Belfast Telegraph

Chilly reception from unionists to Michelle O'Neill's first day in charge of Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein’s change of party leader at Stormont is dismissed as 'irrelevant'

By Suzanne Breen

Unionist politicians have said that the change of leadership in Sinn Fein from "P O'Neill to M O'Neill" is an illusion which will fool nobody.

TUV leader Jim Allister last night said it was peculiar for a self-proclaimed republican party to have "a coronation" with Michelle O'Neill appointed, rather than elected, to the position as Sinn Fein's Northern Ireland leader.

"It is a matter of indifference to me and one for Sinn Fein alone who they crown as their leader," he said.

"The key issue is that the party continues to justify the shootings and bombings that the IRA inflicted upon Northern Ireland.

"While Sinn Fein refuses to condemn the murders carried out by the Provisionals, then it matters not who heads them.

"The move from P O'Neill to M O'Neill is irrelevant.

"Now if Michelle O'Neill came out and renounced the IRA that would be a very different matter."

Mr Allister said that until Sinn Fein condemned the Provisionals' campaign, it couldn't be treated like any other party regardless of who led it.

Ms O'Neill was named as Sinn Fein's new leader in Northern Ireland yesterday with Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald present for the announcement at Stormont.

The 40-year-old Mid Ulster MLA has no IRA baggage and the party hopes that her youth and gender will appeal to a new generation of voters.

DUP MP Gregory Campbell claimed that Sinn Fein was desperately trying to repackage itself with Ms O'Neill presented as a break with a less saleable generation of republicans.

Mr Campbell said that Ms O'Neill had failed to live up to her billing by references in a video interview yesterday to the 1992 Clonoe and 1987 Loughgall ambushes in which 12 IRA men were shot dead by the SAS.

"On her first day in the job, rather than express sympathy or regret to the many innocent victims of PIRA, or other terrorist organisations, Michelle O'Neill offered empathy to those who were guilty participants in two separate attacks on police stations.

"At Clonoe and Loughall, perpetrators intent on murder got what they deserved and they shouldn't be defended or sanitised," he said.

Gerry Adams' recommendation that Ms O'Neill become the new Sinn Fein leader was ratified by the party's ard chomhairle last Saturday.

Mr Campbell said that unionists suspected that the Sinn Fein president would be "pulling her strings".

He stated: "Given Michelle O'Neill's relative youth - she is almost 30 years younger that Mr Adams - the suspicion is that she will be easily directed by him. People will wonder if she really is her own woman or if she is the puppet of Gerry Adams who will sit in his base in the Irish Republic pulling her strings," he added.

Responding to Ms O'Neill's appointment, Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt, said: "Who Sinn Fein chooses as leader is a matter for that party alone.

"The Ulster Unionists are interested in policies, not personalities.

"I don't know Michelle O'Neill. I haven't had a lot of interaction with her at Stormont but she has had a very different life journey to her predecessor, Martin McGuinness.

"What people want is hope, not more of the same.

"They need politicians who can co-operate and help put things back together at Stormont.

"I hope that Ms O'Neill will play a positive role in doing so."

Mr Nesbitt said that the Health Minister had previously spoken of her commitment to improving mental health services in Northern Ireland.

"That is an issue very close to my heart and I hope she keeps her promise to champion it," he said.

"I look forward to working with her on the matter and perhaps it is an area where politicians with different ideologies could deliver something positive for people."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood congratulated the Sinn Fein Health Minister on being made her party's local leader.

"Her biggest challenge will be getting the political institutions back and I hope she approaches that task with the same positivity as the SDLP," he stated.

Mr Eastwood wished Ms O'Neill well in her new job and added: "For all the disagreements I had with Martin McGuinness, I must acknowledge his ability to constantly reach beyond his base. Michelle O'Neill must learn from that if she wants to be successful."

Alliance leader Naomi Long also welcomed Ms O'Neill's appointment.

"My congratulations to Michelle and I wish her well in her role," she said.

"I hope that she uses her position to engage fully with other parties and play her part in returning the institutions and a functioning Executive as soon as possible," the Alliance leader added.

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