Introducing Sinn Féin's new Northern leader: Michelle O'Neill

24 January 2017 - by Jonathan Finlay

Sinn Féin announced yesterday that Michelle O'Neill is the the new leader of the party in the North, succeeding Martin McGuinness. So what do we know about her and the approach she might take?

Michelle O'Neill is currently Minister of Health, and she has risen to prominence in recent weeks, becoming the face of the party’s response to ongoing issues around the RHI scheme. Sinn Féin even began referring to her as their “senior minister” following the resignation of Mr McGuinness.

Yesterday’s announcement, therefore, came as a surprise to few. But what can we expect from the new leader?

Michelle O’Neill began her political life on Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council. She would later become the first woman to serve as mayor of that council. Joining the Assembly in 2007, as a member for Mid Ulster, Ms O’Neill quickly established herself as a party spokesperson on issues of health and disability.

Following the 2011 Assembly election, she was appointed Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). In this role, she relocated her departmental headquarters to Ballykelly and dispersed DARD's agencies throughout Northern Ireland, becoming the first Executive minister to decentralise an entire government department. Ms O'Neill also ushered in the Rural Needs Act, placing an obligation on public authorities to consider the impact of their decisions on rural dwellers.

Having weathered the storms of the horse meat scandal and the controversy over farm gate milk prices, she was moved to the famously challenging Department of Health portfolio after the 2016 Assembly election, a contest in which she garnered 6,147 first preference votes. 

Soon after assuming office, the new minister was presented with the report of the expert panel commissioned by her predecessor, Simon Hamilton, to advise on the reform of health and social care in Northern Ireland. This was published in October 2016 alongside Ms O’Neill’s ten-year vision for transforming healthcare.

Although the report bore more than a few similarities to previous recommendations for the Northern Ireland health sector, commentators and politicians alike noted an unprecedented determination from the new minister to undertake the necessary work. 

Since then, the Minister has faced the usual winter pressures on the health service, as well as a mounting crisis in general practice. She has promised new GP training places and has taken steps toward the reconfiguration of primary care. These have received a cautious welcome from voices in the sector, which, nevertheless, insist that more is required.

It is unclear who will serve as Health Minister following the snap Assembly election on 2 March. One thing is for sure – in the negotiations that will doubtless follow, Michelle O’Neill is unlikely to find her new role any easier.