Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly unite to support Northern Ireland women’s side at Windsor Park

Sinn Féin First Minister happy to attend her first Northern Ireland football match in Belfast along with fellow Ministers

The First Minister Michelle O’Neill attended her first Northern Ireland football match at Windsor Park on Tuesday night and, as one observer noted correctly, the world didn’t cave in.

Northern Ireland’s women’s side will remain in League B of the Nations League after they drew 1-1 with Montenegro in the second leg of the promotion/relegation play-off.

The Sinn Féin leader even joined other VIPs, including some GAA bigwigs, for the British national anthem before kick-off, and again there was no discernible shift in Ulster’s tectonic plates.

Ms O’Neill isn’t the first Sinn Féin Minister to take in a game at Windsor Park – in 2011 the then sports minister Carál Ní Chuilín attended the Northern Ireland men’s game against the Faroe Islands but did not take her seat until after the anthems were played. So, another little piece of non-earth shuddering history was made on Tuesday night.


Ms O’Neill and the DUP Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly arrived at this south Belfast heartland of Northern Ireland soccer sporting different shades of green to support the women’s team in the game against Montenegro.

Ms Little-Pengelly wore a bright green dress underneath a cerise jacket and a big Northern Ireland scarf while Ms O’Neill opted for a more reserved and darker green top under a black jacket.

Ms O’Neill was just a little reserved in her language too, but she was nonetheless wholehearted about her attendance with about 4,000 other supporters for the game.

The duo were also accompanied by the DUP Sport Minister Gordon Lyons and junior Sinn Féin and DUP Ministers respectively, Aisling Reilly and Pam Cameron.

The two leaders had a few short words for the media as they entered the stadium.

“It’s great to be here this evening,” said Ms O’Neill, who omitting mention of Mr Lyons, added, “Myself and Emma and Pam and Aisling. The women are here to support the women.”

She also omitted mentioning the words Northern Ireland but again that didn’t trigger any tremors.

“I am looking forward to the game, it is going to be a great night,” she enthused. “We are all bringing our layers to be wrapped up.”

In case there was any doubt on the matter Ms O’Neill repeated that she was “very pleased” to be in Windsor Park. “It’s important, particularly for women in sport, that we all get behind women.”

To be fair to Ms O’Neill she doesn’t seem to have the same aversion to the official name of the state as some of her colleagues. While at the match she posted on Facebook how it was great to be in the stadium to “cheer on the Northern Ireland women’s team”.

Ms Little-Pengelly was also for the women and also for Northern Ireland.

“We are all really, really supportive of our women and Northern Ireland football,” she said, while adding how they have been “fantastic ambassadors for Northern Ireland”.

There was a good GAA turnout too. As well as the organisation’s new president, south Armagh man Jarlath Burns, also in attendance were Ulster GAA CEO Bryan McAvoy; Peter McKenna, Croke Park stadium director; and Tom Daly from Ballyshannon in Co Donegal who has the unenviable task of trying to get the first and last sods dug in Casement Park over in the west of the city.

Granted, Windsor Park is a much smaller venue but the GAA contingent must have been rather green-eyed about the first-rate state of the Windsor Park stadium.

And neither did those attending the game appear in any way shocked or stunned by Ms O’Neill’s presence. Jack Little from Bangor, Co Down who coaches Lisburn Rangers women’s team, was happy to see this exercise in cross-community politics.

“People come from different cultures and background in our sport and now there is a lot more of a cross-community element to the game. So this is a step forward,” he said.

Charlie McQuillan from Belfast, who was attending with his young son Oran, said it was “good to show representation from both sides of the community”.

“They are showing good example and it is good that our leaders do that,” he added.

Sarah Charker from Belfast, who played women’s football and was attending with her five-year-old son, Jack, said it was a good “cross-community” move that Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly had attended the game. “It definitely sets a good example.”

“Up Northern Ireland!” said Jack.

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Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times