BELFAST — With hopes surging of an imminent return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland, rival party leaders gathered Tuesday atop Stormont hill to breathe a collective sigh of relief — and, for Sinn Féin, to celebrate a day that long looked like it might never come.
The Democratic Unionist Party’s overnight decision to end its nearly two-year obstruction of cross-community government has finally opened the door for Michelle O’Neill to become first minister, the top post in an expected four-party coalition that could take office as early as Friday. It would make her the first politician from the Irish nationalist side of Northern Ireland’s divide to hold the totemic position.
O’Neill, who was deputy first minister in the previous coalition torn down by the DUP, and Sinn Féin party leader Mary Lou McDonald beamed at journalists as they prepared to enter talks with the DUP and other local parties on reviving the Northern Ireland Executive and rescuing a corner of the U.K. desperate for a return to functional government.
“I do think it is a day of optimism and some hope out there for the wider public. Our public services are stretched to the limit,” said O’Neill, referring to the U.K.’s promise of an extra £3.3 billion for a revived executive. That emergency funding would help plug holes in Northern Ireland’s overwhelmed health service and would deliver long-delayed pay hikes to some 170,000 public servants, a fifth of the workforce.
O’Neill said she welcomed the U-turn by Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who has had to overcome strong internal opposition to post-Brexit trade rules that require the enforcement of EU statutes on British goods entering Northern Ireland. To unionist dismay, the rules make it easier for Northern Ireland firms to trade goods with the Republic of Ireland than with Britain.
She noted that Donaldson had disproven her own contention that the DUP was more concerned with blocking her political elevation following Sinn Féin’s victory in the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly election than with stopping EU-required checks on British goods. O’Neill said she was pleased the DUP is “going to prove us wrong.”
McDonald, the Dublin-based Sinn Féin leader who aims to become prime minister following Republic of Ireland elections this year, called the moment “massively significant.” She said it showed how Northern Ireland demographics had changed in favor of Irish republicans, who want to coax the territory out of the U.K. and into the neighboring republic, an EU member.
“Bear in mind [that] partition itself, the establishment of this state, was on the basis of creating an inbuilt and permanent unionist majority. That day has gone,” said McDonald, adding that O’Neill’s leadership in Belfast, and the potential for a Sinn Féin-led government in Dublin, would drive debate on “a new constitutional dispensation ending partition.”