Historic moment as Irish nationalist becomes Northern Ireland’s first minister

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In a historic development for Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill has been named the first minister, marking the first time an Irish nationalist has held this position. This significant milestone comes as the Northern Ireland government returns to work after a two-year boycott by unionists.

Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, which aimed to bring an end to decades of sectarian violence, power in Northern Ireland is shared equally between two main communities: British unionists who seek to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Irish nationalists who aspire to reunite with Ireland.

O’Neill’s appointment as first minister is seen as a highly symbolic moment for nationalists, as it represents a significant shift in the political landscape of Northern Ireland. “This is a historic day which represents a new dawn,” O’Neill said. “That such a day would ever come would have been unimaginable to my parents and grandparents’ generation. Because of the Good Friday Agreement, that old state that they were born into is gone. A more democratic, more equal society has been created, making this a better place for everyone.”

In her new role, O’Neill will share power with deputy first minister Emma Little-Pengelly from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). While the two will be equals in the government, O’Neill, whose party captured more seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly in the 2022 elections, will hold the more prestigious title.

The government’s return to work follows a two-year deadlock after the DUP walked out in protest over trade issues related to Brexit. With neither side able to govern without agreement from the other, government business had ground to a halt, leaving Northern Ireland without effective governance.

O’Neill, 47, has a background deeply rooted in the complexities of Northern Ireland’s history. Raised in the north but born in the Republic of Ireland, she comes from a family with links to the militant Irish Republican Army (IRA). Her father was imprisoned as an IRA member, an uncle raised money for the group, and two of her cousins were shot by security forces, one fatally. O’Neill has been criticized for attending events commemorating the IRA and has defended the group’s armed campaign during the Troubles, a period of about 30 years of violent conflict over the future of Northern Ireland, which ended with the Good Friday accords. “I don’t think any Irish person ever woke up one morning and thought that conflict was a good idea, but the war came to Ireland,” she said in 2022. “I think at the time there was no alternative, but now, thankfully, we have an alternative to conflict and that’s the Good Friday agreement.”

Despite the challenges and divisions of the past, both O’Neill and Little-Pengelly, 44, have pledged to work together to bridge divides and build a better future for Northern Ireland. “The past with all its horror can never be forgotten, and nor will it be allowed to be rewritten, but while we are shaped by the past, we are not defined by it,” Little-Pengelly said.

The return to government comes exactly two years after the DUP boycott over a dispute about trade restrictions for goods coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The U.K. government has agreed to new changes that would eliminate routine checks and paperwork for most goods entering Northern Ireland, easing tensions over the issue.

U.S. President Joe Biden has welcomed the restoration of the Northern Ireland executive and assembly, expressing hope for renewed stability and progress. “I look forward to seeing the renewed stability of a power-sharing government that strengthens the peace dividend, restores public services, and continues building on the immense progress of the last decades,” Biden said in a statement from the White House.

The return to government is seen as a positive step forward for Northern Ireland, offering hope for a more stable and prosperous future as the region continues to navigate its complex political landscape.

(Source: BBC | AL Jazeera | France 24 | Associated Press)

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