Michelle O’Neill has been confirmed as the new Sinn Fein leader in the North. The selection was ratified by the party’s Ard Chomhairle.
In a crowded Long Gallery at Stormont, Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald thanked Martin McGuinness and confirmed Michelle O’Neill.
Martin McGuinness spoke warmly about his relationship with the Paisley family and thanked Ian Paisley Jnr for his remarks on The View on Thursday night, referring to the wider Paisley family as supporters of the Peace Process.
On discussions about leadership change, McGuinness said discussions had been going on for a year and that Michelle O’Neill had for years defended the peace process and was made of tough stuff. She could show great strength and compassion. Over the years, she had been consistently promoted, taking on tough portfolios such as Health.
In her first speech as Northern Leader, O’Neill said
When I was growing up in Tyrone as a teenager, if anyone had ever said that I would be leading our party in the North at some stage in the future I wouldn’t have believed them.
On the DUP she said;
Over the course of the last number of weeks, while others shouted from the sidelines it was Sinn Fein that stood up and confronted corruption. It was Sinn Fein that called a halt to the arrogance and the intolerance of the DUP.
On the no return to the status quo line;
Commitments must be delivered and it is the duty of both the Irish and British governments to fulfill their part.
We cannot allow the British government’s withdrawal from the European Union to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, the protections and safeguards within it or the principle of consent either.
The North being forced to leave the EU against the expressed wishes of our people who voted to remain represents a major set back.
On what mandate Sinn Fein are seeking;
Sinn Fein is seeking in this election a mandate to enter forthcoming political negotiations come March to defend your interests and put firmly the people’s social, economic and political interests first.
This is a time for active citizenship, for democratically and peacefully asserting our rights.
O’Neill has previously served as Minister for Agriculture and is the current Health Minister. Unusually for Sinn Fein ministers she was re-appointed to the Executive in May 2016.
She has been involved in elected politics for over a decade, serving as Mayor of Dungannon and an MLA for Mid-Ulster since 2007 where she was elected alongside her predecessor, Martin McGuinness.
O’Neill has the potential to really begin a new chapter in the development of Sinn Fein as a political party in Ireland. As the first female to head the Northern wing she will undoubtedly face comparisons with her counterpart, Mary Lou McDonald as analysts attempt to understand where the party is going after the Adams/McGuinness era.
Some real challenges confront her as she takes this position, such as the upcoming election with Nationalism going into this campaign following a record low turnout in May 2016. There will also be tough negotiations with the DUP and the British government following the election which will test the new leadership’s ability to stake out clear issues for reform and an agenda for a potential new Executive.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs