The 47-year-old First Minister made her speech during the first meeting of the Northern Ireland Parliament in two years. In protest against border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party refused to govern throughout.
This rejection has become more urgent after Sinn Féin became the largest party in the 2022 election. This means that the pro-Irish party could field a prime minister for the first time in history, in a ruling coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party.
About the author
Patrick van Ijzendoorn is a correspondent for Great Britain and Ireland De Volkskrant. He has lived in London since 2003 and has written several books, including on Brexit.
The DUP's resistance was broken last week when it agreed to changes to the Brexit agreement concluded by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak a year ago. There are no longer any checks on goods with Northern Ireland as the final destination.
The role of the European Union
Hardliners within the Democratic Unionist Party and Britain's Conservative Party oppose the revised agreement because it would still give the EU too much of a say in Northern Ireland. In particular, the continuing role played by the European Court of Justice on British soil raises doubts within these circles.
But in the background, mainly pro-British unionists fear this is a giant step towards Irish reunification. Nationalists constitute a numerical majority in Northern Ireland for the first time, and there is a possibility that Sinn Féin will come to power in Ireland itself after the Irish elections next year. Irish Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said after the DUP surrendered that reunification was “within reach”. Such words from the real leader of Sinn Féin cause panic within unionist circles, among the “orange man”.
For this reason, O'Neill avoided a triumphant tone in her first appearance as Northern Ireland's leader. “I will serve everyone equally,” she promised. “Wherever we come from, whatever our ambitions, we can and must build the future together.” Significantly, she used the term “Northern Ireland” during her speech. Nationalists usually speak of “Northern Ireland” because they oppose the Irish partition that occurred more than a century ago after the independence of the Irish Republic.
In an interview with Sky News presenter Trevor McDonald, she said she would be willing to visit unionist strongholds, such as a football match in Linfield, if invited. When asked, she claimed that a referendum on reunification might be possible within ten years. “Yes, I think we're in a decade of possibilities. There are a lot of things that change old norms, like the nature of the country, and the fact that a National Republican was never meant to be prime minister.
O'Neill comes from a working-class family from the village of Clono in County Tyrone. Her father, Brendan, was an IRA prisoner, and her uncle, Paul, raised money for the outlawed IRA. Two of her cousins, both IRA members, were shot by security forces during the 'troubles'. One of them, Tony, died of his injuries. After working as a social worker, O'Neill entered politics, where she quickly came under the tutelage of Sinn Fein veterans Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as an emerging talent.
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