The woman who could tear the UK apart, writes BARBARA DAVIES
The woman who could tear the UK apart honoured IRA trio just weeks ago: While Sinn Feinn leader Michell O’Neill has apparently become the acceptable face of republican politics at Stormont, many are uncomfortable, writes BARBARA DAVIES
To her Sinn Fein supporters, at least, last week’s elections marked the crowning achievement of Michelle O’Neill’s life, with the 45-year-old republican now on the brink of making history if she is appointed Northern Ireland’s first nationalist leader.
But the uncomfortable truth about how far Mrs O’Neill has clambered in her journey to the top of the Stormont political ladder was perhaps best symbolised by another, rather more private, moment six months ago when the mother of two watched her daughter Saoirse tie the knot in a lavish marriage ceremony.
A family photograph posted on Twitter showed Mrs O’Neill in a long white dress, veiled hat, fur wrap and corsage – an outfit that threatened to outshine the bridal gown worn by the daughter she gave birth to when she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl.
‘Family and friends are everything,’ she wrote in the post, with the photo showing her towering over her 28-year-old daughter and standing a few feet away from her painter and decorator ex-husband Paddy. Her comment immediately drew outrage from those who will not let Mrs O’Neill forget her troubling links to the IRA.
In February Mrs O’Neill attended the unveiling of a memorial stone dedicated to three former IRA and club members – shot dead by British armed forces – at Clonoe O’Rahilly’s
‘Pity SF/IRA didn’t take the same attitude when they were out murdering people, the same IRA you continue to eulogise,’ wrote one.
And another: ‘The Provos didn’t give much thought to families and friends when they were butchering and bombing them. You of course are their political representative. Enjoy the wedding.’
For while Mrs O’Neill has apparently become the acceptable, and unquestionably glamorous, face of republican politics at Stormont – the gymslip mum who turned her life around and devoted herself to her community in East Tyrone – many are uncomfortable with her links to the IRA.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams may have once claimed that Mrs O’Neill represented a ‘new generation’, but casting off the shadows of her past hasn’t proved so straightforward. Mrs O’Neill’s father and uncle were both IRA prisoners. Another uncle moved to Philadelphia and became president of Noraid, a US organisation that funded the IRA. Two of her cousins were shot, one fatally, while on ‘active duty’ with the IRA.
Within days of being appointed leader of Sinn Fein in 2017, taking over from Martin McGuinness, Mrs O’Neill expressed sympathy for four IRA terrorists shot dead by the SAS in February 1992 in her home village of Clonoe moments after they had launched a machine gun attack on an Royal Ulster Constabulary security base. She referred to them as ‘young fellas’ in comments later condemned by a family bereaved by the IRA.
A family photograph posted on Twitter showed Mrs O’Neill in a long white dress, veiled hat, fur wrap and corsage – an outfit that threatened to outshine the bridal gown worn by the daughter she gave birth to when she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl
And if Mrs O’Neill was thought to be cultivating a more moderate image as she advanced into mainstream politics then, just three months ago, this was shown to be misguided. In February Mrs O’Neill attended the unveiling of a memorial stone dedicated to three former IRA and club members – shot dead by British armed forces – at Clonoe O’Rahilly’s – a Gaelic football club founded in 1916 and named after one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, launched by Irish republicans against British rule.
One of the men – memorialised on a plaque that reads, ‘In proud memory of our fallen Gaels. Never forgotten’ – is Peter Clancy. He was among those shot dead by British security forces in Clonoe in 1992. The East Tyrone Sinn Fein youth wing later paid tribute to the men it claimed ‘died on active service in the struggle for freedom’. A spokesman for a victims’ group, Innocent Victims United, said: ‘The presence of Michelle O’Neill at the unveiling of this memorial will also again raise the question for many; how could she ever perform the role of first minister – Northern Ireland’s symbolic head of state?’
The staunchly republican County Tyrone estate where Mrs O’Neill grew up, Coney Park, is named after another of the men memorialised on the plaque – Hugh Gerard Coney – an IRA member shot dead trying to escape from the Maze prison in 1974.
The coffin of Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness is carried to his home in Londonderry by Gerry Adams, Raymond McCartney and Michelle O’Neill
Mrs O’Neill was born in January 1977 in Cork, where her father Brendan Doris, a former IRA prisoner, had moved temporarily with his family to work as a roofer. At 16, while attending a Catholic grammar school in Dungannon, St Patrick’s Academy, she became pregnant, swapping her school uniform for maternity wear so she could sit her GCSEs before giving birth in May. An old family photograph shows her as a smiling teenager, dressed in baggy patterned trousers and a hat with her toddler daughter at her side. ‘You are still a child yourself when you look back,’ she said of those days in an interview a year ago. ‘Everybody around me was very supportive. I was very lucky.’
Brendan Doris, Ms O’Neill’s late father, was a Sinn Fein councillor and played a role in the IRA’s East Tyrone Brigade in the Seventies
Her mother Kathleen gave up work so Mrs O’Neill could take A-levels.
‘She just decided at that time that I had a whole life in front of me that she wanted me to live,’ added Mrs O’Neill. ‘So I’ll always be grateful for the fact that she did that.’
Mrs O’Neill later married Paddy, father of her daughter, and had a son, Ryan, now 23. They separated in 2014 and she is now in another relationship.
Mrs O’Neill’s political life stretches back to 2005 when she won her father’s seat on Dungannon borough council after he stepped down. She went on to become mayor and a protegee of Francie Molloy, a Sinn Fein assembly member, as well as Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams who selected her to run – successfully – for the Northern Ireland assembly in 2007.
More recently she has championed issues around equality, autism, disability and mental health and has also angered swathes of Catholics by calling for abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland. One anti-abortion campaigner accused Mrs O’Neill of abandoning her faith ‘in pursuit of the baubles and passing glory of worldly power’.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, left, and party leader Mary Lou McDonald take a selfie at Medow Bank election count centre in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland
This, of course, is the reality for Sinn Fein today: a party that many believe has blood on its hands but that is trying to shake off the past by letting a new generation with no direct links to violence to take centre stage.
On the one hand, Mrs O’Neill says the historic election result presents ‘an opportunity to reimagine relationships in this society on the basis of fairness, on the basis of equality and on the basis of social justice’.
On the other, her presence at the Clonoe IRA memorial unveiling in February was said by some observers to have been motivated by Sinn Fein’s pre-election fears that it was losing support from its core voters.
Speaking last month in the run-up to the Stormont elections, Mrs O’Neill laughed when asked if she thought she would have joined the IRA if she had been born earlier.
‘I don’t think it’s fair to ask anybody that question today,’ she said. ‘I regret the circumstances existed that people felt there was no option other than the conflict that occurred.’
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