Michelle O’Neill: ‘I had some very, very negative experiences when I was pregnant’

Parenting in My Shoes: Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister on becoming a mother at 16

Even though Michelle O’Neill’s daughter Saoirse is 27 and son Ryan is 22, she says her children “still need their mummy”.

“We’re all a bit like that no matter how old we are,” adds Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister. “It’s a different role insofar as they are older so it’s a different interaction but, as you know, from the day they come into the world you’re a mummy. I think even when they are big lumps,” she laughs “or they are older, they still look to their mummy.”

Michelle, who became a mother at 16, is enjoying being the parent of adult children and the advantages that being closer in age to her children brings at this stage, though she admits daughter Saoirse may not always have seen it that way. “I think because I was very young obviously having Saoirse that there was probably a time in her life where she thought it was a disadvantage. But now, at this age, she likes it. We’re friends. It’s a good solid relationship. It’s interesting to watch that come full circle. There were times she wished I was, you know a different kind of mummy, maybe what’s perceived to be a more traditional kind of mum.

You were nearly put in a box – single mother, unmarried mother, nearly written off. But I was determined that I wasn't going to be written off, that I was going to work hard and make a good life for her

“All we all do is try our best. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes not so right,” she says, recalling how one time during an argument with Saoirse her daughter told her: “I don’t have a mother, I have an MLA!” (Member of the Legislative Assembly.)


“You are still a child yourself really when you look back,” Michelle says about becoming a mother at 16. “I have to say my family were very supportive. Everybody around me was very supportive. I was very lucky. Not everybody has that. Quite often people are left isolated and don’t have that kind of network of support.”

Michelle’s mother gave up work so that Michelle could continue with her schooling. “She just decided at that time that I had a whole life in front of me that she wanted me to live. So I’ll always be grateful for the fact that she did that.

“I had Saoirse in May of ’93 and was back into full-time schooling after the summer holidays. I went back and did my A levels in the September. I was just so, so lucky to have that support. It allowed me to be able to finish my schooling, but also just to even have that support, that comfort. Because being a parent is daunting, no matter what age you are, but particularly when you’re 16.”

However, not everyone in Michelle’s world was as supportive. “Certainly I had some very, very negative experiences when I was pregnant. The school that I went to weren’t particularly supportive at times. Certainly not all of them, but some in the school. I went to a Catholic grammar [school]. You were nearly made to feel girls like you can’t be at school, that kind of a thing.

“Now that wouldn’t have been the same from all – I’d a very supportive form teacher for example – but outside of that, the principal of the school at the time, it wasn’t a good experience.

“I remember one particular day going to school, I was actually pregnant at the time. I was doing my GCSEs. I had to go in to do two practicals, but I was showing so I didn’t fit in my school uniform. So I had to go in in my own clothes. And I remember getting on the bus and I forgot my bus pass because I wasn’t in my uniform and I didn’t have it where I normally have it. And the bus driver fought with me that I actually wasn’t a pupil at the school. And I didn’t have money to pay for the bus or any of those things.

“So I remember that being a particularly horrible start to the day and I actually got on the bus, got to school, and I remember being called in to be told I didn’t inform them I was coming in, like I was a plague or something. I remember coming home that day and I walked through my front door and I fell on the floor and I collapsed and I cried. I’ll never forget that experience and I thought nobody will ever treat me like this again.

“But it’s all that kind of thing that helped to make me a stronger woman today,” Michelle says .“And while I didn’t set out for that to be my journey, that was my journey. I think having Saoirse young, I never regret anything. We were very close, but it also gave me an incentive to work hard because I wanted good things for her. And, at that time, like you’re talking 1993, society still, compared with today, was a very different place. You were nearly put in a box – single mother, unmarried mother, nearly written off. But I was determined that I wasn’t going to be written off, that I was going to work hard and make a good life for her.”

It's easier second time around no matter what age you are

Michelle says parenthood was definitely easier second time around. “We still had all the family support but we also had Saoirse running around the house. We were very happy. When Ryan came along, it just was great. And Saoirse loved it. She was so excited about it. We had got married, we’d bought the house, we had moved in, all that. It was a joyous time. It’s easier second time around no matter what age you are.”

At around the same age that she first became a mother, Michelle says she got involved in being an activist. “I started to become active, around 16, 17 and my children grew up with that and they didn’t actually notice any difference. I would have had them on rallies. I would have had them at all sorts of events. They’ve just always known that’s the kind of person I am, somebody who was always out there working in the community, wanting to help people.”

She says having a supportive partner was a huge help. “I was probably the one who had to be accommodated all the time to do what I do in politics. It’s not very family friendly in hours and a lot of things are in the evenings and weekends. I think a lot of the family living was really based around what I needed to do. You constantly feel guilty and again that’s the balance piece, it’s so hard to get the balance and to get it right. On the one hand, you want to be a good mummy and you want to be home and you want to be doing the things that you want to be doing there. At the same time, you want to be out and you want to be progressing in your work and doing what you’re doing.

“I constantly had a tug with guilt between where I should be, and you try to do everything and sometimes it just is not possible and you end up disappointing somewhere along the line.”

Women just by nature have to manage so many competing interests but I think that does actually bring a different style of leadership into what you do

Michelle says being a woman in politics is “a more demanding role. It’s not the same starting point as male colleagues, with all due respect to them. So yeah, I think it was definitely very challenging at times. It still is, even now. Even though they’re grown up, I still like to be home. I still like to make dinner. I clearly don’t make dinner every day of the week because I wouldn’t be home, but I still love, if I get the chance, to make a Sunday dinner and them eating together. That’s my idea of a win for me in a week.”

Michelle believes being a mother has helped in her political role. “You’re having to manage 10 things at the one time so I think that’s a natural part of our lives. In any given day I’m trying to be a mummy, a daughter, a constituency representative, and be in the Northern Assembly. Women just by nature have to manage so many competing interests but I think that does actually bring a different style of leadership into what you do. I think you bring all that with you, the multitasking, trying to keep five fires going at the one time.”

As the mother of a daughter and son, she is also keenly aware of the differences experienced in everyday life by men and women and the role parents can play in changing things for the future. “I live in a country area. If I want to go for a walk tonight I would think carefully about if it’s dark, can I go for a walk? Even though I think I live in a very safe area, I still wouldn’t think it’s safe for me to do that. That’s a problem, not my problem – it’s society’s problem that that’s the case.

“I think there are societal problems here that need to be challenged and women shouldn’t be left to carry the burden for society’s failings or men’s failings in that regard.”

While Michelle concedes that attitudes have “slightly changed”, she says there’s still a lot more to do. “Misogyny is alive and well in society – sexism, the everyday sexism, the different approaches to women in politics, women in public life, women in journalism. The fact that people think it’s okay to attack. I’m constantly critiqued on my appearance – what my eyebrows look like, what I’m wearing, how I speak.

“Whenever women in politics, for example, disagree, we’re in a catfight. Whereas if two men disagree, they’re having a political disagreement. It’s the way everything is presented.”

Michelle believes parents need to have conversations with their sons. “They need to see it at home,” she says. “We’ve a duty as parents, as mothers, to speak to our sons and to encourage them to be the best they can be, and treat everybody the same, and to be fair and equal and to respect women.

“We have an obligation to try to nurture our sons to be the change that we want to see in society,” she says.

When it comes to parenting lows, Michelle admits “there’s plenty of them. I just think none of us get it right all of the time and certainly there’s things that perhaps I would have done differently. I think I missed or sacrificed a few things and I probably would have missed occasions that I feel guilty about. Parenting highs for me has to be that they’ve grown up to be solid. They’ve grown up to be confident; that they have self-esteem.

“You just go through an amazing journey and then you just someday sit back and you go look at the amazing person that they have grown into, and I just love that. That, for me, is very rewarding.”

Parenting in My Shoes
Part 1: Vicky Phelan
Part 2: Lynn Ruane
Part 3: Keith Walsh
Part 4: Victoria Smurfit
Part 5: Billy Holland
Part 6: Joanna Donnelly
Part 7: Eileen Flynn
Part 8: Matt Cooper
Part 9: Hazel Chu
Part 10: Ciara Kelly
Part 11: Dil Wickremasinghe
Part 12: Alison Curtis
Part 13: Dáithí Ó Sé
Part 14: Brendan O'Connor
Part 15: Anne Dalton
Part 16: Gary O'Hanlon
Part 17: Paula MacSweeney
Part 18: Stephen McPhail
Part 19: Michelle O'Neill