Peace In Deed
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Northern Ireland marked a historic moment over the weekend as Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill became the first Irish nationalist to hold the post of first minister in a region created by partition in 1921 as a bastion of pro-British unionism, the Financial Times reported.
O’Neill was named the first minister in a government created under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which mandates power-sharing between Northern Ireland’s two primary communities: British unionists advocating for remaining in the United Kingdom, and Irish nationalists aspiring for Irish unification.
The Sinn Fein vice president – who represents the Irish nationalist community – emphasized the symbolic importance of her role in creating a more democratic and equal society, the newspaper wrote.
She will share power with the pro-unionist Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Emma Little-Pengelly, who was appointed as deputy first minister.
Although both posts share the same power – and cannot function without the other – O’Neill will hold the more prestigious title because her party won more seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly in the 2022 elections, the Associated Press noted.
Both women carry personal histories intertwined with Northern Ireland’s violent past, marked by decades of conflict known as the Troubles: O’Neill’s father was an IRA prisoner, while Little-Pengelly’s father was convicted in 1991 for his involvement in a loyalist gun-running plot.
Even so, they pledged to work towards bridging historical divides.
The historic appointment comes after the DUP ended a boycott that left the region without a functioning government for two years amid rising living costs and strained public services.
The pro-unionist party left the government because of disputes over new trade rules following the UK’s exit from the European Union in 2020. These rules included customs checks and other obstacles for goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The checks were meant to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open – a crucial aspect of the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violence in the region. However, the DUP countered the new customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK threatened its status within the union.
Last week, the UK government proposed new changes to eliminate routine checks and paperwork for most goods entering Northern Ireland, while retaining some inspections for illegal goods or disease prevention.
These changes also affirm “Northern Ireland’s constitutional status” as part of the UK and grant local politicians “democratic oversight” of future EU laws applicable to the region.
Meanwhile, the British government also pledged more than $3.8 billion for Northern Ireland’s public services once its government resumes operating.