Belfast Telegraph

How does SF's Michelle O'Neill measure up to Arlene Foster?

By Suzanne Breen

Long before Martin McGuinness became ill, the front-runners to take over when he eventually retired were household names. Conor Murphy was the odds-on shot with John O'Dowd the clear second favourite.

Now, it appears to the public as if Michelle O'Neill has nudged ahead in the final furlong and snatched victory from her two male colleagues. But Ms O'Neill was never an outsider. Anyone who has followed her form recently would have tipped her for the top spot in Sinn Fein here.

It was so obvious. She is a grassroots activist who has served her time assiduously, coming through the ranks of local government to the Assembly. She is personally free of IRA baggage, yet her republican pedigree is impeccable.

Her family were prominent in the civil rights' movement in Tyrone. Her late father Basil was a republican prisoner. Her cousin, Tony Doris, was one of three IRA men shot dead by the SAS in Coagh in 1991. He is immortalised in an Irish Brigade song, 'Ambush at the Bridge'.

O'Neill has worked ferociously in two unglamorous ministries - agriculture and health. She took on the latter with gusto, never once complaining of being landed with a poisoned chalice.

Look back over her six years in ministerial office and you're hit by how much she's done. Her smiling, friendly visage stands out among a sea of suits in photographs taken in every nook and cranny of Northern Ireland.

When Fermanagh was hit by floods last January, Ms O'Neill sprung swiftly into action. She was out in her wellies, touring the area, meeting farmers and residents.

She's a country woman herself - from the village of Clonoe, just outside Coalisland. So she won't alienate the more old-fashioned rural Sinn Fein voter who distrust the party's city slickers.

Yet she's clearly on Sinn Fein's liberal wing and can appeal to young voters who may be considering People Before Profit. She wasn't even Health Minister a month when she announced that she was lifting the gay blood ban which the three previous DUP incumbents had retained.

She received a ringing endorsement from Rainbow Project director, John O'Doherty, for that. But it is her ordinariness which appealed most to her party. People relate to her. To the average nationalist voter, she isn't a remote political figure. She's "one of us".

Like Arlene Foster just a year ago, she is taking over her party at the most opportune moment. Mrs Foster brought the DUP to their most successful ever Assembly election last May when they romped home with an unprecedented 38 seats.

As things stand, Sinn Fein seems set for a great election. The party has reinvented itself with its new hard line on the DUP. Its grassroots are reinvigorated and previously disillusioned voters seem to be buying into the changed direction without even asking if that makes the Shinners' stance for the past 10 years a total failure.

Sinn Fein erected 'Stand Against Corruption' election posters at the weekend. While the DUP deserves to be in the dock over the 'cash for ash' scandal, Sinn Fein is hardly in any position to challenge corruption.

South Armagh Provisionals brutally beat to death Paul Quinn, during peace-time, and are still covering up his murder. And Gerry Adams withheld vital information from police in a child abuse case for nine years. That remains the reality despite how attractive the party will appear under Ms O'Neill.

In terms of her career path, she shares many similarities with Mrs Foster. Both women entered politics at a young age. The DUP leader joined the Young Unionists at Queen's University. As a teenager, Ms O'Neill assisted her father with constituency work in his role as a Dungannon councillor.

And both women, while clearly talented in their own right, had the benefit of powerful political mentors. Mrs Foster was the anointed successor of Peter Robinson who believed she shared his vision for the DUP.

The bond between Martin McGuinness and Ms O'Neill is unbelievably strong. She has been his right-hand woman at Stormont for several years. They aren't just political allies but have an almost father and daughter-type relationship.

Ms O'Neill is also staunchly loyal to Gerry Adams. Her uncle Paul Doris, a former Noraid national president, has criticised media negativity towards Mr Adams who, he insists, will "go down in history as one of the great ones".

But behind-the-scenes what is Ms O'Neill herself like? We know far more about that other Michelle in Sinn Fein - Michelle Gildernew, also from Tyrone and with a very similar background. Ms Gildernew once seemed set for a leadership role but has been sidelined by the top brass.

"I've always rated Michelle O'Neill," says an SDLP MLA. "She can think on her feet in the chamber. She's not lost if she has to depart from the script, she can ad lib. She's pleasant, although she'd never reveal too much about herself.

"She wouldn't be anyway near as chatty as Michelle Gildernew. But I couldn't say anything bad about her. In a different world, I'd be heading for a drink with her after work."

A civil service source says: "Michelle O'Neill is a hard-working minister, a real grafter on top of both her briefs. She is friendly but she's no pushover. She can at times be sharp in her manner.

"She is popular but she won't be frightened to throw her weight around with her own MLAs if she has to. She will be no pushover."

Stormont insiders are looking forward to observing her relationship with Mrs Foster. "To put it diplomatically, she won't replicate Martin McGuinness's easy-going approach," a source says. "Arlene won't get away with a single thing."

A republican source describes Ms O'Neill as "totally on message with the leadership". He says: "Michelle isn't an independent thinker or strategist. That's not to detract from her abilities because she is capable. But she's very much a front of house woman."

O'Neill's big test within the party came last October when she launched her 10-year plan for the NHS following the Bengoa report. She did wall-to-wall media interviews on a difficult subject and never fluffed a line.

Even with the BBC's Stephen Nolan, who has previously caught out her colleagues Conor Murphy and Chris Hazzard, she didn't trip up. Still, Ms O'Neill is by no means a proven political performer on an intensive daily basis.

And the fate of Mrs Foster, who has fallen so spectacularly in public opinion in such a short time, won't be lost on republicans. Sinn Fein's new leader in Northern Ireland will have mentally filed away all the mistakes under the heading, 'Do not repeat'.

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