© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Vice President of Sinn Fein Michelle O’Neill leaves after voting at a polling station during local elections in Coalisland, Northern Ireland, May 18, 2023. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo
By Amanda Ferguson and Natalie Thomas
BELFAST (Reuters) -Northern Ireland’s parliament appointed an Irish nationalist as First Minister for the first time on Saturday, a historic milestone in a state established a century ago to ensure the dominance of pro-British unionists.
Michelle O’Neill’s appointment, the delayed result of a watershed 2022 election, is the latest sign of the rise of a Sinn Fein party in the British region that has said its ultimate dream of a united Ireland is “within touching distance.”
The appointment came as Sinn Fein’s pro-British rival, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), formally ended a two-year boycott of the power-sharing government after this week striking a deal with the British government to ease trade frictions.
“This is an historic day which represents a new dawn,” O’Neill, 47, said in her acceptance speech. “I will serve everyone equally and be a First Minister for all.”
O’Neill and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald represent a shift to a new generation of Sinn Fein politicians not directly involved in the region’s decades-long bloody conflict between Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland and pro-British unionists wanting to remain the United Kingdom.
As the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Fein was long shunned by the political establishment on both sides of the border. It is now also the most popular party in the Irish republic ahead of elections due next year.
The post of deputy First Minister, which has equal power under Northern Ireland’s system of power-sharing government but less symbolic weight, is to be taken by the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly.
A column in the Irish nationalist newspaper The Irish News contemplated whether there would ever be another unionist First Minister.
There was heavy security around the assembly building, but no signs of trouble. A few dozen trade union members protested over the impact of the government shutdown on workers’ pay.
While Sinn Fein has this week talked up the prospect of unity, all politicians in Northern Ireland are under intense pressure to deliver on bread-and-butter issues after the two-year hiatus piled pressure on already stretched public services.
A referendum on unity is at the discretion of the British government and opinion polls consistently show a clear majority in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom.
The two-year shutdown is likely to lead to more calls for reform of the rules that allow the largest party on either side to pull down power-sharing for long periods. It has been suspended almost as often as it has sat since being established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The Irish and British prime ministers have said they are open to considering reforming the political architecture once the devolved government is up and running.
“They’re fed up,” 40-year-old lawyer Tara Walsh said of the general mood on the streets of Belfast. “People want change.”