Tuesday 21 November 2017

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill poised to be selected as party's new leader in Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill. Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill. Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Suzanne Breen

Michelle O'Neill is today expected to be named as Sinn Fein's new leader in Northern Ireland as the party attempts to rebrand itself for the next generation of voters.

The 40-year-old Mid Ulster MLA is set to take over from Martin McGuinness who announced his retirement last week.

Ms O'Neill will have to hit the ground running, leading her party into an election in less than six weeks' times.

Her likely appointment comes as the DUP potentially faces more pressure in the 'cash for ash scandal' at Stormont with rebel MLA, Jonathan Bell, reportedly about to make new allegations in the chamber.

While Sinn Fein has officially remained tight-lipped as to who will be appointed, Gerry Adams appeared to indicate that it would be Ms O'Neill by tweeting several photographs of himself with her at a party conference in Dublin over the weekend.

Mystery had surrounded how the new Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland had been selected.

However, a party spokesman last night told the Belfast Telegraph that Mr Adams had made a recommendation which the party's ard chomhairle ratified on Saturday.

He clarified that the title of Mr McGuinness's successor would be "party leader in the North".

Mr Adams tweeted a photograph of himself and Ms O'Neill at a gathering of Sinn Fein activists in Dublin.

"United Ireland conference about to begin here in Mansion House.

"Me and Michelle preparing our notes," he posted.

After a second photograph taken of himself with the Mid Ulster MLA and Mary Lou McDonald, he tweeted: "Blessed am I amongst women."

If a new Executive can be set up after the Assembly election, Ms O'Neill will have to work closely with Arlene Foster.

The two women have served as ministers in the Executive together for six years.

They jointly greeted former US President Barack Obama as he arrived for the G8 Summit in Enniskillen in 2013.

Mrs Foster also appeared alongside Health Minister Ms O'Neill when she launched details last October of her planned reforms to the NHS following the Bengoa report.

However, if the DUP and Sinn Fein again emerge as Northern Ireland's two largest parties, the two women will have to form an even more intimate working relationship.

It is understood that Ms O'Neill was the favoured choice of both Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness to take over the party's leadership at Stormont.

A mother of two grown-up children, she has been involved with Sinn Fein for almost two decades.

In 2005, she won her father's seat on Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council following his retirement, and became the area's first female mayor. She was elected an MLA for Mid Ulster in 2007. Four years later, she became Agriculture Minister.

Sinn Fein's decision to reappoint her to the Executive for a second time last May - as Health Minister - surprised many observers.

Belfast Telegraph

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