Flash: History made as Michelle O’Neill installed as Six County First Minister
Flash: History made as Michelle O’Neill installed as Six County First Minister

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More than twenty months after her election, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill has finally been confirmed as the new First Minister in the north of Ireland, to the joy of her party and others around the world who believe it is a step-change on a pathway to Irish reunification.

Although hopes of Irish unity are not shared by hardline unionists, who believe the Brexit deal they have secured in recent weeks has actually tightened London’s grip on the north of Ireland, the historical significance of today’s events is undisputed.

As the first nationalist leader of a devolved government in Belfast, Michelle O’Neill has fulfilled the dreams of her party and reignited a belief that the Six County statelet, carved out a century ago to be forever dominated by Protestants and unionists, has changed forever.

Britain’s withdrawal from the EU introduced trade regulations between Britain and Ireland, rather than the remilitarised border across the island they had hoped for.

The new deal agreed by London, entitled ‘Safeguarding the Union’, is designed to compensate unionists for the implementation of Brexit. It controversially undermines the 1998 Good Friday Agreement by creating new laws and institutions to build new ties between England and the North of Ireland.

Sinn Féin has studiously avoided comment on the deal, but party leader Mary Lou McDonald said this morning “there is a lot of work to do, we’re all conscious of that”. But she added that the Six County “government and executive could not be in more kinder and compassionate hands than Michelle O’Neill’s”.

Although the first and deputy first ministers hold a joint office and both hold a veto over any contentious decisions, Ms O’Neill’s appointment to the top role is still a breakthrough moment for nationalists.

O’NEILL SPEECH

In her address to the Assembly following the vote that finally confirmed her election, Ms O’Neill said she would “serve everyone equally” and be a “First Minister for all”.

“To all of you who are British and unionist; Your national identity, culture and traditions are important to me. I will be both inclusive and respectful to you,” she said.

“None of us are being asked or expected to surrender who we are. Our allegiances are equally legitimate. Let’s walk this two-way street and meet one another halfway. I will be doing so with both an open hand and with heart.

“Much suffering and trauma persists as a result of the injustices and tragedies of the past. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. I am sorry for all the lives lost during the conflict. Without exception.

“As First Minister I am wholeheartedly committed to continuing the work of reconciliation between all of our people. The past cannot be changed or undone. But what we can do is build a better future. I will never ask anyone to ‘move on’, but I do hope that we can ‘move forward’.

“I want us to walk in harmony and friendship. My eyes are firmly fixed on the future. On unifying people and society.”

In the same vote, the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly was installed as the Deputy First Minister. She admitted it was a “historic moment”.

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly said she grew up with conflict.

She told Stormont she is thankful that young people today “do not have to face that terror that so many of us” experienced, and said she will “never forget the fear, the hurt and the anger”.

Hardline unionist TUV leader Jim Allister launches a personal attack on Michelle O’Neill following her appointment. “We have a Sinn Féin First Minister but not in my name. I will never bow the knee,” he said.

NEW EXECUTIVE

The new Executive will share out the Ministries between four parties – Sinn Féin, the two unionist parties, DUP and UUP, and the ‘cross-community’ Alliance Party.

The nationalist SDLP will lead the opposition alongside People before Profit and the Green Party.

The d’Hondt system for divvying up Ministerial posts is set by party strengths, although there was some last-minute horse-trading.

For Sinn Fein, John O’Dowd is in line to take infrastructure, Conor Murphy is expected to become economy minister, and Caoimhe Archibald will be Education Minister.

For the DUP, Gordon Lyons will take the finance post and Paul Givan will be Communities Minister.

Alliance leader Naomi Long will be Justice Minister and the Agriculture Minister will be colleague Andrew Muir. The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole, who is set to take up the position of leader of the opposition in the Assembly, says that his party will “ensure delivery and accountability”.

Speaking in Stormont’s Great Hall ahead of today’s events, he said that his party will be a “constructive and serious opposition”.

“The last two years NI has been in groundhog day,” he said, but he also described the appointment of Michelle O’Neill as the first nationalist First Minister as a “moment of profound significance”.

MOST UNIONISTS BACK DEAL

Other than a small meeting in Moygashel, County Tyrone organised by Jim Allister and loyalist activist Jamie Bryson, feared unionist opposition to the deal has not materialised.

In a message of acceptance, Bryson posted on social media that “today is a day of great sadness for unionism” as “the DUP will return to implement the Irish Sea border”.

He said he wishes DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and his team well and hope it turns out many years from now “that I was wrong and he was right - because if, as I firmly believe, the opposite is true then the Union will be permanently altered at best, dismantled at worst”.

The anti-Catholic Orange Order have praised the deal, wth ‘Grandmaster’ Mervyn Gibson describing is as a victory. He said while the agreement to restore devolution wasn’t perfect, it was “a win for unionist determination and unity, and needs to be accepted as such”.

He added: “Let’s not turn a significant victory into a defeat. Had unionism not stood its ground there would be no changes.

“This deal will not only put a united Ireland out of touching distance, it will knock it out of sight.”

Unionists have also expressed hopes the deal will counter growing support for alternatives to Stormont, particularly ‘Plan B’, a joint administration with authority shared between Dublin and London.

There have also been a concerned response by nationalists and republicans.

SDLP, IRSP REJECT DEAL

The SDLP has rejected the deal as being in breach of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

Speaking in Westminster as legislation to give effect to deal was rushed through parliament on Thursday and Friday, Colum Eastwood said that “while it’s positive that we will have a functioning Executive and Assembly here again, the British government’s paper “falls short”.

“It has moved beyond the principles of the GFA, and it’s obviously the product of a one-sided negotiation. That can’t happen again,” he said.

The IRSP was among the republican organisations to reject it, describing it as “a British declaration of intent to remain” and that it had “smashed to pieces” Britain’s declaration over 30 years ago that it had no ‘selfish strategic or economic interest’ in the Union.

It said it had “removed any doubt whatsoever that the constitutional nationalist program for Irish unity was outflanked, out manoeuvred, and rendered impotent” by the Good Friday Agreement.

They added: “The key republican demand of the twentieth century was a British declaration of intent to withdraw from the Six Counties. Today Britain has announced their intention to remain.

“In the wake of this published deal, some will attempt to give comfort to nationalism by citing the potential for a border poll and the presence of a nationalist first minister in the Stormont Assembly.

“This deal however reminds the people of Ireland that the actual power to call a border poll lies not in the expressed wishes of the population, but in stated perceptions of a British secretary of state. A state which has today declared its intention to remain in Ireland indefinitely.”

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