Already in her first days in office, Michelle O’Neill has outlined a fundamental disagreement with the Prime Minister of Great Britain about the future of Northern Ireland.
Michelle O’Neill struck a sober and conciliatory tone when she was sworn into the Northern Ireland parliament, Stormont, on Saturday.
For the first time ever, the First Minister is not just an Irish republican, but also from the party Sinn Féin, which played a key role in the many bloody years of conflict in Northern Ireland until 1998.
Michelle O’Neill emphasized that she is First Minister for everyone.
– Regardless of where we come from, regardless of our ambitions, we can and must build our future together, she said.
But it quickly became clear that her own ambitions are not shared by everyone – not least the government in London and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who visited the newly minted First Minister in Belfast today.
Reunification vote within ten years
Michelle O’Neill was elected as First Minister in the spring of 2022, but only takes up the post now because Northern Ireland’s unionists have refused to enter into the sharing of power that is a prerequisite of the political system.
Unionists were unhappy with the British government’s Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, and only at the end of January did Rishi Sunak manage to pull them to the trough – and parliament – with a new deal.
In the agreement, it is clearly stated that Northern Ireland’s place in the British kingdom is secured for “decades”. In other words, that there should not be a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should leave the UK and instead reunite with Ireland.
On just that issue, Michelle O’Neill is less conciliatory. She believes, on the contrary, that Northern Ireland is in the “decade of opportunity” and that a vote on Irish reunification will come within that time frame, she tells Sky News.
And then the stage was otherwise set for Rishi Sunak’s visit to Belfast, where he was quick to say that “the time is not right” for discussions about Northern Ireland’s place in the British kingdom.
New flank of disagreements
It was a long and tough battle for Sunak to make the deal that restored the parliament in Northern Ireland. And now that he has finally closed that flank, he sees a new one opening up instantly.
But it’s not one that surprises him, nor is it one he has to try to solve tomorrow. He knows that there are other and more urgent things on the to-do list for the Prime Minister.
The government of Northern Ireland is indeed part of the British Kingdom, but has power over and responsibility for citizen-related services such as health, education, pensions and social security.
Several of those areas are affected by the fact that there has not been a government for two years – and these are precisely the areas that the people of Northern Ireland want the politicians to take care of first and foremost. Rishi Sunak also wants them to, and therefore Northern Ireland will now receive an additional 3.3 billion. pound.
Everyone can agree that the healthcare system must be improved and that a solution must be found to the many strikes over pay. But not everyone can agree on whether Northern Ireland’s future lies with Ireland and Britain, and that disagreement is not going away.
Therefore, Michelle O’Neill’s desire for a reunification vote is not going away either. She may agree with Rishi Sunak that there are other things to attend to first, but sooner or later the question will come up – much to the frustration of the Prime Minister in London.