History was made on Saturday when Michelle O’Neill became the first nationalist First Minister for the Six Counties and banished forever the concept of Stormont being ‘a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’.
Ms O’Neill has reached out to unionists with her vow to be a ‘First Minister for all’, and her inaugural address focused on reconciliation and bread-and-butter issues.
But the appointment of a nationalist First Minister from a republican family represented “a new dawn” unimaginable to past generations of Catholics who experienced discrimination, she said. “That state is now gone.”
For many nationalists, the appointment was both symbolic and emotional.
When Ireland was partitioned along sectarian lines by the British over a century ago, the new statelet was two-thirds Protestant and overwhelmingly unionist. The Irish nationalist minority found themselves with only minimal rights, suffering from discrimination in education, housing, employment, and politics, and all under the thumb of the infamous “B Specials”.
But Sinn Féin has used this week’s return of Stormont to loudly proclaim the significance of it becoming the largest party in the Six Counties. There is a genuine belief it marks a step towards Irish freedom.
Much of this week’s choreography, and the controversial deal brokered between the DUP with the British government, were clearly designed to assuage unionist fears over the encroaching tide of demographic change as well as their more loudly voiced concerns over Brexit.
In fact, last week was all the delayed outworking of the 2022 assembly election, when Sinn Féin overtook the DUP as the biggest party. A DUP boycott in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements mothballed Stormont until the London government unilaterally acted to further erase the so-called Irish Sea border created by Brexit.
Unionists were triumphal over the new Tory plan to ‘safeguard the union’, which wreaked considerable damage to the Good Friday Agreement. There was also a huge sweetener in terms of a £3.3bn financial package from London to bail out the North’s public services.
Despite rumours of a DUP split, in the end Jim Allister of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice was the only unionist voice in the Assembly to oppose the new dispensation.
“We have a Sinn Féin first minister, but not in my name, nor in the name of thousands of unionists who will never bow the knee to IRA-Sinn Féin,” he said.
Republican groups who do not contest Assembly elections also expressed strong opposition to the return of the Six County institutions.
Sinn Féin Poblachtach (Republican Sinn Féin), which split with the Adams/McGuinness leadership in 1986, said the “former Republicans” who now run Stormont alongside unionists “have strengthened the union with Britain and cemented partition and betrayed the people of the Six Occupied Counties.”
“The Provisionals and their leaders have moved a long way from their roots. They have forgotten the sacrifices of the many Irish Republicans who gave their lives and freedom for an end to the partition of our country,” they said.
“Michelle O’Neill can dress up her role as First Minister, saying she is an Irish republican and will work for all, but in reality she is doing the bidding of Westminster.”
Lasair Dhearg said the new British-DUP agreement and the return of Stormont were “nothing to celebrate”.
“Despite what is being claimed, nothing in this latest agreement moves us any closer to resolving the issues facing working class people on this island, regardless of their political position. In fact, as we will see, it continues to solidify the failures which were institutionalised by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements and which Republicans have been proven correct in opposing during, and in the years since.”
Saoradh said that freedom is the “only way” to secure a just and lasting peace in Ireland.
“Each incarnation of Stormont has failed miserably, because partition has failed miserably. Puppet parliaments that are subservient to Westminster simply cannot work, regardless of which flag those on the end of the strings are waving. History has proven that, and this will no doubt be the case again.”
The news that Michelle O’Neill is now using PSNI drivers and bodyguards for the first time also stung.
“The fact that they need armed British personnel to protect them as they travel to and from the puppet British Parliament on the hill would suggest that all is not well and good,” they said.
An Dream Dearg said there was “an opportunity missed” for the Irish language and expressed fears of “deja vu” with DUP once again taking the Education and Community ministries.
“We have been here before and have the bruises to show. ... We hope that commitments to appoint a Commissioner and implement language legislation are at the top of the ‘to do list’ for First Minister. We have waited too long.”
But leaders at home and abroad hailed a “special day for the people of Northern Ireland”.
Irish president Michael D Higgins said the reactivation of the Assembly “will be welcomed by all those who wish to see an effective system of power-sharing”.
He praised the first speeches by Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly in their new roles as “impressive in their inclusion and warmth”.
The Irish Taoiseach said he has “some difficulties” with the command paper, titled Safeguarding The Union, but did not reject it outright.
“If this is the price, if this is what has to be accepted in order to allow power-sharing to resume, I think that’s worth it,” Leo Varadkar said. “There is opposition from nationalists and unionists, but I think the majority of both communities will accept this.”
Sinn Féin’s vice-president made headlines around the world and made the front pages of several British newspapers.
“Sinn Féin marches into the history books”, reported the Sunday Times, while the Independent described it as “a pivotal moment for Irish nationalism”.
The Observer noted: “The chamber’s ornate ceiling remained blue, red and gold, and Portland stone still held up the Stormont edifice, but the beaming Sinn Féin faces declared this was a historic moment for Irish nationalism.”
NEW EXECUTIVE NAMED
Following the appointment of Michelle O’Neill as First Minister and the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly as Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin, the DUP, Alliance and the Ulster Unionist party (UUP) shared ministerial positions using the D’Hondt mechanism based on party strengths, except for justice, which Alliance leader Naomi Long filled on a cross-community vote.
Sinn Féin nominated Conor Murphy as economy minister, John O’Dowd as infrastructure minister and Caoimhe Archibald as finance minister. The DUP nominated Paul Givan to education and Gordon Lyons to communities. Robin Swann of the UUP regained the health portfolio and Alliance’s Andrew Muir took agriculture, the environment and rural affairs.
Edwin Poots, a former DUP leader, became assembly speaker, finally replacing Sinn Féin veteran Alex Maskey, who retired in 2021.
The Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) declined to take part in the power-sharing administration, and its leader in the Assembly, Matthew O’Toole, was named as ‘leader of the opposition’.