Thursday 19 September 2019

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

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

Niall O'Connor

Plans to appoint Michelle O'Neill as the new face of Sinn Féin in the North looked to be a formality last week when the outgoing health minister was tasked with making one of the most significant speeches delivered in Stormont in years.

With a stone-faced DUP leader Arlene Foster sitting directly opposite, Ms O'Neill sounded the final death-knell on a power-sharing arrangement that could last no longer than eight months.

She lauded her "good friend" Martin McGuinness - the IRA man turned peacemaker, whose legacy will continue to divide people on both sides of the Border.

While Ms O'Neill's appointment was never a foregone conclusion, she does not have the baggage that have followed other candidates within Sinn Féin.

Conor Murphy, her fellow MLA, previously served time in prison for IRA membership and possession of explosives.

He took the extraordinary step following the 2007 IRA murder of Paul Quinn of releasing a statement in which he said he had spoken to the IRA in south Armagh and was satisfied they weren't involved.

As we know in the context of the Brian Stack murder case, having direct access to the IRA is, in this day and age, little comfort for families whose lives have been utterly destroyed.

Murphy's past - and his refusal as recently as last Friday to apologise for the actions of the IRA - seemingly render him unsuitable for the position of deputy first minister in the eyes of some influential party figures.

Perhaps Mr Murphy should first consider calling to the home of Breege and Stephen Quinn, Paul's parents, before he thinks about a promotion within the Sinn Féin ranks.

Read more: McGuinness's steady hand will be missed as unionists will never find a more accommodating coalition partner

Maybe he should listen, like many of us have, to the grieving parents' account of how their son had every single bone in his body below the neck broken by an IRA gang armed with iron bars.

Maybe then Mr Murphy will pick up the phone to his comrades who told him, despite contradictions from the security forces, that the IRA had nothing to do with Paul Quinn's murder.

But as Sinn Féin looks ahead to next month's Assembly elections, who is the person who has been asked to fill the boots of Martin McGuinness?

Who exactly is Michelle O'Neill?

The 40-year-old was first elected to the now defunct assembly in 2007 alongside Mr McGuinness.

But she later transferred to her home constituency of Foyle, where she has used a base to rise through the party ranks.

After the DUP and Sinn Féin entered into a power-sharing agreement with the DUP and smaller parties in 2011, Ms O'Neill was appointed minister for agriculture and rural development.

But after impressing both the party hierarchy and sections of the electorate, Ms O'Neill was handed the health portfolio following the Stormont elections in May.

Ms O'Neill was commended by many for lifting the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood.

Her late father Brendan, who was a former IRA prisoner, is believed to be her greatest political influence.

But it is perhaps Ms O'Neill's likeability that makes her the best candidate for the post of deputy first minister.

Unlike others in the party, the mother of two represents the so-called 'New Sinn Féin'.

It's a term associated down south with other able politicians, such as Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty, Eoin Ó Broin and Peadar Tóibín.

If Sinn Féin is to turn a corner and grow its support base, Ms O'Neill is seen by many as having the attributes required to drive this.

Ms O'Neill has been a forceful figure during the ongoing 'cash for ash' scandal. But she faces a daunting task post-election, when she must work to reinstate the Assembly through negotiations with the DUP. More importantly, she must help rebuild public faith in Northern politics, which at the moment is completely broken.

Irish Independent

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