Northern Ireland appoints first nationalist first minister in historic moment

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill has made history by being appointed Northern Ireland’s first nationalist first minister.

A power-sharing government has returned as politicians gathered at Stormont to appoint a series of ministers to the devolved executive, two years after it collapsed over the UK government’s deal with the EU.

The Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Emma Little-Pengelly has been nominated to serve as deputy first minister.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the deputy has an authority equal to that of the first minister.

In her speech, which began in Irish, Ms O’Neill said: “Today opens the door to the future – a shared future.

“I am honoured to stand here as first minister.”

Michelle O'Neill at Stormont. Pic: Reuters
Michelle O’Neill at Stormont. Pic: Reuters

Ms O’Neill said she was addressing an “assembly for all – Catholic, Protestant and dissenter” and that the public was “relying” on the members of Northern Ireland’s elected assembly.

More on Northern Ireland

She added: “We must make power sharing work because collectively, we are charged with leading and delivering for all our people, for every community.”

Ms O’Neill continued: “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… Despite our different outlooks and views on the future constitutional position, the public rightly demands that we co-operate, deliver and work together.”

The first minister also acknowledged that the power-sharing coalition will “undoubtedly face great challenges” but vowed to “serve everyone equally”.

Ms O’Neill also spoke about the impact of the UK government’s austerity measures on Northern Ireland, telling the assembly the country “cannot continue to be hamstrung by Tories in London”.

She added: “Tory austerity has badly damaged our public services. They have presided over more than a decade of shame. They have caused real suffering.

“I wish to lead an executive which has the freedom to make our own policy and spending choices.”

Sir Jeffrey Donaldsonsays the DUP have agreed a deal with the UK government to restore power-sharing
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP

Earlier, former DUP leader Edwin Poots was chosen by members of the assembly as its new speaker.

His party had refused to participate in government at Stormont, arguing that post-Brexit arrangements effectively left a trade border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

An agreement a year ago between the UK and the EU, known as the Windsor Framework, eased customs checks and other hurdles but didn’t go far enough for the DUP, which continued its boycott.

However, the DUP has since forged a deal with the UK government on post-Brexit trade, which party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says has effectively removed the so-called Irish Sea trading border.

Ms O’Neill said in her speech after being appointed first minister: “We will now begin to seize the considerable opportunities created by the Windsor Framework.

“To use dual market access to grow our exports and attract higher-quality FDI.

“The Windsor Framework also protects the thriving all-Ireland economy, and we must fully realise its huge potential.”

Ms O’Neill’s selection as first minister, made possible after she led Sinn Fein to victory in the 2022 Assembly elections, marks the first time the post has been held by a nationalist committed to seeing Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland united as one country.

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