Michelle O’Neill was named Northern Ireland’s top government leader on Saturday in a historic appointment for her party that represents a sea change in Irish politics.
O’Neill belongs to the Irish Republican Party Sinn Féin, which is historically associated with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and favors unity with the rest of Ireland. Northern Ireland’s government has been long dominated by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which prefers to keep Northern Ireland’s ties to the United Kingdom.
The opposing republican and unionist viewpoints closely divide Ireland’s legislative body, which has been under a tenuous power-sharing deal since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The First Minister leads the province and is selected by the party that wins the most seats in Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly—a right Sinn Féin won in 2022, when it overtook the DUP as the largest faction.
O’Neill is the daughter of a former IRA operative who was imprisoned during the Troubles, the period of civil unrest in Northern Ireland that lasted until the 1990s. Although her party strongly advocates for Irish unity, O’Neill presented herself as a builder of bridges between the nationalist and unionist parties in her speech.
“None of us are being asked or expected to surrender who we are. Our allegiances are equally legitimate. Let’s walk this two-way street and meet one another halfway,” she said.
O’Neill will lead the province alongside deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, a unionist from the DUP. While its pro-British rival still holds the second-most number of seats in the Northern Irish assembly, Sinn Féin’s historic win demonstrates the shifting political preference of a younger generation of Irish voters—many of whom were born after the Troubles ended—that identify with the party’s leftist, pro-republican message.