Michelle O’Neill becomes the first nationalist to lead the Northern Ireland government

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Michelle O’Neill was sworn in as Northern Ireland’s first minister on Saturday, the first time a nationalist has held the post in a region created by partition in 1921 as a bastion of pro-British trade unionism.

O’Neill, of the Sinn Féin party campaigning for Irish reunification, walked up the grand steps of Stormont parliament building, past a statue of James Craig, Lord Craigavon, the region’s first prime minister, and into the 90-seat chamber to assist take his place.

It is exactly two years since the Democratic Unionist Party paralyzed the institution over Brexit trade rules.

“I’m a Republican. I will be prime minister for all,” O’Neill said, pledging to serve all parties equally, including “those who care about unity”.

He added: “For the first time ever, a nationalist takes over as prime minister. That such a day could ever come would have been unimaginable to my parents’ and grandparents’ generation.” The republican slogan Tiocfaidh ár lá means: Our day will come

O’Neill spoke a few words in Irish but described the region as both “Northern Ireland” – his party’s preferred term – and “Northern Ireland”.

The DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest pro-British party, came second to Sinn Féin in the regional elections, held in May 2022, and then took over as deputy prime minister.

Emma Little-Pengelly, a lawyer and former MP, has been sworn in as deputy prime minister. She was not elected to Stormont but she was drafted into party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s seat while he remained MP for Westminster.

Although legally the office has the same powers as the prime minister, and neither can function without the other, some unionists are angered by the perception of taking a backseat to Sinn Féin.

In a dig at any suggestion she had a lesser role, Little-Pengelly hailed the appointment of “Michelle and I as Prime Ministers”.

Sinn Féin is anathema to some unionists because it was seen as the mouthpiece of the Irish Republican Army paramilitaries who fought to end British rule during three decades of conflict known as the Troubles, which ended in 1998.

Both women have family links to the Troubles, which also involved loyalist paramilitaries fighting to keep Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, as well as British security forces.

O’Neill’s father was an IRA prisoner; Little-Pengelly’s father was convicted in Paris in 1991 for his role in a loyalist arms-running plot, but denied having been an arms buyer.

Edwin Poots, who was briefly leader of the DUP in 2021, was elected Stormont speaker. He said Stormont has “so much to do and I trust everyone will put their shoulders to the wheel”.

Donaldson agreed to take his party back to Stormont after MPs in Westminster this week passed legislation he said would restore Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom and its ability to trade freely with Britain.

“Today is a good day for Northern Ireland,” Donaldson told reporters outside the chamber. “It’s a day when we come together and take on all our responsibilities.”

Naomi Long, whose Alliance Party is the third largest force in Northern Ireland, said it was a hugely important day when “the focus shifts from drama to delivery for the people outside this building”.

Sinn Féin has been criticized by some analysts and politicians for failing to take the crucial health portfolio, while Northern Ireland endures the longest NHS waiting lists in the UK. Robin Swann of the small Ulster Unionist Party, who held the position in the last cabinet, has regained responsibility for the portfolio.

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