Michelle O’Neill: the new face of Irish nationalism
Michelle O’Neill embodies a new generation of progressive Irish republicans, and will go down in history as the leader who won nationalists power in Northern Ireland for the first time.
The 45-year-old Sinn Fein politician, who on Saturday vowed to provide “leadership which is inclusive, which celebrates diversity”, comes from a family well acquainted with the dark days of sectarian strife.
Her father was jailed for IRA offences and her cousin was killed by members of the elite British regiment the SAS.
But O’Neill, vice president to Sinn Fein’s all-Ireland president Mary Lou McDonald, is from a generation that came of political age after the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement ended “The Troubles”.
Her left-wing liberalism, glamorous appearance and slick politicking has found favour with younger voters angry at a loss of access to secure jobs and housing since the 2008 financial crash.
It is also in sharp contrast to the staid, masculine and dogmatic political atmosphere during the era of violence, and with the current unionist leadership in Northern Ireland.
Instead of a singular focus on bringing about the republican dream of a united Ireland, O’Neill’s party emphasised policies to tackle surging inflation and encourage stability following the shock of Brexit.
O’Neill was born in County Cork, in the south of the Irish republic, on January 10, 1977.
Her father Brendan Doris served jail time at the height of the Troubles due to his membership of the IRA paramilitary group, and later became a Sinn Fein councillor.
UK authorities believed her 21-year-old cousin Tony Doris was a part of a brigade planning to kill a senior security force member in 1991. He died when his car was ambushed by the SAS.
Another cousin, IRA volunteer Gareth Malachy Doris, was wounded during a firefight in 1997.
– Teenage mum –
O’Neill turned to politics after training as an accounting technician, working as an advisor to Sinn Fein politician Francie Molloy in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
After winning election to the devolved legislature in 2007, she became minister for agriculture and rural development in 2011, and minister of health in 2016.
It was here that she served notice of her liberal philosophy, lifting Northern Ireland’s ban on gay men donating blood.
O’Neill became the party’s leader in the north in 2017, following the resignation of veteran republican and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness.
She became deputy first minister in the Belfast executive in 2020, sharing power uneasily with the Democratic Unionist Party before the DUP walked out in protest at the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union.
She lost that position when the executive collapsed in February, but instead will now take on the prize role of First Minister following Thursday’s historic win.
The DUP or other unionist forces had always controlled power since Northern Ireland was established in 1921, when the rest of Ireland achieved self-rule from Britain.
And nearly a century after the nationalist party fragmented south of the border during a civil war, it is leading in Irish opinion polls too, possibly bringing the prospect of a united Ireland closer to reality.
O’Neill was married to Paddy O’Neill until they separated in 2014, and has two children. She credits her toughness on being a teenage mum.
“I know what it’s like to be in difficult situations, I know what it’s like to struggle, I know what it’s like to go to school and have a baby at home, and to be studying for your exams,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.