Michelle O'Neill: Northern Ireland's history-making first republican leader as Stormont is to return

The story of Northern Ireland's history-making first minister

The return of Stormont’s powersharing institutions is to see Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill become first minister on Saturday.

O'Neill will make history as Northern Ireland’s first Irish republican first minister after the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) agreed to return to power-sharing at Stormont.

It will be a moment of "very great significance", Sinn Fein’s party leader Mary Lou McDonald has said.

The end of the two-year Stormont blockage was signalled when DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson secured the backing of his party executive for government proposals aimed at addressing his party’s concerns over Brexit’s so-called Irish Sea border.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was then summoned to meet on Saturday at 1pm, the assembly's speaker has said.

But who is Michelle O'Neill, and how has she come to be first minister?

Early life

O'Neill was born in 1977. She comes from a staunch Irish republican family in Clonoe, County Tyrone.

Her father, Brendan Doris, was a Provisional IRA prisoner and Sinn Fein councillor, while her uncle, Paul, is a former national president of the Irish Northern Aid Committee (NORAID).

A cousin of O'Neill's, Tony, was one of three IRA members killed in an ambush by the Special Air Service in 1991.

Another cousin, IRA volunteer Gareth Malachy Doris, was shot and wounded during the 1997 Coalisland attack, where the IRA launched an improvised grenade attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary base.

Michelle O'Neill while serving as as minister for Agriculture and Rural Development in 2011. Credit: PA

At just 16, O'Neill gave birth to a daughter, revealing the impact it's had on her life.

"Being a young mum, well it's my life experience, it made me what I am, it makes you stronger, I think," she told Sky News.

"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.

"At that time, you're talking 1993, society still, compared with today, was a very different place.

"You were neatly put in a box: single mother, unmarried mother, nearly written off. But I was determined that I wasn't going to be written off, that I was going to work hard and make a good life for her."

Political career

Ms O’Neill joined Sinn Fein after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 at the age of 21, working as an advisor to politician Francie Molloy in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

She kept this role until 2005, when she was elected to represent the Torrent electoral area on Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council, taking the seat which had been vacated by her father.

Michelle O'Neill with First Minister of Scotland Humza Yousaf in 2022. Credit: PA

O'Neill was elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Mid Ulster in the 2007 Assembly election, succeeding her Sinn Fein colleague Geraldine Dougan.

While a backbencher in the Assembly, O'Neill sat on Stormont's education and health committees.

In 2010, she became mayor of Dungannon and South Tyrone, making her the first woman to hold the position of mayor, as well as one of the youngest people. She held the council position until 2011.

In 2011, O'Neill succeeded Michelle Gildernew as minister for Agriculture and Rural Development in the Northern Ireland Executive.

O'Neill replaced the DUP's Simon Hamilton as minister of Health following the 2016 election.

After just eight days in office, she announced she would be scrapping the lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood in Northern Ireland.

Michelle O'Neill helps carry the coffin of former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness in 2017. Credit: PA

In February 2018, she became the vice president of Sinn Fein, succeeding Mary Lou McDonald, who had become president.

O'Neill faced calls to step down in 2020 after she was accused of breaking coronavirus rules as she attended the funeral of veteran IRA commander Bobby Storey.

In January 2020, O'Neill was appointed deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

She automatically lost her position in June 2021 when Arlene Foster resigned as first minister, and regained it three days later when she and Paul Givan were nominated as deputy first minister and first minister respectively.

In February 2022, O'Neill once again lost her position as deputy first minister with the resignation of Paul Givan as first minister.

Following the 2022 Assembly election, Sinn Fein won the largest number of seats with 27 seats, becoming the biggest political party in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Michelle O'Neill signs a condolences book for the late Queen in 2022. Credit: PA

Their unionist counterparts, the DUP, came second with 25 seats.

As a result of being the largest party, it put O'Neill in line to become the first minister of Northern Ireland, and the DUP leader to become the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Notably, O'Neill broke with Republican tradition to attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II after her death in 2022. She also attended the coronation of King Charles in May 2023, saying: "Well, obviously I wanted to be here.

"We live in changing times and it was the respectful thing to do, to show respect and to be here for all those people at home, who I had said I would be a first minister for all.

"Attendance here is about honouring that and fulfilling my promise."

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