Who is Michelle O'Neill, Northern Ireland's new pro-Palestine First Minister?

Who is Michelle O'Neill, Northern Ireland's new pro-Palestine First Minister?
The New Arab takes a look at Sinn Féin affiliated First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill's views on Gaza and Palestine.
4 min read
09 February, 2024
O'Neill comes from a family steeped in the traditions of Irish Republicanism [Getty]

Michelle O’Neill recently became the first ever Irish Republican and Catholic to hold the office of First Minister of Northern Ireland.

One of the first visits undertaken by O’Neill, accompanied by Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald, was to the Palestinian Mission to the UK in London, where she met Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot.

The New Arab takes a closer look at O’Neill and her views on Palestine and Gaza, within the context of Sinn Fein and Irish Republicanism’s long-standing history of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

O’Neill’s ‘historic victory’

During her meeting with Zomlot, the ambassador referred to O’Neill’s election as First Minister of Northern Ireland as "historic on every level". This designation is more than just a platitude.

During the worst of the long, brutal conflict in Northern Ireland known as "The Troubles" – where British-identifying Ulster loyalists held state power and denied those of Irish ethnicity basic civil rights - it seemed impossible that an Irish Catholic could ever become the First Minister of a state they didn’t recognise and that didn’t recognise them as equals.

O’Neill comes from a family of prominent Irish Republicans. Her father Brendan Doris was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary force set up to achieve self-determination and equal rights for Irish Catholics in the North against repressive, chauvinistic Loyalist-controlled security forces and British military occupation.

Sinn Fein was widely considered to be the political wing of the IRA, with many former fighters holding leading positions in the party.

While O’Neill was never a member of the IRA, her father was imprisoned for membership of the group and later became a Sinn Fein councillor.

Sinn Fein was for a long time considered anathema by the British state – even more so by the Ulster loyalists who now serve as part of O’Neill’s administration.

‘A model for Palestine’

Zomlot said during his meeting to O’Neill that: “[Y]ou bring us hope … your experience in Ireland is a model for peace building, for peace-making … and for the power of law … the power of people’s rights and respect for every people equally.”

This could be a reference to the situation in Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein’s journey from being an "extreme faction" to now holding power, which could serve as a model for bringing justice to Palestine via dialogue and law.

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Sinn Fein, who are in opposition in the Republic of Ireland where they are led by McDonald, have supported the Irish government’s call for an immediate ceasefire and voted for an unsuccessful motion to get the Irish government to support South Africa’s genocide case.

However, during an interview with LBC, O’Neill was keen to emphasise that Hamas will be and should be seen as "partners for peace", citing the example of power-sharing in Northern Ireland and once unthinkable dialogue between Sinn Fein and the British government.

The ‘obscenity of genocide’

The key question is whether Sinn Fein’s longstanding support for the Palestinian cause will continue into government, as O’Neill takes her place as First Minister.

So far, while her power is limited, the signs are looking good. With O’Neill due to meet US President Joe Biden and other leaders in Washington in March for St Patrick’s Day, the First Minister promised to "speak up for Palestinians".

"At home, within the EU institutions and through all our international engagements, Sinn Féin will continue to raise the obscenity of the genocide occurring in Gaza, which is the latest chapter in a long tale of oppression that has brutalised generations of Palestinians," O’Neill wrote in The Irish News last month.

"We will state the case that Israel must be held to account for its actions and will urge the US to join calls for a ceasefire.

"We will use our experience of building peace to make the case that US support for international peace efforts are critical."