Saturday 24 February 2018

Mum of two (40) represents new generation in Sinn Féin

Michelle O’Neill is congratulated by Martin McGuinness as she is unveiled as the new Sinn Féin leader in the North at a Stormont press conference. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Michelle O’Neill is congratulated by Martin McGuinness as she is unveiled as the new Sinn Féin leader in the North at a Stormont press conference. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

She's virtually unknown in the Republic, but Michelle O'Neill has been described as Martin McGuinness's right hand woman in the Northern Assembly.

Free of any personal involvement in the IRA, the 40-year-old mum's elevation to the role of Sinn Féin leader in the North represents a passing of the torch to a new generation in the party.

However, that's not to say that her past isn't steeped in the tradition of the Republican movement.

Her late father Brendan 'Basil' Doris was a former IRA prisoner before he was elected to Dungannon Council.

Read more: Sinn Féin's O'Neill faces tough task to rebuild public's faith in North's institutions

The Tyrone woman first became active in politics in her teens, helping her father with his constituency work.

Her mantra is said to be her father's advice to her - "life is for living".

A qualified adviser in welfare rights, Mrs O'Neill is married to Paddy and they have two children, Saoirse and Ryan. She turned 40 last week.

Her daily routine involves getting up at 6am to go to the gym before heading into the office.

However, despite long hours she likes to be around to cook an evening meal - as one profile put it - to avoid Mr O'Neill plating up waffles and spaghetti for the family.

She began working for Sinn Féin when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 and later served as an assistant and adviser to MP Francie Molloy.

Mr Molloy describes her as "very level-headed".

"She is a very personable person, very friendly and easy to work with, which I would not say about myself," he said.

Mrs O'Neill first won her father's old council seat in 2005 and was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly two years later.

She was appointed as agriculture minister in 2011 and during her tenure was popular with farmers in the North, many of whom come from Unionist backgrounds.

In recent years Mrs O'Neill has tramped through flooded fields in wellies and was in place to oversee the response to the horse meat scandal that hit the sector on both sides of the Border in recent years.

In 2013 she expressed a willingness to appear in a reality TV pitched along the lines of 'I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here', only this version would see politicians stranded on a Lough Neagh island. She told 'Sunday Life' she'd take part if it meant raising funds for rescue services on the lake, adding: "I wouldn't be keen on eating any insects though."

During her time at the department, Mrs O'Neill began a process of decentralisation which saw its headquarters move to Ballykelly, Co Derry.

In 2014, a letter she sent congratulating former Fine Gael minister Phil Hogan on his appointment as EU Agriculture Commissioner left her Sinn Féin colleague MEP Matt Carthy red-faced.

Unaware of the letter, Mr Carthy attacked Mr Hogan's record as minister during the European Parliament's approval process only for Mr Hogan to refer to the correspondence and quip: "There seems to have been a breakdown in discipline in Sinn Féin".

Mrs O'Neill became health minister in 2015 and considers the lifting of the ban on gay men donating blood in Northern Ireland to be one of her achievements in office. She mentioned that measure yesterday as proof that she's "never been afraid of a challenge", nor does she shy away from a fight, having been at the forefront of Sinn Féin's attacks on the DUP over the 'cash-for-ash' controversy in recent weeks.

Mrs O'Neill has big shoes to fill in taking over from her mentor, Mr McGuinness.

Her first big test comes with the Assembly elections and the inevitably tense negotiations with the DUP to form a new Executive that will follow.

Irish Independent

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