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Who is Michelle O’Neill? Meet the new leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland

Michelle O'Neill, the new Sinn Fein leader in the north with Martin McGuinness (Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty)
Michelle O’Neill, the new Sinn Fein leader in the north with Martin McGuinness (Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty)

SINN Féin today announced that Michelle O’Neill will replace Martin McGuinness as party leader in Northern Ireland.

The Co. Tyrone native had been widely-tipped to succeed McGuinness, who revealed last week that he would be leaving frontline politics due to ill health.

The move marks a significant generational shift for Sinn Féin, with the 40-year-old current health minister set to take over from 66-year-old McGuinness at the next election.

O’Neill said that she was “following in the footsteps of a political giant” who “no-one can replace” – but who exactly is the new face of Sinn Féin in the North?

Beginnings

She was born Michelle Doris in the village of Clonoe, Co. Tyrone on January 10, 1977 – at the height of the Troubles era in Northern Ireland.

Her father Brendan Doris was a former IRA prisoner turned Sinn Féin councillor in Dungannon.

After her father’s death in 2006, Martin McGuinness said: “The Doris family are a well-known and respected republican family and have played a significant role in the republican struggle for many years.”

O’Neill joined Sinn Féin following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, after which she worked in the Assembly from 1998-2005 as political advisor to former Assembly member Francie Molloy MP.

Local politics

After serving as an advisor to former Assembly member Francie Molloy MP, O’Neill entered local government politics herself in 2005 as a member of Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council.

In 2010 she became the first woman to hold the position of Mayor of the Dungannon council area.

In the executive

Following the 2011 Assembly Election O’Neill was appointed as Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development.

Her most prominent announcement in that role was moving the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s headquarters from Belfast to a former Army barracks in Ballykelly, Co. Derry.

In doing so, O’Neill overruled an internal DARD assessment which chose Strabane as the site.

In 2015, she was promoted to minister for health, one of Stormont’s most high-profile roles.

She was faced with mounting hospital waiting lists, a crisis in general practice and the findings of the Bengoa report into how Northern Ireland’s health care is organised.

Faced with mounting hospital waiting lists and a lack of funding, O’Neill set out a 10-year plan to steer the health service away from “breaking point”.

In May 2016 se was re-elected as Assembly member for Mid Ulster and reappointed in her role as minister for health.

After Martin McGuinness announced he would be leaving frontline politics last week, the initial frontrunner to succeed him was Conor Murphy.

Murphy was sentenced to five years in prison in 1982 for possession of explosives.

One factor in O’Neill’s appointment as leader in the North may be her lack of baggage – which could bring her wider appeal.

Family life

She is married to Paddy O’Neill and has two children, daughter Saoirse and son Ryan.

O’Neill is a keen supporter of Gaelic sports and is a member of her local GAA club – Clonoe O’Rahilly’s.

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Aidan Lonergan
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Aidan Lonergan is a Digital Reporter with The Irish Post. You can follow him on Twitter @ajlonergan

One comment on “Who is Michelle O’Neill? Meet the new leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland”

  1. Ruadrai

    Good luck to her, and the best of luck to Martin McGuinness in his well eared retirement.

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