Thursday 27 July 2017

'I haven't gone away,' promises McGuinness as O'Neill anointed

Martin McGuinness: 'No one can replace him'. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Martin McGuinness: 'No one can replace him'. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Suzanne Breen and Michael McHugh

Martin McGuinness invoked a familiar republican phrase, once used in reference to the IRA, to insist he would still be involved in political activism as Sinn Féin unveiled Michelle O'Neill as its new Stormont leader.

"I haven't gone away, you know," said Mr McGuinness, whose resignation as Northern Ireland deputy first minister in protest at the Democratic Unionists' handling of a botched green energy scheme triggered the collapse of the power-sharing administration.

The Sinn Féin veteran later confirmed that he would not seek re-election due to his ongoing battle against a serious illness.

Ms O'Neill, whose appointment is seen as a break from the party's IRA past, described her appointment as the biggest honour and privilege of her life.

But unionist politicians have said that the change of leadership in Sinn Fein from "P O'Neill to M O'Neill" is an illusion which will fool nobody.

TUV leader Jim Allister last night said it was peculiar for a self-proclaimed republican party to have "a coronation" with Michelle O'Neill appointed, rather than elected, to the position as Sinn Féin's Northern Ireland leader.

Read more: Ian Paisley: My dad prayed regularly with Martin McGuinness... and the first time we met he laughed when I made a quip about balaclavas

"It is a matter of indifference to me and one for Sinn Féin alone who they crown as their leader," he said. "Now if Michelle O'Neill came out and renounced the IRA that would be a very different matter."

DUP MP Gregory Campbell claimed that Sinn Féin was desperately trying to repackage itself, with Ms O'Neill presented as a break with a less saleable generation of republicans.

Mr Campbell said that Ms O'Neill had failed to live up to her billing by references in a video interview yesterday to the 1992 Clonoe and 1987 Loughgall ambushes in which 12 IRA men were shot dead by the SAS.

He said that "on her first day in the job" she had failed to "express sympathy or regret to the many innocent victims of PIRA, or other terrorist organisations".

The unionist backlash came after an event where Ms O'Neill told party faithful that by succeeding Mr McGuinness she was following in the footsteps of a "political giant".

"No-one can replace Martin but what I can do is to continue his good work to unite our people and to unite our country," she said.

"For me to be selected to lead our party in the North is truly the biggest honour and privilege of my life," she said, as her son Ryan, daughter Saoirse and mother Kathleen looked on.

The 40-year-old mother of two, from Clonoe, Co Tyrone, takes over as Sinn Féin's figurehead north of the Border just weeks before a snap Assembly election.

Mr McGuinness was joined by party president Gerry Adams and vice-president Mary Lou McDonald at an event at Parliament Buildings, Belfast, to confirm the appointment.

Mr Adams said Ms O'Neill represented a "new generation" for the party.

"As a united, all-Ireland team, we will give her the space and support to find her own voice and continue the good work Martin pioneered," he said.

Mr McGuinness said she had proved her fortitude and credentials when facing down anti-peace process elements within republicanism in Co Tyrone.

"She refused to be intimated and continued to build support for Sinn Féin," he said.

Mr McGuinness said her father Brendan was a good and close friend. "We should remember that this is not just a Sinn Féin occasion - it is a family occasion," he said.

He said the new leader had helped him build east Tyrone into the strongest Sinn Féin constituency in the country.

Irish Independent

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