Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams has said the party’s new Six County leader, Michelle O’Neill, “needs to grow into the job”, but could work alongside DUP leader Arlene Foster in the Stormont Executive if corruption scandals are resolved.
Mr Adams was speaking in Clonoe, County Tyrone, at a ‘homecoming celebration’ for Ms O’Neill amid hopes for her to become the new Six County First Minister following the forthcoming Assembly election.
Speaking to party supporters, Mr Adams praised the outgoing Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, who is suffering with a serious illness and is stepping down from active politics.
“Monday was a huge day for Martin and the McGuinness family. It was a huge day for Sinn Fein... and I know it was a brilliant day for Michelle,” he said.
“I know her father Brendan would have been very very proud, and that her mother Kathleen - who’s here is very very proud, and Ryan and Saoirse.
“Now of course Michelle O’Neill needs to grow into the job, and needs to find her voice, and she’ll have our support as she continues the work that Martin pioneered.”
Mr Adams said he was struck with a new name for both women, should they join each other in the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, along the lines of Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley Sr. when they shared the office and became known as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’.
“I was listening to the DUP giving off earlier on and messing about and trying to distract attention from their own difficulties,” he said, “and I could see it - the Chuckle Sisters”.
Local MP Francie Molloy then introduced “legend of republicanism” Martin McGuinness, whom he said “changed the face of politics in Mid Ulster, right across the island of Ireland, and indeed across the world”.
Addressing the crowd Mr McGuinness spoke fondly of his time representing the constituency, and continued to promote the spirit of reconciliation he said he came away with the day he met Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
“We met one of the greatest reconcilers that the world has ever seen,” he said. “The reconciliation theme that oozed out of Mandela was emblazoned in my head.
But he added: “I know reconciliation can be a tough word for people who’ve been hurt as a result of conflict.
“Unionists need to get their heads around it because everyone else is beside them - every one of Ireland’s 32 counties - we are the only people who care about them.
“The British government don’t care about the unionists,” he went on. “They don’t care about any of us, and the Brexit decision clearly shows how little they care about anybody on the island of Ireland.”
Saying he was honoured to have represented Mid-Ulster, Mr McGuinness went on to praise his predecessor and outline the reasons he chose her.
“She’s not behind the door on speaking up, and speaking her mind and that’s what I like about her. I could identify from a very early stage that this young woman had a big future in our party,” he said.
“To be truthful with all of youse, she was the one that I wanted to replace me as Deputy First Minister - I think I made a good choice. She is someone that I have tremendous faith in and I think she is going to be an absolute star.”
Grateful for the opportunity to try, Ms O’Neill thanked everyone for their congratulations and spoke of her pride at being chosen to follow McGuinness.
“I can’t thank you enough,” she said. “I am truly honoured.”
Saying she wished her father could have been there to share in her achievement, Ms O’Neill told the crowd “challenging times” lay ahead, but said, continuing in the “footsteps of a political giant” she would continue to fight for equality - not just for republicans - but for women, minorities, same sex couples and those “being forced to leave the European Union against their express wishes”.
Meanwhile, Arlene Foster has said she will “have to work with” with Ms O’Neill following the Assembly election.
The DUP leader again played down the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal which led to the snap election and could cost taxpayers in the North some 500 million pounds. She accused Sinn Fein of causing the election by “walking away”.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has also spoken with Ms O’Neill and said she looked forward to working with her.
Mrs May said she hoped that following the election “all parties would be able to come together to find a way forward for Northern Ireland”. Ms O’Neill responded by telling the British PM that “equality and respect” must be at the heart of any new power-sharing executive.
* Ms O’Neill’s full statement on her promotion is published below.