Sinn Fein name Michelle O'Neill as new ‘leader of the North’ to succeed Martin McGuinness
O'Neill: 'The negotiations after the elections are absolutely vital'
Sinn Fein have named Michelle O'Neill as its new leader in Northern Ireland.
The 40-year-old Mid Ulster MLA had been widely tipped to take over Martin McGuinness following his retirement announcement last week.
The head of Sinn Fein's Stormont team will probably become deputy first minister if March's election follows the recent pattern and power-sharing is restored.
Ms O'Neill said: "It's a huge honour. A really big, big privilege for me to be chosen to be the new leader in the North
"It gives me immense pride to say I'm going to lead our party in the future.
"To follow in the footsteps of Martin McGuinness, who is a political giant is no mean feat, but it's a challenge that I'm certainly up for."
Announcing the appointment, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said Mrs O'Neill represented a "new generation" for the party.
"As a united all-Ireland team, we will give her the space and support to find her own voice and continue the good work Martin pioneered," he said.
Mr McGuinness invoked a familiar republican phrase, which Mr Adams once used in reference to the IRA, to insist he would still be involved in political activism.
"I haven't gone away, you know," he said.
He hailed Michelle O'Neill as a "leader of incredible ability".
He said: "I am proud that Michelle O'Neill is my leader, is our leader.
"I am overjoyed that Michelle is my leader and she will have my wholehearted support."
Ms O'Neill will have to hit the ground running, leading her party into an election in less than six weeks' times.
She said: "The negotiations after the elections are absolutely vital. We are only interested in being in the assembly and the executive with partners who actually are absolutely genuinely wedded to equality and without that we can’t be there and we can’t govern in the absence of that.
"So the negotiations are going to be really critical. There’s an opportunity for an absolute step change. There’s an opportunity to fix something that’s wrong and obviously the DUP approach has been wrong."
Secretary of state James Brokenshire congratulated Ms O'Neill on her appointment.
He said: "I congratulate Michelle O'Neill and look forward to working with her to build a stable NI for all."
If a new Executive can be set up after the Assembly election, Ms O'Neill will have to work closely with Arlene Foster.
The official DUP Twitter account responded to the announcement with a meme of a picture of Michelle O'Neill in Gerry Adams' pocket.
The two women have served as ministers in the Executive together for six years.
They jointly greeted former US President Barack Obama as he arrived for the G8 Summit in Enniskillen in 2013.
Mrs Foster also appeared alongside Health Minister Ms O'Neill when she launched details last October of her planned reforms to the NHS following the Bengoa report.
However, if the DUP and Sinn Fein again emerge as Northern Ireland's two largest parties, the two women will have to form an even more intimate working relationship.
A mother of two grown-up children aged 23 and 18, she has been involved with Sinn Fein for almost two decades.
In 2005, she won her father's seat on Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council following his retirement, and became the area's first female mayor. She was elected an MLA for Mid Ulster in 2007. Four years later, she became Agriculture Minister.
She was reappointed to the Executive for a second time last May - as Health Minister.