Michelle O’Neill Sworn In as NI’s First Nationalist Leader
In a historic development, Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin has been sworn in as Northern Ireland’s First Minister, marking the first time a nationalist will hold the post. O’Neill’s ascension comes after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) agreed to restore power-sharing, ending a two year political deadlock in Stormont.
Backdrop of Crisis Precedes Historic Milestone
Northern Ireland had been without a functioning government since the DUP walked out in protest in February 2022. Their withdrawal collapsed the power-sharing executive, with unionists demanding changes to post-Brexit customs arrangements they argued favoured trade across the open Irish border.
Years of tense negotiations followed, as London and Brussels struggled to strike an acceptable deal. The limbo left public services in Northern Ireland operating without ministers able to take major decisions or pass budgets.
Finally, a breakthrough came last month after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak clinched an agreement with the EU that eased trade flows and gave the DUP cover to return to government. The party said Sunak’s deal addressed “the democratic deficit” caused by the Northern Ireland protocol.
Sinn Féin Capitalizes on Symbolic Shift
With the path cleared for Stormont to reopen, attention shifted to the appointment of First and Deputy First Ministers. In a seismic shift reflecting last year’s historic Sinn Féin victory in the Assembly elections, the republican party was entitled to the First Minister role for the first time.
Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald nominated party vice president Michelle O’Neill to the post. O’Neill was comfortably approved by MLAs on Monday, watched by UK Prime Minister Sunak and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the chamber.
In her inauguration speech, O’Neill said her “priority as First Minister will be to make politics work through partnership, through equality, through inclusion.” She added that she would be a First Minister for everyone, and committed to “protecting people, investing in health and education, developing our economy and creating jobs.”
|Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin)
|Deputy First Minister
|Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP)
|UK Prime Minister
|Rishi Sunak (Conservative)
|Leo Varadkar (Fine Gael)
However, O’Neill also reiterated Sinn Féin’s calls for a border poll on a united Ireland within the next decade, stating she believed a majority would vote to leave the UK. Unionists leaders played down this prospect, but the issue looks set to be a fault line within the restored executive.
International Praise for Democratic Milestone
The swearing in of O’Neill and the new powersharing executive drew praise from leaders in London, Dublin, Washington and Brussels. Their statements hailed an important day for devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland after years of paralysis and uncertainty.
Prime Minister Sunak declared it an “historic day” that few would have thought possible even a couple of months ago. He said Michelle O’Neill’s appointment marked a “big day for Northern Ireland”, showing that “politics in Northern Ireland does work.”
Similarly, Taoiseach Varadkar congratulated the parties on forming an Executive and said he looked forward to deeper British-Irish cooperation. Varadkar added that identity and aspiration “can be reconciled within this institution, north-south cooperation and the common travel area”.
US President Biden welcomed the DUP’s decision to re-enter government and said he hoped Northern Irish parties would advance reconciliation in an “inclusive, mutually respectful executive.” Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she was “delighted” power-sharing had resumed after three years and that Northern Ireland was “back on track.”
Challenges Ahead for New Executive
Despite the optimistic declarations, substantial challenges lie ahead for Northern Ireland’s restored institutions. Deep divisions remain between nationalists and unionists on identity issues, while a cost-of-living crisis is squeezing household budgets.
There is also uncertainty around Brexit’s continued impacts and the fate of the protocol deal negotiated by Prime Minister Sunak. While his concessions secured DUP support, other unionists criticize what they see as loosening Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
For her part, First Minister O’Neill faces the delicate task of balancing cross-community governance with advancing Sinn Féin’s ultimate ambition of Irish unification. And if issues re-emerge around customs checks or trade barriers, power-sharing could once more be plunged into crisis.
Nevertheless, Michelle O’Neill struck a determined note after her swearing-in, saying politicians must make Northern Ireland’s institutions work. She stated: “We have a responsibility to make politics work…I think the people out there have had enough of all of the rows and arguments.”
After three years of deadlock, most in Northern Ireland will surely share that fatigue. The path ahead remains difficult, but there is hope Michelle O’Neill’s historic appointment could usher in a more cooperative era at Stormont.
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