Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill to be sworn in as first nationalist First Minister

Today’s Assembly recall in Parliament Buildings at 1pm will see the election of a Speaker before the nomination of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister roles

Northern Ireland’s first nationalist First Minister will be sworn in on Saturday in a historic moment for Northern politics. Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill will be the first non-unionist politician – she succeeds 11 unionist leaders – to head up Stormont’s devolved government since its establishment more than a century ago.

The restoration of the powersharing Executive comes two years to the day since the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed the institutions in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The breakthrough follows the DUP’s decision to end its boycott of the institutions after agreeing a deal with the UK government earlier this week which, according to DUP party leader Jeffrey Donaldson, will effectively remove the so-called Irish Sea border for goods destined for the North from Britain.

Today’s Assembly recall in Parliament Buildings at 1pm will see the election of a Speaker – a move blocked by the DUP seven times as part of its boycott – before the nomination of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister roles. While the roles are a joint office and are intended to be equal in power, the elevation of a nationalist to First Minister will be hugely symbolic.


DUP Lagan Valley MLA Emma Little-Pengelly remains the front-runner for the Deputy First Minister post, while party colleague and former DUP leader Edwin Poots is tipped for the role of Speaker.

There is mounting speculation that Sinn Féin may nominate one of its MLAs to become the next Stormont health minister – one of the most challenging portfolios to take on amid a crisis-ridden NHS.

The four main political parties met at Stormont Castle on Friday to discuss their priorities for the incoming government.

Mr Donaldson declined to comment on who his party will nominate for the Deputy First Minister role. He confirmed, however, that the new Executive will lobby the UK government to increase its £3.3 billion package offered before Christmas towards the North’s public finances. Almost £600 million of the package is earmarked for resolving the Northern Ireland’s long-running public sector pay dispute that sparked mass strike action last month.

“You will not have to wait long to see the new Executive in action, making those priorities clear to the Treasury and pressing them for additional funding which is required,” Mr Donaldson told reporters. “The finance piece is unfinished business which we intend to finish.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie on Friday confirmed that his party would enter the Stormont Executive when it is restored instead of joining the official opposition. He said he saw a “sense of cohesion” among the parties which would form the Executive.

The Alliance Party has yet to confirm if it will enter government or opposition. It is anticipated that Alliance leader and outgoing justice minister Naomi Long may take the role again if the party joins the Executive.

Neither Ms Long or Ms O’Neill addressed media following Friday’s meeting.

While Mr Donaldson has secured the majority backing of his party to accept the UK deal to restore powersharing, he also faces opposition both within and outside the party. A group of unionists, including Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister and loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, has published a legal opinion from former Northern Ireland attorney general John Larkin KC who concluded that the deal failed to remove an Irish Sea border.

Mr Donaldson said he “fundamentally disagreed” with the legal opinion.

A personal endorsement was given to the DUP leader by Orange Order grand secretary, Rev Mervyn Gibson, who said that while the deal was not perfect it represented a “win for unionist determination and unity, and needs to be accepted as such”.

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Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times