A 40-year-old mother of two children has replaced an aging and ill former IRA commander as the new face of republican politics in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland Assembly health minister Michelle O’Neill has been selected by Sinn Féin to lead the party in the province. The Mid Ulster representative takes over for Martin McGuinness, 66, who resigned earlier this month due to health problems and lingering questions about his unionist counterpart’s role in a troubled energy program.
“I have no doubt that I am following in the footsteps of a political giant,” O’Neill said in a statement.
The McGuinness resignation resulted in the assembly being dissolved and triggers fresh elections 2 March.
“In the aftermath of the election, there can and will be no return to the status quo,” O’Neill said. “Sinn Féin are only interested in participating in the power sharing institutions if they deliver for all of our citizens and operate on the basis of equality and respect.”
O’Neill has held elected office since 2005 and was first woman mayor of the Dungannon council area, according to a detailed bio on the party website. She lives in Clonoe, County Tyrone, about an hour west of Belfast.
The political landscape continues to evolve in Northern Ireland. As The Guardian reported a few days before O’Neill’s selection, demographics are driving a lot of the change. The ratio of Protestants to Catholics is close to even, and more immigrants are living in the province.
“Brexit may also mean an independent Scotland, the Unionists’ most natural ally in the U.K., which would leave Ulster as an even more isolated appendage than ever. And hemmed in to the south [by the Republic.] In such circumstances, the case against a united Ireland might seem absurd.”