HomeLatest NewsNorthern Ireland to elect Irish nationalist First Minister in historic shift

Northern Ireland to elect Irish nationalist First Minister in historic shift

Britain's MI5 raises threat level in Northern Ireland

BELFAST/DUBLIN: Northern Ireland lawmakers are set to elect an Irish nationalist First Minister for the first time on Saturday, placing a member of the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army in charge of a region where it seeks an end to British rule.

But Michelle O’Neill’s ascent to the role also marks the most significant milestone yet in a shift to a new generation of more pragmatic Irish nationalists not directly involved in the region’s decades-long bloody conflict.

And her election was made possible by a compromise between her Sinn Fein party and its arch rival, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which this week ended a boycott of the region’s power-sharing government that had threatened the 1998 Good Friday peace settlement.

“This is a historic moment in time, it’s not lost of the wider public,” O’Neill said on Tuesday when the DUP’s decision to re-enter government made her election inevitable.

“But it depends on what you do with it… Let’s get down to business. Let’s … actually deliver for public sector workers, for the wider society out there.”


Sinn Fein, once shunned by the political establishment on both sides of the Irish border, emerged as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in an election in 2022, giving it the right to nominate O’Neill as First Minister.

But her path was blocked by the DUP’s refusal to join the government in protest at post-Brexit trade rules, which it said created barriers with the rest of the United Kingdom and undermined Northern Ireland’s place in it.

The DUP ended its boycott this week after striking a deal with the UK government to ease trade frictions.

Technically the compulsory power-sharing system gives equal power to the DUP’s Deputy First Minister as to O’Neill as first minister. But the First Minister title has always carried symbolic weight.

“The ground is shifting in a very decisive way,” said Chris Donnelly, a political commentator from the mainly Catholic area of west Belfast. “And for nationalists that means the moment of Irish unity would appear to be closer than ever.”


O’Neill’s imminent appointment, like the 2022 election, have triggered talk of the ultimate dream of Irish nationalism: the end of British rule in Northern Ireland and a united Ireland.

“As a matter of fact in historic terms, it’s within touching distance,” Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s leader in the Republic, said on Tuesday.

McDonald, whose party also looks set to be the largest in the south in elections due by next year, has repeatedly said a referendum could be held within a decade.

McDonald was speaking at Belfast’s Stormont Assembly, established in 1921 as the parliament of a Northern Ireland state designed to provide a Protestant majority counterweight to the newly independent, predominantly Catholic, Irish state to the south.

At that time, the population split was roughly two-thirds Protestant to one-third Catholic. Data from the 2021 census showed Catholics outnumbered Protestants for the first time.

But opinion polls have made clear that demographics alone will not win a unity referendum: the polls consistently show a clear majority in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom.

Under the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of sectarian violence, a referendum on unity is at the discretion of the British government, which can call a referendum if it appears likely a majority of those voting would seek to form part of a united Ireland.

Writing in the Irish Times on Friday, University College Dublin history professor Diarmaid Ferriter described McDonald’s comments as “wildly exaggerated”.

While talking up the prospect of unity, Sinn Fein’s pitch to voters at the 2022 election focused on economic concerns, following a similar playbook in the south where the party has found success campaigning on everyday issues like housing.

And all politicians in Northern Ireland are under intense pressure to deliver on bread and butter issues after the two-year hiatus put pressure on already stretched public services.

In a video message after the restoration of the executive was confirmed, O’Neill did not mention a united Ireland.

“We need to get down to brass tacks,” she said. AFP

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