May 22, 2024

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill becomes First Minister in historic power-sharing deal

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Feb 3, 2024

Northern Ireland is set to have a Sinn Féin First Minister for the first time, following a historic deal to restore power-sharing in Stormont after a two-year stalemate.

Michelle O’Neill elected in historic first

Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill has been elected First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, marking the first time the position has been held by an Irish nationalist party leader [1]. O’Neill was nominated for the role by party leader Mary Lou McDonald after Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party in the most recent elections [2].

The election came after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) agreed on January 31st to end their boycott of the power-sharing government and take up the role of Deputy First Minister under O’Neill [3]. The DUP had refused to participate in government since February 2022 in protest over Brexit trading arrangements, leading to a political stalemate at Stormont [4].

O’Neill struck a conciliatory tone after her election, pledging to work together with the DUP: “I think it is a very historic day that shows after the election result of May, there has been a seismic shift in the electoral landscape,” she said. “I think that seismic shift shows that people knew that action needed to be taken.” [5]

Deal ends political deadlock over Brexit trade rules

The breakthrough deal to restore devolved government came after months of talks between the UK government and the EU over post-Brexit trading arrangements [6]. The DUP had objected to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which puts a trade border in the Irish Sea to avoid a hard land border with EU-member Ireland.

Under the new deal, Stormont will have a say over EU single market rules that apply in Northern Ireland under the protocol through a “Stormont brake.” Checks on goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be reduced, and tax changes to help business will take effect [7].

Key points of UK-EU deal
Gives Northern Ireland Assembly power to block new EU trade rules
Reduces trade checks and paperwork for goods from Great Britain
Allows UK to make changes to tax rates and VAT in Northern Ireland
Promises continued unfettered access for NI goods to rest of UK

Table 1: Key points of deal between UK and EU over Northern Ireland trade rules

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said his party would now take up the deputy first minister role to ensure the interests of the pro-UK community are protected under the deal. [8]

What comes next? Governing coalition faces challenges

With the executive and assembly now back up and running, Northern Ireland faces significant challenges around public services, the economy, and social issues [9]. The COVID-19 pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have put strains on healthcare, while schools are facing funding shortfalls and rising child poverty levels.

The new Sinn Féin/DUP governing coalition also takes control at a time of growing discussion around planning for a future referendum on Northern Irish reunification with Ireland.

O’Neill said the new executive must “deliver change and make politics work”, while Donaldson pledged his party would “get stuck into tackling the issues facing our schools, hospitals and economy.” [10]

Professor Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queen’s University, Belfast, noted that there remained deep ideological differences between the parties. “There are more questions than answers about whether it can realise the ‘radical’ approach promised by Sinn Féin during the election and address wider social concerns,” Hayward said. [11]

Healthcare, economy, and infrastructure key issues

With Northern Ireland lagging behind UK averages in areas like wages, productivity and investment, analysts say the new executive will need to prioritize economic recovery and rebuilding public services.

Dr Esmond Birnie, an economist at Ulster University, identified “the health service, education standards, infrastructure, the cost of living and low private sector productivity” as top concerns. [12]

There will likely be increased focus on infrastructure development, especially improving transport links between Northern Irish and Irish border counties. The potential for greater Irish influence over matters of economic development and social policy will also come under scrutiny. [13]

Spotlight on planning for border poll vote

In the wake of Sinn Féin’s ascent to the first minister role, analysts predict greater discussion around planning for a potential referendum on reunification of Ireland, provided criteria around public opinion set out in the Good Friday peace agreement are met.

O’Neill said the historic change in leadership strengthens the case for a border poll. Under the terms of the deal, the UK Northern Ireland secretary is obligated to call a vote if it appears a majority support reunification. [14]

While remaining short of an overall majority of public support today, surveys show interest in reunification is rising since Brexit, especially among younger Northern Irish voters. The UK government insists the threshold for a binding referendum has not yet been reached. [15]

International reaction welcomes end of deadlock

The deal to restore Northern Ireland’s assembly has drawn praise from Irish, UK and EU politicians. Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin called it a “good day” for the people of Northern Ireland and hoped the parties would “work together constructively.” [16]

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the agreement fixes “longstanding issues” with Brexit trade rules. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it paved the way for a “new chapter” in relations. [17] US President Joe Biden hailed the deal as protecting peace and stability.

What it means for Northern Ireland’s future

The election of Michelle O’Neill as First Minister represents a watershed moment for Northern Ireland after decades of unionist political dominance. Analysts say it shows increasing demographic changes, with growing numbers of Irish nationalists now making up a plurality of voters.

While the return of power-sharing ends a period of political uncertainty, experts warn major challenges around post-Brexit relations and social reform lie ahead for the new Sinn Féin-DUP coalition.[18] successfully balancing these fraught issues will likely determine the long-term durability of Northern Ireland’s latest attempt to share power.




AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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