United Ireland in focus with Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill

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United Ireland in focus with Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill



BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND – FEBRUARY 3: First Minister Michelle O’Neill speaks during Northern Ireland Assembly proceedings at Stormont on February 3, 2024 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Handout | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON – A referendum on Irish reunification could be on the horizon within a decade, according to Northern Ireland’s first nationalist prime minister, who took office over the weekend.

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill was named first minister on Saturday, the first Irish nationalist to hold the post since Northern Ireland was founded as a Protestant-majority state in 1921. Emma Little-Pengelly of the Democratic Unionist Party has been appointed deputy first minister.

This came after the Northern Ireland Assembly, the country’s devolved parliament, met on Saturday for the first time in two years after the British loyalist DUP reached an agreement with the British government to boycott post-Brexit trade deals finish.

The island west of England is divided into two parts; Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, while its neighbor, the Republic of Ireland, is an independent state and a member of the European Union.

Until now, Northern Ireland’s first minister has always come from a British union party, but Sinn Féin, which is campaigning for Northern Ireland to rejoin the Republic, won the most seats in the assembly for the first time in 2022.

The DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest British union party, boycotted the February 2022 assembly in protest at post-Brexit trade rules and refused to return for two years, leaving the country of 1.9 million people without a functioning administration. The deal that secured their return includes a British government contribution of more than 3 billion pounds ($3.8 billion) to Northern Ireland’s public services.

The Assembly’s power-sharing rules, enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement – a landmark 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland – mean that the executive branch that governs the country must include both unionists and nationalist representatives.

BELFAST, Northern Ireland – April 10, 2018: Former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US President Bill Clinton at an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images

The rise of a nationalist to the leadership of Stormont has raised questions about whether Irish unity is in sight. The British government said it saw “no realistic prospect of a border poll” following the appointment of the new first minister and suggested a referendum on reunification was still decades away.

However, in an interview with Sky News at the weekend, O’Neill said she “absolutely disputes” that assessment and that this is a “decade of opportunity”.

“There are so many things that are changing. All the old norms, the nature of this state, the fact that a nationalist republican should never be first minister. “It all speaks to change,” she added.

Sinn Fein’s political ambitions have long been clouded by its historical links to the IRA, and O’Neill’s personal story embodies this complicated relationship between her party and the movement’s militant past. Her father was interned as a Provisional IRA prisoner and later became a Sinn Féin councilor, and her cousin was one of three IRA members shot dead in a British Special Air Service (SAS) ambush in 1991.

A police vehicle is attacked with petrol bombs during an illegal dissident march in the Creggan area on April 10, 2023 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

Charles McQuillan | Getty Images

Still, O’Neill has stressed the importance of her role as a “unifier” for a country that wants to preserve the fragile and precious peace that has been fostered in the 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement.

Promising to be a “first minister for all”, she astutely broke with republican tradition by referring to the country as “Northern Ireland” rather than “Northern Ireland” or “the six counties” in her acceptance speech.

O’Neill told Sky News that the country had endured a “difficult, turbulent past” and that what was most important now was to “look to the future”.

“I’m obviously a republican, a proud republican, but I think it’s really, really important that I can look at the people who identify as Irish republicans, but also those with British and unionist identities, and tell them “That I respect their values.” “I respect their culture,” she said.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday played down suggestions that a referendum could be held within the decade after spending recent days meeting with O’Neill and other members of Northern Ireland’s new executive.

A man walks past a hijacked bus burning on the Shankill Road as protests continue in Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 7, 2021.

Jason Cairnduff | Reuters

“Our new deal gives them more powers and more resources than ever before so they can help families and businesses across Northern Ireland and that is now everyone’s priority,” he told Sky News.

“It is not a constitutional change, but rather the implementation of everyday things that are important to people.”

However, O’Neill has made it clear that she strongly believes that power-sharing at Stormont can serve the people of Northern Ireland, while Sinn Féin also pursues its ultimate goal of reuniting the island of Ireland.



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2024-02-06 12:37:16

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