Michelle O’Neill: Why Northern Ireland’s new first minister is hugely symbolic | Politics News

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill will become Northern Ireland’s first nationalist first minister when the power-sharing government is restored this weekend.

The 47-year-old has vowed to be a “first minister for all” and at Primate Dixon Primary School, they have every confidence in their former pupil.

Principal Sean Dillon said: “Everyone in the school is just incredibly proud. The day is coming at last when we’re seeing history in the making. She is more than up to the task.”

Ms O’Neill was raised, and still lives, in the tiny village of Clonoe in County Tyrone, where neighbours describe her as “the girl next door”.

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Paddy Hughes, who owns the local business park, said: “She came from a very humble background. She was reared in Coney Park, which is just an estate across the road.”

“Clonoe is not a massive place now but back then, there would have been a lot less… so humble beginnings,” he added.

Ms O’Neill – and party leader Mary Lou McDonald – are the new face of Sinn Fein, a changing of the guard from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

But the new first minister’s background is staunchly republican. Her father served time, and her uncle, an IRA member, was shot dead by the SAS.

‘Michelle will fight for everybody’

Ursula Donnelly, whose brother was also shot dead during the Troubles, has known Ms O’Neill for more than 40 years.

She said: “Clonoe has gone through a hell of a lot through the years… and I hope we get the justice now that we have somebody here representing us.

“She’ll fight for everybody, Michelle will fight for everybody, no matter what your religion, your creed or whatever.”

Ms O’Neill was a local councillor, assembly member, agriculture minister and education minister before becoming deputy first minister in 2017.

The two most senior offices are co-dependent but it is hugely symbolic that someone who seeks Irish unity will hold the title of first minister.

She has built bridges by paying warm tribute to the late Queen and becoming the first Irish republican to attend the coronation of a British monarch.

Those were regarded as courageous decisions, shaped by her own life experience.

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Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill arriving at the Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, where Tanaiste Micheal Martin is holding series of meetings with Northern Ireland political leaders. Picture date: Wednesday January 31, 2024.
Pic: PA

Being a mum ‘made me what I am’

Ms O’Neill speaks candidly about the stigma she experienced on becoming a mother at the age of 16.

She said: “Being a young mum, well it’s my life experience. It made me what I am. It makes you stronger, I think.

“At that time, you’re talking 1993, society compared with today was a very different place.

“You were neatly put in a box: single mother, unmarried mother, nearly written off.

“But I was determined that I wasn’t going to be written off, that I was going to work hard and make a good life for her.”

A mother-of-two and grandmother-of-one, she will go down in history as the woman who completed the Irish republican journey from guns to government.

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