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Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill appointed as NI’s first nationalist First Minister

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill appointed as NI’s first nationalist First Minister

Stormont’s first nationalist First Minister Michelle O’Neill has pledged to work with unionists to build a better future for Northern Ireland.

The appointment of the Sinn Fein vice president provided a moment of history on the day the powersharing institutions returned after a two-year hiatus.

In her speech to the reconvened Assembly, Ms O’Neill said: “Today opens the door to the future – a shared future.

“I am honoured to stand here as First Minister.”

DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly was nominated as deputy First Minister.

Taking up the post, she said she and Ms O’Neill come from “very different backgrounds”, but for her part she will work “tirelessly to ensure that we can deliver for all in Northern Ireland”.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris described it as a “great day for Northern Ireland”.

He told the assembled media he is confident that devolved government in Northern Ireland is “sustainable in the very long term”.

Stormont Assembly
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris speaking to the media at the Northern Ireland Assembly (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

The two top jobs in the ministerial executive wield equal power and responsibility, but the elevation of a republican to the office of first minister, by virtue of Sinn Fein becoming the region’s largest political party in the 2022 Assembly election, is undoubtedly a significant symbolic moment for Northern Ireland.

The sitting started with the election of former DUP leader Edwin Poots as Speaker, a move which allowed the rest of the business to proceed.

Following the nomination of Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly, Alliance leader Naomi Long was confirmed as returning to serve as Justice Minister.

The remaining ministerial portfolios were decided by the D’Hondt process based on party strengths.

Stormont Assembly
Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

As the largest party, Sinn Fein had the first nomination, and put forward Conor Murphy as Minister for the Economy before the DUP nominated Paul Givan as Education Minister.

Proceedings were briefly halted after Sinn Fein asked for an adjournment before making their next nomination, believed to be after the DUP did not take the department of finance as expected.

Sinn Fein then nominated Caoimhe Archibald as Minister for Finance before the DUP nominated Gordon Lyons as Minister for Communities.

The UUP nominated Robin Swann to return as Health Minister.

The nominations concluded with Sinn Fein selecting John O’Dowd as Minister for Infrastructure and Alliance put forward Andrew Muir as Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Stormont Assembly
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

The final ministers to be announced were Aisling Reilly (Sinn Fein) and Pam Cameron (DUP), who will serve as junior ministers in the Executive Office completing an all-female line up alongside Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly.

Meanwhile SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole was confirmed as leader of the official Opposition.

The DUP, the largest unionist party in the region, agreed to the recall of the political institutions on the back of its deal on post-Brexit trade with the UK Government, which party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says has effectively removed the so-called Irish Sea trading border on goods remaining within the UK.

On Thursday, the Government fast-tracked two pieces of legislation contained in the agreement through the House of Commons, opening the way for the Assembly to return on Saturday.

Addressing the chamber after her appointment was confirmed and she affirmed the pledge of office, Ms O’Neill said the restoration of the institutions marked a “moment of equality and progress”.

Edwin Poots
Former DUP leader Edwin Poots was elected to the role of speaker (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms O’Neill said the public were relying on each MLA to act in their best interests and to serve “our whole community” in good faith.

“We must make powersharing work because collectively, we are charged with leading and delivering for all our people, for every community,” she said.

“In common cause we must make life better for workers, families, communities. To create hope and opportunity.”

Ms O’Neill urged all MLAs to be “respectful of each other”.

“The days of second-class citizenship are long gone,” she said.

“Today confirms that they are never coming back.

“As an Irish republican I pledge co-operation and genuine honest effort with those colleagues who are British, of a unionist tradition and who cherish the Union.

“This is an assembly for all – Catholic, Protestant and dissenter.

“Despite our different outlooks and views on the future constitutional position, the public rightly demands that we co-operate, deliver and work together.

“We must build trust and confidence in our ability to do that.”

The republican leader said the new ministerial executive “undoubtedly face great challenges” as she listed the issues besetting public services in the region.

She said ministers had to work together to challenge the UK Government to provide more funding for Northern Ireland.

Ms O'Neill at Parliament Buildings ahead of her nomination
Ms O’Neill at Parliament Buildings ahead of her nomination (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

She added: “This is an historic day which represents a new dawn.

“For the first time ever, a nationalist takes up the position of First Minister.

“That such a day would ever come would have been unimaginable to my parents and grandparents’ generation.

“A more democratic, more equal society has been created making this a better place for everyone.

“This place we call home, this place we love, North of Ireland or Northern Ireland, where you can be British, Irish, both or none is a changing portrait.

“I will be both inclusive and respectful to you. None of us are being asked or expected to surrender who we are.

“Our allegiances are equally legitimate. Let’s walk this two-way street and meet one another halfway.

“I will be doing so with both an open hand and with heart.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson with his party’s MLAs
DUP leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson with his party’s MLAs (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

Commenting on the legacy of the Troubles, Ms O’Neill said much suffering and trauma persists as a result of the injustices and tragedies of the past.

“We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families,” she said.

“I am sorry for all the lives lost during the conflict. Without exception.

“As First Minister I am wholeheartedly committed to continuing the work of reconciliation between all of our people.

“The past cannot be changed or undone.

“But what we can do is build a better future.

“I will never ask anyone to ‘move on’, but I do hope that we can ‘move forward’. I want us to walk in harmony and friendship.

“My eyes are firmly fixed on the future. On unifying people and society.

“Every generation must write its own chapter, define its own legacy.”

DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly speaking after she was nominated to serve as Northern Ireland’s next Deputy First Minister during proceedings of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Parliament Buildings, Stormont
DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly speaking after she was nominated to serve as Northern Ireland’s next deputy First Minister (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms Little-Pengelly said she recognised that for many, it is a “historic moment”.

She said there must be no dominating from any side to another, calling for a “new approach of recognising the concerns of each other and finding solutions together”.

“We are all born equal and the people who look on this sitting today demand us to work together,” Ms Little-Pengelly said.

“Michelle is an Irish republican, and I am a very proud unionist. We will never agree on those issues but what we can agree on is that cancer doesn’t discriminate on our hospitals need fixed.

“Let us be a source of hope to those young people watching today, not one of despair.

“Let us prove that difference is something that can be a strength through recognition and respect. That difference need not be a barrier to progress and delivering.

“This is my pledge. I love this place we call home. I will work tirelessly for delivery for all the people of Northern Ireland from every background. I will do so with the best of my abilities honoured by the privilege and opportunity to do so.

“Let’s do it side by side and let’s keep Northern Ireland moving forward.”