An Irish nationalist made history on Saturday by becoming Northern Ireland’s prime minister as the government returned to work following a two-year boycott by unionists.
Northern Ireland’s parliament has appointed Michelle O’Neill, vice-president of Sinn Fein, to oversee the government which, under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, shares power between the two main communities Northern Ireland: British unionists who want to remain in the United Kingdom and Irish nationalists who seek union with Ireland.
Northern Ireland was established as a unionist, predominantly Protestant part of the United Kingdom in 1921, following the independence of the Republic of Ireland.
“The days of second-class citizenship are long gone. Today confirms that they will never come back,” O’Neill said.
“As an Irish Republican, I pledge to co-operate and make genuine honest efforts with my British colleagues, who are of the Unionist tradition and who cherish the Union. This is a body for all – Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters.”
Neither party can govern without the agreement of the other. Government business has fallen by half in the past two years after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) walked out in protest over Brexit trade problems.
O’Neill will share power with Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly of the DUP. The two will be equal, but O’Neill, whose party won the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly in the 2022 election, will hold the more prestigious title.
Former DUP leader Edwin Poots was elected Speaker of the House.
O’Neill, 47, was elected to the Stormont Assembly in 2007 and comes from a family of Irish republicans. His party, Sinn Fein, was affiliated with the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles, a roughly 30-year period of violent conflict over the future of Northern Ireland that ended with the Good Friday.
Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who helped broker the historic peace deal, was in the assembly gallery to witness O’Neill’s appointment.
Dispute over trade restrictions
The return to government came exactly two years after a DUP boycott over a dispute over trade restrictions on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain. Northern Ireland’s 1.9 million residents were left without a functioning administration as the cost of living soared and public services were strained.
An open border between the north and the republic was a key pillar of the peace process that ended the Troubles, so controls were imposed between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
A deal struck a year ago between the UK and EU, known as the Windsor Framework, eased customs checks and other barriers, but did not go far enough for the DUP, which continued its boycott.
The British government this week agreed to new changes that would eliminate routine checks and red tape for most goods entering Northern Ireland, although some checks would remain in place for illegal goods or disease prevention.
British government to strengthen public services
The new changes include legislation “affirming the constitutional status of Northern Ireland” as an integral part of the United Kingdom and giving local politicians “democratic control” over any future EU laws that might apply to the North Ireland.
The British government also agreed to give Northern Ireland more than £3 billion ($5 billion Canadian) for its ailing public services, once the Belfast government is back up and running.
“I believe my party has achieved what many said we could not do,” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said outside the Stormont Chamber.
“We have made changes that many said were impossible, and I believe today is a good day for Northern Ireland, a day when, once again, our place in the United Kingdom and its internal market will be respected and protected in our law and restored so that all our people enjoy the benefits of our union membership.