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“I want to be a head of government for everyone”


She is the first Catholic Prime Minister of Northern Ireland – Michelle O'Neill has been in office since the weekend. Who is she and what does she want to achieve?

Gabi Biesinger

It has never happened before in the Northern Irish Assembly in Stormont that the head of government speaks Irish: It is an honor for her to take on the task, said Michelle O'Neill. It stands for a common future and a parliament in which everyone has a voice: Protestants, Catholics and those who no longer want to represent this classification.

The 47-year-old then explained on Sky News that it was a historic moment that an Irish nationalist was taking over the office. “My parents’ and grandparents’ generation never thought this was possible,” she said. This is a great responsibility. “But I want to be a head of government for everyone, and I want to show that every day and bring people together.”

Irish Controversies reunion

This may apply to everyday political issues in Northern Ireland – such as healthcare, schools or social policy. Areas where a lot has been left undone in the past two years when there was no government. But O'Neill also takes a clear position on the extremely controversial topic of Irish reunification.

After the Protestant DUP collapsed the government two years ago in protest against the Brexit rules for Northern Ireland, the government in London told the DUP last week that, based on current opinion polls, there was no prospect of an independence referendum in the coming decades.

A point why the DUP returned to government. O'Neill, on the other hand, said that for her, a referendum on Irish reunification was realistic given the political changes over the next ten years.

From teenpregnancy and raids

Michelle O'Neill comes from a small village in County Tyrone and became a mother at the age of 16. “I went to a Catholic girls' high school. A pregnant 16-year-old, I was frowned upon and there was little support,” she said.

O'Neill was 21 years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, which was supposed to bring peace after decades of civil war. Her father Brendan was in prison as a member of the republican terrorist group IRA when she was young. A cousin, also in the IRA, was shot dead by the British military.

My father wasn't there when I was young. An early memory of mine is the sound of Land Rovers pulling up whenever our house was raided. Such experiences shape you.

Her uncle Paul was president of NORAID, the organization of Irish-Americans who raised funds for Catholic nationalist Irish. Supposedly for humanitarian purposes, such as prisoners, but no one doubts that it was also used to finance weapons.

“The happy generation of Good Friday Agreement”

Two years ago, O'Neill drew criticism when, in a BBC podcast, when asked how she looked back on the IRA's violence as resistance against the British, she replied that there was no alternative to violence at the time.

Today, as the new head of government, she chooses her words more carefully: “We are the lucky generation of the Good Friday Agreement and we now live in a different country,” said O'Neill. “But I also said in my inaugural speech that I regret, without exception, every life that this conflict has cost. That people have lost loved ones during this difficult time.”

Gabi Biesinger, ARD London, tagesschau, February 5th, 2024 6:48 a.m

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