’Neill said. “It was unimaginable to my parents and grandparents’ generation that such a day could come. Thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, the old situation they were born into is now gone. A more democratic, more equal society has been created that will make this a better place for everyone.”
O’Neill will share power with deputy first minister Emma Little-Pengelly of the Democratic Unionist Party. The two will be equal, but O’Neill, whose party won more seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly in the 2022 election, will retain the more prestigious title.
Neither party can govern the country without the consent of the other. Government jobs have halved in the last two years after the DUP withdrew in protest over Brexit-related trade issues.
Born in the Republic of Ireland and raised in the north, O’Neill, 47, comes from a family with links to the militant Irish Republican Army. His father was imprisoned for being a member of the IRA, his uncle raised money for the group, and two of his cousins were shot (one fatally) by security forces.
O’Neill was criticized for attending IRA commemorations, telling an interviewer that there was “no alternative” to the group’s armed campaign during the Troubles, which ended in 1944 and saw nearly 30 years of violent conflict over the future of Northern Ireland. Good Friday agreements.
“I don’t think any Irishman woke up one morning and thought it was a good idea to have conflict, but war has come to Ireland,” he said in 2022. “I think there was no alternative then, but now, thankfully, we have an alternative to conflict, and that is the Good Friday agreement.”
O’Neill became pregnant at 15, and her mother left work to help raise her grandson so O’Neill could stay in school. She said the Catholic school she attended was not supportive and the pregnancy was a “very negative” experience.
“You almost made the girls feel like they couldn’t be in school, that kind of thing,” she said.
O’Neill, a member of the IRA-affiliated Sinn Fein party, was elected to Dungannon District Council in 2005, replacing his father. He was elected to the Stormont Assembly in 2007.
Both O’Neill and Little-Pengelly, 44, grew up under the shadow of the Troubles and vowed to work together to bridge divisions that once seemed insurmountable.
“The past, in all its horror, can never be forgotten nor will it be allowed to be rewritten, but although we are shaped by the past, we are not defined by it,” Little-Pengelly said. “The experience of my childhood gave me the will and desire to do everything I can and can to ensure a better future not only for myself, but for all of us.”
Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who brokered the historic peace deal, was in the gallery with his adult daughter and son to witness O’Neill’s candidacy.
“As an Irish republican, I pledge to co-operate and make truly honest efforts with my British colleagues who have a unionist tradition and value the Union,” O’Neill said. “This is a meeting of everyone: Catholic, Protestant and dissident.”
US President Joe Biden has welcomed the revival of Northern Ireland’s executive and parliament. “I look forward to seeing the renewed stability of a power-sharing government that strengthens the peace dividend, revitalizes public services, and continues to build on the tremendous progress of recent decades,” a White House statement said. said.
Clare Rice, an academic researcher in politics, said O’Neill’s new position was “highly symbolic” and “hugely meaningful”, but there were no differences beyond semantics from his previous role as deputy prime minister.
“All eyes will be on this symbolic nomination today,” Rice told the BBC. “That’s going to be the story that comes out today, it’s going to be the second story since we’ve been here.”
The return to government comes exactly two years after a DUP boycott over a dispute over trade restrictions on goods coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Northern Ireland’s 1.9 million people are left without a functioning administration as the cost of living soars and public services are strained.
An open border between the north and the republic was a key pillar of the peace process that ended the Troubles, so controls were implemented between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom instead.
A deal between Britain and the EU a year ago, known as the Windsor Framework, eased customs checks and other hurdles but did not go far enough for the DUP, which continued its boycott.
The UK government this week agreed new changes that will eliminate routine checks and paperwork for most goods entering Northern Ireland; However, some checks will continue to prevent illegal goods or diseases.
The new changes included legislation “confirming the constitutional status of Northern Ireland” as part of the United Kingdom and giving local politicians “democratic oversight” of future EU laws that may apply to Northern Ireland.
The UK government has also agreed to give Northern Ireland more than $3.8 billion for battered public services once the Belfast government is back in action.
“I believe my party has done what many people said they could not do,” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said outside the Stormont boardroom. “We have achieved change that many people said was not possible and I believe today is a good day for Northern Ireland, a day when our place in the United Kingdom and its internal market is once again respected and protected and re-established in our laws. We want all our people to enjoy the benefits of our union membership. ”
Former DUP leader Edwin Poots was elected speaker of parliament.