Northern Ireland has finally put an end to a two-year impasse, paving the way for a new government and potentially resolving one of the longest-standing conflicts in the world. On February 1st, Michelle O’Neill from the nationalist Sinn Féin party was named as the new head of government in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin is a party that advocates for Irish reunification and has a history rooted in terrorism. Despite receiving the most votes in the May 2022 election, they failed to form a government due to opposition from unionist parties.
However, an agreement has been reached between Sinn Féin and unionist parties, resulting in a transfer of £3 billion from the British government to public services in Northern Ireland. With O’Neill leading the new government, this marks the first time since Ireland’s partition in 1921 that a nationalist holds the top position in the Northern Irish Executive.
Recent reports have brought attention to O’Neill’s family background, which reflects her ties to Sinn Féin and the IRA. Her father was a member of the IRA and later became a councilor for Sinn Féin, while her cousin was killed by Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) during an attack on his home in 1991. However, it remains unclear what impact this personal history will have on O’Neill’s leadership style or decision-making process as she begins her term as First Minister.
In addition to forming a new government, O’Neill has also expressed her desire for a referendum on Irish reunification within ten years. She believes that reunification would be best for both Ireland and Great Britain economically, socially, and politically and would allow Ireland to play a more significant role on the global stage. However, both London and Dublin are displeased with this possibility, citing concerns about day-to-day issues rather than constitutional matters.