First Minister Michelle O’Neill makes the most of her moment as Stormont Assembly recalled after two-year impasse

Sense of occasion felt throughout the Assembly Chamber as Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly acknowledged ‘historic moment’, with one lone dissenting TUV voice

It was her moment, and she made the most of it.

It only took 20 seconds for Michelle O’Neill to make her way from the top of the staircase down to the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings and into the Assembly Chamber for Saturday’s recall, but she smiled every step of the way.

Everyone else was already in the chamber; last to arrive were her fellow Sinn Féin MLAs, who swept in on the dot of 1pm.

As O’Neill appeared, applause broke out among those watching on the balconies and in the hall itself; she gave a little wave of acknowledgment, a “good afternoon” to the waiting media and then, still with that broad smile on her face, she went to take her seat.


As she walked, she surely must have reflected on the significance of this moment and on all that had brought her and her party to this point.

Michelle O’Neill (47) from a republican family in Clonoe, Co Tyrone, who was prayed over in school when she became pregnant as a teenager, on Saturday became the first nationalist to hold the position of Northern Ireland’s First Minister.

As she said later in her speech, “that such a day would ever come would have been unimaginable to my parents and grandparents’ generation”.

Certainly, others felt that sense of occasion. In his congratulations the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole, now the leader of the official Opposition, pointed out that the state created just over 100 years ago was never meant to have people like Michelle O’Neill in charge.

Even her new counterpart as Deputy First Minister, the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly, acknowledged that “for many today, it is a historic moment”, though adding with it a reminder that they now shared a joint office “as first ministers”.

It was certainly a day of change. In her speech, O’Neill noted how her appointment “reflects the change that is happening” and in carefully-phrased language emphasised her determination to reach out to those of all backgrounds and be, as has been her catchphrase, a “First Minister for all”.

This was not the time or the place for mention of a united Ireland, for all Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald’s remark earlier this week that it was now “within touching distance.” Instead, O’Neill acknowledged different “aspirations”, and how they might make a “shared future.”

Addressing the chamber for the first time as First Minister, she said: “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.

“To all of you who are British and unionist: your national identity, culture and traditions are important to me.

“I will be both inclusive and respectful to you,” she pledged.

“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,” she said, putting her own hand to her heart; for the briefest of moments, emotion flooded her voice, and her composure almost broke.

Little-Pengelly spoke with emotion too, recalling how as an 11-year-old “I stepped outside my Markethill home on a warm August afternoon to the absolute devastation from an IRA bomb ... the haunting wail of alarms and our emergency services, the carpet of glass and debris, the shock, the crying, the panic”.

This from the new Deputy First Minister was both an implicit attack on the party seated on the benches opposite, and a message of reassurance to the unionist grassroots.

She continued: “The past, with all its horror, can never be forgotten or nor will it be allowed to be rewritten. But while we are shaped by the past, we are not defined by it.”

Just as O’Neill acknowledged these were changed times, so too did Little-Pengelly; from the DUP’s point of view, this was a change shaped above all by pragmatism, by the knowledge that it had taken its protest as far as it could; its boycott was now over, and it was time to get on with the business of sharing power again with Sinn Féin.

Throughout, the constant thorn in the side was the lone voice of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, who took to his feet again and again to denounce the DUP “sell-out” and indeed the “day of glee and gloating for republicanism”.

The multiple DUP voices who responded were on the same, combative page that party leader Jeffrey Donaldson has been on all week as he sold his deal. Paul Givan, now the Minister for Education, called Allister “an angry man” while Minister for Communities Gordon Lyons’s rejoinder was that every time Allister speaks, it is a reminder why he is “the sole TUV representative on these benches”.

With O’Neill and Little-Pengelly in place – and the DUP’s Edwin Poots presiding as speaker – it was time for the last big bit of business of the day: the selection of ministers according to the D’Hondt process.

Sinn Féin had the first pick, and installed Conor Murphy in the Economy brief; here, the DUP threw a spanner in the works, choosing Education for Paul Givan rather than, as had widely been understood, placing Gordon Lyons in Finance.

This was clearly a shock to Sinn Féin, which immediately requested a brief suspension, presumably to work out which portfolio it should take next – Finance, as it turned out, which went to Caoimhe Archibald.

This surprise move by the DUP was an indication that, for all the best behaviour on display on this first day back at school, sharing power will prove a much more challenging prospect when the parties get down to day-to-day decision-making.

For all the history of the day, ultimately the success or otherwise of this reconstituted Assembly and Executive will be judged by the people of Northern Ireland on whether it addresses problems such as spiralling waiting lists and public sector pay and, indeed, the stability of the institutions themselves so that now that the Assembly and Executive are back up and running, they stay up and running.

Among those keeping a close eye on proceedings in the Great Hall on Saturday was Stuart Anderson, head of public affairs at the NI Chamber and a man with a long wishlist.

“From a business point of view, we need a stabilisation of public services, so the first thing we want to see is the public sector pay dispute settled so that public services are returned, but then we need to see a programme for government,” he said.

While the restoration of the Assembly is “a good start”, it is only the start, said Anderson. “I was asked the question, do you think this will last, and I think it’s the wrong question. I think it’s how do we make it last? And I think we all have a role to play in that.”

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