Exclusive: Meet Northern Ireland’s First Nationalist Leader

Michelle O'Neill photographed at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, in Belfast, Ireland on April 30, 2024. Credit - Tom Jamieson for TIME

Michelle O’Neill was never supposed to be here. When the Northern Ireland Assembly was established following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended 30 years of sectarian bloodshed known as “The Troubles,” it established a delicate system of power sharing. Traditionally Protestant British unionists, who want to preserve Northern Ireland’s status within the U.K., and traditionally Catholic Irish nationalists, who aspire to reunify with the independent Republic of Ireland, would govern together. But even at the time of that historic compromise, no one imagined that a nationalist party could become the legislative body’s largest—or that anyone other than a unionist might one day hold its top office.

And yet here stands O'Neill, a 47-year-old Catholic woman and the first nationalist leader of Northern Ireland—a province she one day hopes to abolish. O’Neill, who is from a prominent Irish republican family, represents Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—and tells TIME nothing about her political ascent was inevitable.

“The North of Ireland was built in such a way that someone from my background would never be First Minister,” she says during an hour-long interview in Belfast’s Parliament Buildings at Stormont, a towering neoclassical building where the Northern Ireland Assembly sits. Like most nationalists, she often refers to Northern Ireland as “the north” as a tacit rejection of the 1921 partition that created it. “It was built in such a way that my parents and grandparents would never have imagined that a nationalist, let alone a republican woman, would be First Minister.”

While O’Neill doesn’t downplay her republican credentials, she noticeably doesn’t overstate them either. That’s because O’Neill wants to lead, and to be seen, as a “First Minister for all” who will represent everyone in Northern Ireland equally—be they unionist, nationalist, or neither. She has won plaudits for her willingness to transcend sectarian divides by going where no previous Sinn Féin leader has gone before, including attending royal events such as the coronation of King Charles III and standing for the U.K. national anthem at a soccer match. In a society as steeped in history as Northern Ireland, O’Neill says this inclusive style of politics is necessary to ensure the continued success of the Good Friday Agreement and the political arrangement it helped create. This hasn’t always been a given: Northern Ireland’s devolved government has been functional for less than 60% of its existence, says Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queen’s University Belfast, owing to the fact that it requires the cooperation of both nationalist and unionist parties to work. If one side opts against participating—as has been the case on numerous occasions, most recently in 2022 when the leading unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), staged a two-year boycott of the Assembly in protest of post-Brexit trading rules—the whole system collapses. O’Neill, who shares equal power with her deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly of the DUP, is committed to ensuring that their nascent administration lasts.

Michelle O'Neill on April 30, 2024.<span class="copyright">Tom Jamieson for TIME</span>
Michelle O'Neill on April 30, 2024.Tom Jamieson for TIME

As sensitive as O’Neill is to the past, her attentions are trained on the future. In the short term, that means addressing acute challenges such as a cost-of-living crisis that has left public services crumbling and many struggling to make ends meet. In the long term, it means continuing to push for a referendum on Irish reunification—a campaign that could gain greater traction should Sinn Féin win power south of the border, as polls project it could, when the Republic of Ireland holds its next general election.

“This is the decade where I believe the question should be put to the people,” O’Neill says of a border poll, which the Good Friday Agreement stipulates must be conducted both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland “if at any time it appears likely” that a majority would favor Northern Ireland seceding from the U.K. and becoming a part of a united Irish state. While that time hasn’t yet materialized, O’Neill is confident that it will—with her help.

“My election as First Minister speaks to the change that’s happening across the island.”

For a small province roughly the size of Connecticut, Northern Ireland bears plenty of scars. “Peace walls” separating Belfast’s predominantly Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods still tower over the city. Colorful murals pay homage to slain nationalist and unionist paramilitary fighters. Relics of the past can even be found in the city’s pubs, some of which retain the security cages and door buzzers installed during the Troubles. Even in contemporary Northern Irish politics, the past feels ever-present. On the day O’Neill is scheduled to sit down with TIME, the conversation is delayed by an Assembly debate on how to deal with flags of proscribed paramilitary groups. The day before, the chamber discussed the potential fallout of the U.K. government’s Legacy Act, which as of May 1 halts all Troubles-era civil cases and inquests, directing them instead to an independent commission.

“We’re a society that still needs a lot of healing,” O’Neill says, noting that the Legacy Act “does absolutely nothing—not one thing— to help heal any wounds of the past. All it does is pull down the shutter on truth and justice; all it does is cover up and protect the British government’s role in the conflict here.” (Of the 3,600 people killed during the Troubles, some 1,200 cases remain unresolved. While the majority of those are attributed to republican or loyalist paramilitary forces, more than a quarter are thought to have been committed by U.K. security forces, according to a 2018 report by The Detail.)

O’Neill is part of the Good Friday generation that came of age with the peace agreement, but the first half of her life was dominated by the sectarian violence of the past. Born Michelle Doris on Jan. 10, 1977, she spent her earliest years in the Republic of Ireland’s County Cork, where her family had moved from their native rural village of Clonoe, in Northern Ireland’s County Tyrone. Her grandmother, Kathleen Doris, was a well known civil rights campaigner while her father, Brendan “Basil” Doris, was a member of the IRA and a former prisoner; he later went on to become a Sinn Féin politician. The family returned to Clonoe when she was four years old.

Like most children of that era, O’Neill didn’t understand that what she was experiencing—the militarized environment, the violence, the marginalization of her community—was unusual. Her earliest memories are not of British soldiers patrolling the streets (though they were certainly there), but of Sunday lunches with her grandparents. All in all, she says her family life was a happy one. “I think it’s the nature of Irish people,” she says. “We just managed.”

First Minister Michelle O'Neill speaks during proceedings of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont on February 3, 2024 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.<span class="copyright">Kelvin Boyes—Press Eye/Northern Ireland Assembly/Getty Images</span>
First Minister Michelle O'Neill speaks during proceedings of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont on February 3, 2024 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.Kelvin Boyes—Press Eye/Northern Ireland Assembly/Getty Images

When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in the spring of 1998, O’Neill was 21 years old. By that point, she had already become a young mother to her daughter Saoirse, whom she had at 16. “Everybody knew it was a huge moment,” she says of the day the accord was signed—one she remembers marking by driving around Clonoe, “tooting horns and celebrating.” The moment made her think of her child’s future, as well as her own. That same year, she joined Sinn Féin—first as an adviser to Assembly lawmaker Francie Molloy, and then as a local councilor when, in 2005, she was elected to the seat vacated by her father. Two years later, she was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, eventually becoming the province’s agricultural minister and health minister. But her biggest break came in 2017, when she was appointed to succeed Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander and deputy first minister, as Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland. The move was seen as a generational shift—one that transferred the party from the hands of those who waged, and ultimately ended, the Troubles to those who inherited the peace that followed. Suddenly, Sinn Féin went from being led by two men (McGuinness and former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams) to two women, with O’Neill in the north and Adams’ successor, Mary Lou McDonald, in the south.

“The Sinn Féin leadership recognized that whatever talents they brought, a new set of talents was needed for a post-conflict generation,” says Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, noting that both women helped to soften and modernize the party’s image. They also made it a more socially progressive one. As health minister, one of O’Neill’s first acts was to lift the province’s ban on gay and bisexual men giving blood. She has also backed calls for expanding abortion services in Northern Ireland, where access has trailed that of the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. On perhaps the most salient issue of recent years—the U.K.’s withdrawal from the E.U., which a majority in Northern Ireland opposed and which has inflamed sectarian tensions—Sinn Féin was able to draw an even starker contrast between itself and the Brexit-backing DUP.

It paid off. During O’Neill’s first year leading the party in Northern Ireland, she oversaw two of Sinn Féin’s best electoral performances at that point, making gains in both Stormont and Westminster. (While Sinn Féin contests U.K. general elections, it does not take up its parliamentary seats in observance of its longstanding rejection of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland.) In the last Northern Ireland Assembly election of May 2022, Sinn Féin won 29% of the first-preference vote, increasing its vote share by 1.1% from 2017. Though a modest increase, it was enough to overtake the DUP as the largest party, pushing the once-dominant unionist party into second place for the first time. A province designed to be a unionist stronghold would no longer be led by one, though it would be another two years of Stormont paralysis before O’Neill would be able to claim her new title.

With a 53% approval rating, O’Neill is the most popular political leader in Northern Ireland—and perhaps the most personable, too. Over the course of a conversation in a nondescript meeting room overlooking Stormont’s expansive estate, she talks openly about her family, being “a granny,” and her experience sharing an office with a deputy whose vision for the future is so different to hers, but with whom she gets on “quite well.” (Like O’Neill, Little-Pengelly was born during the Troubles to a family steeped in the conflict; her father, Noel Little, was the leader of the loyalist paramilitary group Ulster Resistance.)

Though her words are considered, they don’t seem canned in the way politicians’ can be. She concedes that while escapes from politics are rare—“somebody always finds you”—her favorite comes in the form of cooking. “I love to barbecue,” she says. She glances out the window towards the gray Belfast sky and adds: “But all year round. In the depth of winter, I could be out in my back garden barbecuing. I’m the queen of the barbecue.”

Party colleagues and political opponents alike describe O’Neill as smart, hard-working, and compassionate. Many see her outreach to the unionist community in particular as genuine, though some critics counter that it doesn’t go far enough.

“Symbolically, I think a lot of what she’s done has actually been very welcome,” Matthew O’Toole, a nationalist politician with the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the leader of the opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly, tells TIME, noting that O’Neill “handled herself with patience and maturity” during the two-year period when she was unable to take up her duly-elected role as First Minister. He noted, however, that such gestures—important as they are in a place like Northern Ireland—can’t be a substitute for delivering on the everyday needs of people, for whom issues such as healthcare and the economy are top of mind. “So far in the Assembly and the Executive, we haven’t really seen any clear signs of a plan for delivery,” O’Toole says.

But O’Neill’s cause isn’t as popular as she is. Though Irish unity is seen as more plausible than it ever has been in the aftermath of Brexit, which has left the U.K. less prosperous and wealthy than the Republic of Ireland (an E.U. member), only 39% of people in Northern Ireland support reunification, according to a recent poll, compared to 49% who don’t. The figures reverse, however, when you ask the Northern Irish public whether they expect to see a united Ireland in the coming decades, as this 2022 study did: 45% said yes, while 38% said no.

O'Neill departs Westminster Abbey following the coronations of Britain's King Charles III on May 6, 2023. <span class="copyright">Phil Noble—Getty Images</span>
O'Neill departs Westminster Abbey following the coronations of Britain's King Charles III on May 6, 2023. Phil Noble—Getty Images

O’Neill believes that there are people—particularly the plurality of those who don’t identify with unionists or nationalists—who are willing to be persuaded, and says that there’s as much an economic case for Irish reunification as there is an ideological one.

“You look at the economy in the south versus the economy in the north; you look at the challenges we have here with austerity, with our public services being so challenged; and then you look at all the opportunities,” she says. Her vision for a united Ireland is one “built on prosperity for everybody, on fairness and equality” where “everybody gets a fair crack at the whip.” To British unionists who fear marginalization in a united Ireland, she says: “Never on my watch would it ever be done on to any community what was done on to the community that I came from. I think it’s important that we find ways to assure anybody that thinks like that that we will absolutely ensure that British identity and Irish identity lives side by side.”

While maintaining political stability in Northern Ireland will primarily fall to O’Neill and Little-Pengelly, it will also depend on the outcome of a number of key elections—in the U.K., in the Republic of Ireland, and perhaps even in the U.S., too. All three had a hand in the Good Friday Agreement, to which both London and Dublin are co-guarantors.

O’Neill makes no secret of her disdain for the ruling Conservatives in the U.K. government (“These people can’t be trusted,” she says, pointing to the political dysfunction of the last 14 years) or her desire to see Sinn Féin win power in the Republic (“One of the biggest failings of the government of the day is the fact that they haven't done any of the preparation work around constitutional change”). But she says that the U.S.’s relationship with Northern Ireland defies party politics. “There’s a lot of influential people on the Hill that we have strong, strong relationships with, and that always continues regardless of who holds the POTUS position,” O’Neill says. “It’s that practical, pragmatic support that we’ve had through the years that’s made the difference for the peace process here.”

It’s too soon to say what O’Neill’s legacy as First Minister will be, but in a place as turbulent as Northern Ireland, the stability of a functioning government might be enough. “I want to see Irish unity—I’m sure that’d be a great legacy I could leave, if we could get to that point,” she says, laughing. “But I won’t do that by myself, of course. That’ll be a collective will.”

For now, O’Neill says she’s striving for the same feeling that she felt all those decades ago driving around her native Clonoe. “That hope and opportunity, it’s that same feeling that people had in 1998,” she says. “It’s about prosperity, it’s about lifting people up. If I can leave even some of those things in my legacy, then I think that will be a good thing to do.”

Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com.