As Michelle O’Neill descended the marble staircase of the Northern Ireland Museum parliament building On Saturday, in the suburbs of Belfast, she seemed confident and calm. She smiled as the supporters present on the balcony applauded. Only the seriousness of his gaze conveyed the gravity of the moment.
The political party she represents, Sinn Fein, was shaped by the bloody decades-long struggle of Irish nationalists in the territory who dreamed of reunifying the Republic of Ireland and overturning the 1921 partition that kept the Northern Ireland under British rule.
Today, for the first time, a Sinn Fein politician holds Northern Ireland’s highest political office, a historic moment for the party and the region as a whole as a power-sharing government is restored. The role of Prime Minister had previously always been held by a Unionist politician determined to remain within the United Kingdom.
“I am honored to be here as Prime Minister,” Ms O’Neill said, first in Irish and then in English, after formally accepting the appointment to the post. “We are celebrating a moment of equality and a moment of progress.”
The idea of a nationalist prime minister in Northern Ireland, let alone a prime minister from Sinn Fein, a party with historic ties to the Irish Republican Army, was once unthinkable.
But the story of Sinn Fein’s transformation – from a fringe party that was once the political wing of the IRA, to a political force that won the most seats in the 2022 Northern Ireland elections – it is also the story of a changing political landscape and the results of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended a decades-long sectarian conflict known as the Troubles.
“It’s certainly symbolically very significant,” said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. “It shows us how far Northern Ireland has come and, in many ways, the success of the Good Friday Agreement and the use of democratic and peaceful means to achieve cooperation.”
It is not yet clear what a Sinn Fein prime minister will mean for the hopes of those who want to reunite the island after a century of separation. Although Mary Lou McDonaldThe president of Sinn Fein, who leads the opposition in the Republic of Ireland’s Parliament, said last week that the prospect of a united Ireland was now ‘near’“, experts believe, this is still a long way off.
For now, the territory’s two main political powers – the Unionists and the Nationalists – are bound by the power-sharing agreement laid out in the bill. Good Friday Agreement.
This arrangement collapsed over the question of how Northern Ireland’s political powers view themselves post-Brexit.
Northern Ireland’s main unionist party, the Democratic Unionists, left government in 2022, following Britain’s exit from the European Union, which established a trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Keen to safeguard ties with Britain, the DUP feared that the maritime border would be the first step towards their separation.
His boycott of the Assembly ended last week after the British government agreed to reduce customs controlsstrengthen the position of Northern Ireland UK and handing over 3.3 billion pounds, or about $4 billion, in financial sweeteners.
Because it secured the largest number of union seats in the 2022 election, the DUP had the right to nominate the deputy prime minister on Saturday.
The roles of prime minister and deputy prime minister are officially equal, with neither able to act alone to prevent either community from dominating the other. “People like to say here: You can’t order paperclips without each other’s approval,” Ms. Hayward said. But the titles, and the fact that the role of prime minister reflects the greatest number of seats, create a notion of “first among equals”.
And Ms O’Neill’s appointment has inevitably brought to the forefront discussions about the prospect of Northern Ireland’s reunification with the Republic of Ireland.
Experts said that while the rise of Sinn Fein could provide further momentum to that cause, the party’s rise was more a reflection of the divides that emerged between unionist parties following Britain’s exit from the European Union, rather than a general rise in Irish nationalism. Current polls suggest that the majority of the island’s population does not support unification.
“They made the prospect realistic, and Brexit helped, because support increased somewhat,” said Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool who specializes in Northern Ireland and has analyzed in depth of polls on the issue.
“There is still a way to go,” he said, adding that with elections looming in the Republic of Ireland in 2025 and the potential for a Sinn Fein government there, “it is enormous in these terms.”
He pointed out that a quarter of a century ago, few people would have envisaged a Sinn Fein prime minister.
Part of this success is due to Ms. O’Neill and Mrs. McDonaldwho helped change the perception of the party.
“These two women do not have the background of membership or close associations with the IRA,” said Robert Savage, a Boston College professor and expert on Irish history. “They are younger, express themselves clearly, are popular and know how to respond to the concerns, particularly of the youngest. »
Ms O’Neill, 47, comes from a prominent republican family in Cork, a county on Ireland’s south coast. His father, who served time in prison for being a member of the IRA, later became a Sinn Fein politician. But she has already made an effort to present herself as a prime minister for all. She attended the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of King Charles III last year.
Many unionists associate Sinn Fein with its history with the IRA, as do some nationalists and those who do not identify with either group. But increasingly, particularly among a younger cohort, the party is proving attractive.
In the Republic of Ireland, the party won the popular vote in 2020, in part by focusing attention on social issues like housing and positioning itself as an alternative to the status quo. But his popularity has not extended to older voters who remember the violence of the Troubles.
In some ways, the growth of nationalist political representation is not surprising. Demographics have changed significantly in Northern Ireland, with the slow erosion of the Protestant majority attributed first to the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control and then to economic factors such as the decline of industrial jobs, held mainly by Protestants.
Catholics overtook Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time in 2022, according to census figures. And Northern Ireland is no longer the binary society it once was. Decades of peace attracted new arrivals, and like much of the world, the island became increasingly secular. The labels Catholic and Protestant have been left as a clumsy shorthand to describe the cultural and political divide.
A significant percentage of the population does not identify with either religion. And when it comes to political attitudes, the largest group – 38 percent – consider themselves neither nationalist nor unionist, according to the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey.
Since Brexit, there has been a decline in support for Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom and an increase in support for Irish unification. Many voters saw the break with Europe as economically damaging and threatening cross-border relations, as the island has seen decades in which EU membership helped consolidate peace.
For now, the restored government in Belfast has more pressing problems to resolve. Last month, tens of thousands of public sector workers protested over their wages, in the largest strike in recent memory in Northern Ireland. The healthcare sector is in crisis and the rising cost of living is being felt more acutely than anywhere else in the UK.
“Look what happened when people came together around a table and worked to create peace here, and the Good Friday Agreement was born from that,” said Paul Doherty, a city councilor who represents West Belfast, one of the most deprived communities in Northern Ireland. “I think we need to rekindle that spirit that we had in the ’90s.”