Historic day in Northern Ireland as Michelle O’Neill becomes first nationalist leader

In a historic moment, a nationalist politician has become First Minister of Northern Ireland as power-sharing resumed after a two-year break.

Michelle O’Neill of the pro-united Ireland party Sinn Féin, once the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), said in an address to lawmakers following her appointment: “Today opens the door to the future. I am honoured to stand here as First Minister.”

She vowed to “serve everyone equally and be a First Minister for all”, including those who identify as British and Unionist.

“I am wholeheartedly committed to continue the work of reconciliation between all of our people. The past cannot be changed or cannot be undone. But what we can do is build a better future.”

O’Neill has been entitled to the post since 2022 when Sinn Féin won a majority in the May election. The leading opposition party however, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), had refused to enter a power-sharing government in protest over post-Brexit trading rules.

The DUP agreed to a deal on Thursday with the UK government, which saw their Brexit concerns alleviated – paving the way for lawmakers to be recalled to the Northern Ireland Assembly on Saturday which ends the two-year political deadlock.

A house speaker was also sworn in, as well as a DUP-nominated Emma Little-Pengelly as Deputy First Minister – an office which holds the same powers as First Minister – who said in an address that she “could never have imagined” serving Northern Ireland in such a way, recalling the aftermath of an IRA bomb outside her home when she was a child.

“Michelle is an Irish Republican, and I am a very proud Unionist,” she said. “We will never agree on those issues. But what we can agree is that cancer doesn’t discriminate, and our hospitals need fixed.”

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought an end to decades of sectarian violence between pro-republican Catholics and pro-unionist Protestants – a period known as “The Troubles” – stipulates that both communities have equal powers in government and institutions.

“In reality it doesn’t matter who is ‘first minister’ and who is ‘deputy first minister’, Irish political commentator and journalist Fintan O’Toole told CNN.

“The offices have exactly the same powers and status. But the symbolism of a Sinn Féin representative becoming first minister is still obvious and in Northern Ireland symbols matter a lot – perhaps too much.

“The whole point of creating Northern Ireland a century ago was that it would always have a Protestant majority committed to staying within the United Kingdom. Michelle O’Neill’s accession to office as the leader of the largest party in the assembly dramatizes the end of that project.

“It doesn’t mean that a United Ireland is an immediate prospect but it does mean that the whole future of Northern Ireland is very much an open question. The task now is to make that openness promising and full of opportunity rather than threatening and full of fear.”

The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland.

Although part of the United Kingdom, lawmakers in the Assembly have the powers to legislate over a range of issues not explicitly reserved for the Westminster government in London.

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