Michelle O’Neill: centre stage for Sinn Féin’s prospective first minister

After leading party to victory in Stormont, former Dungannon mayor is set to make history

In May 1993, as the IRA edged towards the end of its armed campaign, Michelle O’Neill was beginning her own struggle. She was a 16-year-old working-class schoolgirl from Clonoe, a small village in County Tyrone, with a newborn baby.

The road ahead looked rocky. She had not finished school and perhaps never would, because that was the fate of many unmarried teenage mothers in Northern Ireland. Some teachers at her Catholic grammar school were not supportive.

Yet almost three decades later, O’Neill, now 45, is on the verge of making history as the first nationalist leader of Northern Ireland. Personable and cheerful, she has led Sinn Féin to victory in an election for the Stormont assembly. As the biggest party it can nominate her for first minister.

The symbolism is momentous. A state designed to have a permanent unionist majority may soon be led by a politician who wants to dissolve it into a united Ireland. “I knew Michelle could do it. She has grit. She got herself educated, worked hard, never stopped,” said Paula Sweeney, 57, a friend and neighbour.

There is no short-term prospect of a border poll for a united Ireland, let alone victory in such a referendum. Most people in Northern Ireland wish to remain in the UK. Nor would O’Neill becoming first minister signify radical change. Before Stormont collapsed in January she was deputy first minister, a post with equal power in the power-sharing executive, where Sinn Féin has governed with other parties for 15 years.

But winning the more prestigious title is a psychological breakthrough for Irish nationalism and a gut-punch to unionism. If unionist parties balk at serving in a new executive there could be months of wrangling. Even so, O’Neill would remain centre stage. Her journey there intertwines with the IRA ending its armed struggle.

She was born Michelle Doris into a prominent republican family at the height of the Troubles. Her father, Brendan Doris, was an IRA prisoner. An uncle, Paul Doris, headed the Irish Northern Aid Committee (Noraid) that raised funds for the IRA in the US. Two of her cousins, IRA members, were shot by security forces, one fatally.

O’Neill’s family rallied around her when she became pregnant and helped care for her baby daughter, Saoirse, while O’Neill completed her A-levels. IRA ceasefires paved the way for the 1998 Good Friday agreement and boosted Sinn Féin at the polls. O’Neill’s father was elected to Dungannon borough council, a path she followed, winning his seat in 2005 after he stepped down.

Michelle O’Neill helps carry the coffin of Martin McGuinness in Derry in 2017
Michelle O’Neill helps carry the coffin of Martin McGuinness in Derry in 2017. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

O’Neill went on to become mayor and a protege of Francie Molloy, a Sinn Féin assembly member, and Martin McGuinness, the party’s dominant figure along with Gerry Adams. They selected her to run for the assembly in 2007. She won.

“It was shrewd of Martin to pick a working-class woman with republican credentials. That is incredibly important when it comes to Sinn Féin in the north,” said Aoife Moore, a journalist with the Irish Examiner who is writing a book about the party.

O’Neill, by then with a second child and a husband, served on the education committee but initially appeared to have a crisis of confidence at Stormont, said Moore. “She has a serious amount of tenacity. She has come on leaps and bounds from when she first started.”

Sinn Féin appointed O’Neill agriculture minister in 2011 during the “Chuckle Brothers” heyday when McGuinness, as deputy first minister, established a rapport with Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist party leader and first minister. Paisley referred to him as “my deputy” even though they had equal power.

O’Neill served as health minister before Stormont collapsed in 2017 over a renewable energy scandal. When McGuinness died soon after, Sinn Féin vaulted O’Neill over more senior colleagues to lead the party in the north and serve as deputy first minister, part of a strategy to promote younger faces with no direct ties to IRA violence. Mary Lou McDonald, a member of the Irish parliament in Dublin, succeeded Gerry Adams as the party’s overall leader.

The two women run an effective double act. McDonald is the senior partner and appears more comfortable speaking off the cuff and cracking jokes. She could be Ireland’s next taoiseach.

Michelle O’Neill holds a child during a news conference earlier this week.
Michelle O’Neill holds a child during a news conference earlier this week. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

O’Neill sounds more scripted and guarded, fuelling allegations that a backroom cabal with IRA ties wields influence. “She’s not the person who sets Sinn Féin policy on a wide range of issues. She’s the front person who can appear plausibly on television and communicate effectively,” said one DUP insider.

Deirdre Heenan, a social policy professor at the University of Ulster, said suspicions would endure. “Sinn Féin will always suffer a question of who is really in charge but they’re trying to shake off the image of the past.”

O’Neill was part of a tightly disciplined campaign that targeted centrist voters and focused on the cost of living and healthcare as opposed to a united Ireland. She avoided the gaffes or controversy that might have enabled the DUP to close the gap, said Jonathan Tonge, a University of Liverpool politics professor. “She has looked first ministerial. She has been personable rather than confrontational.”

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When the Guardian asked O’Neill about making history as the region’s first nationalist leader, she stayed on message and spoke of a need to to “stand up for everybody” and fix the health service. She made no mention of a referendum on a united Ireland. She did not have to. She now embodies momentum towards that day.


Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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