Michelle O’Neill on Saturday officially became the first republican, favorable to unification with Ireland, to lead the Northern Irish government, a historic change in this province of the United Kingdom, with a past marked by three decades of bloody conflict, writes AFP.
Republican Michelle O’Neill, Prime Minister in Northern IrelandPhoto: Paul Faith / AFP / Profimedia
The 47-year-old Northern Ireland Sinn Fein leader was named prime minister after the province’s institutions, boycotted for two years by unionists to oppose post-Brexit trade deals they denounced, reopened. as a threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
“A historic day, a new era”
Addressing MPs gathered at Stormont Palace, she hailed “a historic day, a new era” and promised a legislature “for all”, stressing that it would have been “unimaginable” for her parents’ generation to have a nationalist leading the executive local.
The province’s institutions have been blocked for two years by a boycott by unionist DUP members to oppose post-Brexit trade arrangements, which they denounce as a threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
On her arrival in Stormont, Sinn Fein All-Ireland leader Mary Lou McDonald said the Northern Irish government “couldn’t be in better hands”. “This is a win for everyone today, a demonstration that equality and inclusion are the order of the day,” she added.
Michelle O’Neill will be joined by a Unionist deputy prime minister, Emma Little-Pengelly, under the co-governance resulting from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of bloody conflict.
Sinn Fein emerged victorious in the May 2022 election, an unprecedented turnaround for the party, which was once the political showcase of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), but political deadlock prevented Michelle O’Neill from taking office.
A local government must be created, with competences in areas such as housing, health, employment, agriculture and the environment. Daily affairs were managed by the administration and London in the last two years due to the impasse, which caused exasperation among the population, writes AFP, according to Agerpres.
After months of negotiations with the British government, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) announced this week its decision to end the boycott. It had led to the paralysis of the Assembly and the local executive, where power was shared between unionists – who pledged to keep Northern Ireland in the British camp – and republicans.
Underlining the difficult road ahead, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson claimed his party had “brought about the change many described as impossible”. He hailed a “good day for Northern Ireland” when “our place in the United Kingdom and its internal market is respected and protected”.
This argument is far from convincing the most hard-line unionists, such as Jim Allister (TUV – Traditional Unionist Voice), for whom Northern Ireland remains “largely governed by foreign laws”, those of the EU.
One of the main challenges in implementing Brexit was finding a solution that would avoid the return of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU, and the British province, while protecting the integrity of the European single market.
A change to these provisions negotiated between London and Brussels a year ago, called the ‘Windsor Framework’ and which relaxed controls on goods, was not enough to convince the DUP.
But Jeffrey Donaldson’s Unionist Party finally accepted a deal with the British government this week, saying the text offered enough guarantees and removed the Irish Sea border it had denounced. However, this decision is not unanimous even within his party.
The reinvigoration of Northern Ireland’s institutions will also allow London to release a £3.3 billion (about €3.9 billion) package to support public services, which recently faced a strike historical proportions.