O’Neill elected as North’s first nationalist first minister
In a historic development, Northern Ireland has elected Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill as its first nationalist first minister.
O’Neill was nominated to the post by her party’s 27 newly elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs) on Saturday. Her election marks the first time a nationalist has held the top post in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government. The assembly was recalled after a two-year hiatus amid tensions over post-Brexit trade rules.
The position of first minister and deputy first minister hold equal power under the terms of Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace agreement which helped end decades of sectarian violence.
Unionists protests selection despite earlier compromise
O’Neill’s selection did not come without controversy. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) initially blocked the move before ultimately agreeing to reform the executive following pressure from the UK government.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his party entered the agreement with a “heavy heart”, but said he believed it could work if there was “goodwill on all sides”.
Nonetheless, many unionists see O’Neill’s elevation as undermining Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. Around 100 unionist protesters gathered outside Stormont on Saturday as the executive was formed, with some vowing ongoing opposition.
“This is not a good day for Northern Ireland,” DUP politician Gavin Robinson told the BBC. “This is a difficult day for unionists.”
Deal follows lengthy standoff over NI Protocol
The restoration of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government ends a two-year standoff triggered by disputes over post-Brexit customs checks.
Under the terms of the UK’s EU withdrawal deal, Northern Ireland essentially remains part of the EU’s single market for goods. This has led to new checks on goods coming from Great Britain, angering unionists who argue it undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
The DUP collapsed the executive in February 2022 in protest over the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol. But the party finally agreed to a deal late on Friday after the UK and EU struck an agreement aimed at easing the checks.
What next under first nationalist leadership?
O’Neill has said her goal is to provide stable government in Northern Ireland to help fix spiralling health care waits, rising costs and other economic woes.
Table 1: Michelle O’Neill’s priorities as first minister
|Reduce waiting times for surgeries and emergency care
|Attract investment and tackle cost of living
|Upgrade roads, public transport, and internet access
“There is plenty of work ahead, plenty of challenges ahead, but the most significant thing is that the public go back to the very heart of this institutions,” O’Neill said on Saturday.
But with Sinn Féin heading the executive for the first time, there will likely be increased calls from nationalists for a referendum on reunification with the Republic of Ireland.
O’Neill said on Saturday she believes the necessary conditions for a vote will emerge “within the next decade”. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald also predicts a referendum in the next five years.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, the UK government must call a referendum if it appears a majority in Northern Ireland want to leave the UK and join Ireland. Polls show more people in Northern Ireland would currently vote to remain in the UK, but support for Irish unity has been growing.
UK and Irish governments pledge cooperation
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Irish leader Leo Varadkar have both welcomed the deal and pledged to cooperate with Northern Ireland’s new executive.
Sunak phoned O’Neill on Saturday to congratulate her and stress his commitment to restoring devolved government. He plans to visit Northern Ireland on Monday along with Varadkar.
In a joint statement, Sunak, Varadkar and British King Charles III welcomed the political agreement and indicated their governments plan to work closely with Stormont ministers.
“The establishment of an Executive is an important step for the people of Northern Ireland,” they said.
The deal has drawn praise from leaders in Europe and the United States for helping to consolidate peace in Northern Ireland.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the agreement, calling it “good news” offering “fresh opportunities” for all in Northern Ireland.
US President Joe Biden described the deal as a “historic step forward” reflecting “courageous leadership”. Biden has Irish ancestry and has taken a strong interest in the Northern Ireland peace process.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres commended Northern Irish leaders for restoring power-sharing, saying he hoped it would “deliver peace and prosperity for all communities.”
So while disputes over Northern Ireland’s status within the UK seem set to continue, the restoration of its government after years of paralysis has been broadly welcomed internationally.
All eyes will now be on O’Neill and her new executive to see if they can stabilize Northern Ireland’s volatile politics and make progress on longstanding economic and social challenges.
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