Coalisland woman named McGuinness’ successor as Sinn Fein’s leader in the north

Michelle O'Neill

Michelle O'Neill

1
Have your say

Coalisland woman Michelle O’Neill has been chosen by Sinn Fein to succeed Martin McGuinness in leading the party in the north.

An accidental politician by all accounts, the 40-year-old mum of two told this reporter in 2013 she never set out to be a politician, and that her training as a welfare rights advisor led her there.

Francie Molloy, Michelle O'Neill and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein celebrate being elected in the first count in the Mid Ulster constituency in the Assembly election count in Ballymena in 2007.
PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

Francie Molloy, Michelle O'Neill and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein celebrate being elected in the first count in the Mid Ulster constituency in the Assembly election count in Ballymena in 2007. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

Driven by her republican beliefs, the current Health Minister followed her dad Brendan into politics when she took over his role as a Sinn Fein councillor on Dungannon council in 2005.

A pioneer for women from the start, she went on to become the first ever female deputy Mayor in 2006 and then council leader in 2010. But said at the time, she couldn’t have done it without the support of the party.

“Sinn Fein gave me the opportunity to follow my political objectives, my daddy was a Sinn Fein councillor in the 80s,” she said at the time.

“I liked the role he played in the community and how he looked after people - he was a positive influence in the area.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is pictured at Parliament Buildings, Stormont with his new Minister Michelle O'Neill in 2016.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is pictured at Parliament Buildings, Stormont with his new Minister Michelle O'Neill in 2016. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

“Maybe it was fate.”

Working as a welfare advisor in Sinn Fein’s Coalisland office, Minister O’Neill was in training to be an accountant’s technician.

“I never thought I was going to be in politics,” she said.

“I was content and didn’t actually aspire to be elected and then the position came up for council in 2005 and I thought, sure I could do that, I am doing that work anyway.”

Health Minister Michelle ONeill

Health Minister Michelle ONeill

Sinn Fein’s progressive stance on women in politics meant she felt valued for her skills first, she said.

“I was pushed to go forward for elected positions, but that’s something that naturally comes from a party.

“There’s other parties that pay lip service to promoting women and addressing the imbalance that exists.

“I think if I was a woman on other benches looking at us, I would be envious.

Sinn Fein logo

Sinn Fein logo

“All our women are treated equally; all the women in the party are valued, encouraged, pushed and supported.”

And now she holds the parties most senior position in the north.

Born in 1977, Michelle lived in Coalisland as a child before moving with parents Kathleen and Brendan to nearby Clonoe.

She’s a past pupil of Primate Dixon Memorial Primary School, Coalisland and St Patrick’s Girls’ Academy in Dungannon.

First elected as an MLA in 2007, Michelle became Agriculture Minister in 2011 - a role she stayed in until a department reshuffle saw Agriculture merged with Environment and that department taken over by the DUP’s Michelle McIlveen.

She then took on the role of Health Minister, following in the footsteps of the DUP’s Simon Hamilton.

Always a champion for Mid Ulster, she led the push for the decentralisation of government jobs, that saw 80 Rivers Agency roles moved to Cookstown.

The first minister to decentralise an entire government department she also relocated the DARD headquarters to Ballykelly, Forest Service to Fermanagh and Fisheries to south Down.

As Health Minister she said she is still committed to delivering a long-delayed training centre for the Fire Service at Desertcreat.

Mum to Saoirse and Ryan, Michelle has always stayed true to her roots - and still lives in Clonoe.

Chosen by Sinn Fein to lead the party into upcoming elections, could the Mid Ulster MLA be the one to help the party clinch the role of First Minister for the first time?

A woman of many ‘firsts’

Assembly Member for the constituency of Mid Ulster and Minister for Health, Michelle O’Neill is “a formidable campaigner” who has “championed issues of equality, autism, disability, mental health and the rights of rural dwellers” say Sinn Fein. She was the first assembly member to “decentralise an entire government department” when heading Agriculture as well as being the first female Mayor of Dungannon council in. She also supports Gaelic sports and is a member of Clonoe O’Rahilly’s.