Belfast Telegraph

What Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O'Neill's said yesterday and the deeper meanings that lie beneath it

Suzanne Breen goes behind the rhetoric of Michelle O'Neill's online interview

Michelle O'Neill: "It is a huge honour a real, real big privilege for me to be chosen as the new leader in the North. As a wee girl from Clonoe in Co Tyrone it just gives me immense pride to be able to say that I am 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 a challenge that I am certainly up for.

"Well obviously we are an all-island party and, for me, it is going to be working very closely with Gerry Adams, with Mary Lou McDonald, Pierce Doherty our whole team at Leinster House our team here in the north, our councillors, we are a 32-county movement so it is really, really  important that we continue to work as a team."

Suzanne Breen's analysis: The new Sinn Fein leader has gone for a totally different style of video interview to that which Arlene Foster chose a fortnight ago. Mrs Foster adopted a stiff, formal pose in front of the fireplace in Stormont Castle. Ms O'Neill was filmed in warehouse type surroundings. She speaks in a conversational manner, rather than reading from a teleprompter. She opens by noting her humble rural origins. She is just an ordinary young Tyrone woman who has found herself in the extraordinary role of leading Sinn Fein. But far from being over-awed by the situation, she is "up for" it. Given that there may be some reservations about her political experience, she stresses that she will be working closely with party leaders and senior figures. She also points out, as Sinn Fein routinely do, that theirs is a collective leadership.

Michelle O'Neill: "Well I am from Clonoe, a small village in Co Tyrone. I have two grown-up children Saoirse is 23 and Ryan is 18 and they are a handful. For me growing up in a rural area was a brilliant childhood. A very troubled area, an area that was very impacted by the conflict and I suppose down through the years we had very many dark days. But I think for me growing up in that area a tremendous sense of community, I love being from a rural area, I loved being part of that community.

My father Brendan Doris definitely had a massive impact on my life. He was a brilliant man. He was a Sinn Fein councillor at a time when it was really so dangerous to put yourself forward to be an elective representative. Around the time he was a councillor ... loyalists were killing Sinn Fein councillors. John Davey lost his life so it was a very difficult time for him to put himself forward. But I saw the influence he had on our local community I could see how brilliant he was in helping people out and dealing with their issues. I could see his commitment to the republican struggle so I think that certainly he definitely has played a big part in shaping who I am today.

Sadly he is not with us now. But I know rightly he would be looking down and be very proud of his wee girl being the new leader of Sinn Fein in the North."

Suzanne Breen's analysis: Ms O'Neill is acknowledging that being a child in the "many dark days" of the Troubles, has influenced, but not warped her. Hers was a "brilliant childhood". She again roots herself firmly in her local republican community. She indicates that she isn't a Johnny-come-lately to republicanism. Her father was a Sinn Fein councillor when that made him a target for loyalist paramilitaries. But Ms O'Neill emphasises that politics isn't just about the constitutional issue. She refers to her father helping people out with everyday local issues.

Michelle O'Neill: "I think the troubles absolutely really impacted on our community and I think that when I look back to some of the times that really stand out to me, the Clonoe ambush where four local young fellas - really, really young people - lost their lives in that time. It was a harrowing time for our community and I think that for me that it really had a massive impact. I think that if you think back through the years and think back to things that happened right across Tyrone. Different things, I suppose impacted on different people at different times, Loughgall ambush happened and eight people lost their lives and that again a harrowing time for the local community.

"But for me that strengthened my resolve. I think it made me feel that I wanted to go out, that I was active and that I did everything I could to deliver an united Ireland. I think republicans right across Tyrone, I think they have always been active, they continue to be active, they are fully behind the peace process, they do everything they can and for me it really is an immense pleasure, pride, honour everything that I feel today I feel for all those families that lost loved ones right through the conflict."

Suzanne Breen's analysis: Ms O'Neill notes that there was extensive loss of life during the conflict in Tyrone yet the only two incidents that she details are the Clonoe and Loughall ambushes where a combined total of 12 IRA men were killed by the SAS. She points to her extensive involvement in local republicanism stressing that such emotional incidents "made me feel that I wanted to go out, that I was active and that I did everything I could to deliver a united Ireland". She makes no mention whatsoever to the deaths or injuries sustained by civilians or security force members in the Troubles. Yet she puts to bed any fears of a return to armed struggle, stressing that republicans are "fully behind the peace process".

Michelle O'Neill: "Martin McGuinness is an absolute legend and I am so proud to have worked with him all these years and to have actually learned so much from him all these years. I think his record speaks for itself. He has stretched himself time and time again, reaching out to all sections of the community, making sure he really represented everybody. He showed tremendous leadership. He reached out to the unionist community time and time again because it was the right thing to do. So I want to, in my time as leader, to build on the tremendous work that he has done, to carry on the work that he has done because as a republican the future that we see in the island of Ireland obviously has a place for everybody. We need to make sure that everybody feels they have a comfortable place in that so we very much want to be involved in a conversation that shapes that new island new Ireland. But I want to carry on the brilliant work that Martin has carried out over the last number of years."

Suzanne Breen's analysis: Martin McGuinness is clearly a personal hero for Ms O'Neill. Some worry that the new Sinn Fein leader will not be so keen to reach out to unionists. Here, she moves to allay those concerns by pledging to continue his "brilliant work". But her political rivals will be watching to see if Ms O'Neill actually delivers on her words and stretches herself to the extent that her predecessor did.

Michelle O'Neill: "Well I have been active republican since I was a teenager but I was a full-time activist in the party since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. So I have been working alongside Francie Molloy, working along with Martin McGuinness for many, many years and I think I have learned an awful lot from both of them throughout the years that I have worked with them. I think that when I first went into Dungannon Council in 2005, it was I suppose for me a big task at that time to go into council but it was a great, great experience. I was the first woman to take on the position of mayor. I couldn't believe it for one, women were under-represented but two, couldn't believe there was never a female mayor in the council so that is one thing I am always very proud of to say that I was the first woman ever to take up that position. But throughout the years I went on from council I worked as an assistant in the Assembly and then I went on into the Assembly, obviously I was elected in 2007. I have held the post of Agricultural Minister that was a challenging job at that time. I had to navigate my way through Common Agricultural Policy reform. I decentralised a whole Government department. Again no Minister has ever taken a public department and actually brought jobs into rural areas. That is something that I am very proud of. I then went on to on the post of Health Minister and of the very first things that I was able to do in that position was to remove the ban on gay blood donation and I think that was the right thing to do. That was an equality issue for me and I think that throughout all the positions which the party have asked me to take up I have always applied myself, I have always worked really hard and I think that the track record speaks for itself.

I think that public confidence in the institutions has absolutely been rocked to the core because of the RHI scandal. What we have seen is an absolute contempt for the public in relation to the DUP's handling of the issue, so for me the upcoming election is absolutely about equality it is about respect, it is about integrity and I think that the public need to have their say in relation to what they want and who they want to govern in the future.

We will obviously go out, we will be engaging with the public but clearly we can be only part of institutions that have equality at their core and without that then, you know, people won't have confidence in the institutions. So we want institutions to work, we want an Assembly that delivers for everybody. But that is the point - it has to deliver for everybody.

Currently the DUP trajectory is all about looking after certain sections of society. They are not looking for equal rights for the LBGT community for minority groups, looking at the rights of woman - so for us that is not something that is tolerable.

We cannot have an Assembly that delivers in terms of the status quo we have to have an Assembly that delivers equality at the core for all citizens."

Suzanne Breen's analysis: Ms O'Neill is stressing her liberal and feminist credentials here in an attempt to appeal strongly to the next generation of voters. She emphasises the glass ceiling she has smashed as a young, female politician and her pride in ending the gay blood ban. She is positioning herself as radical and progressive.

Surprisingly, she makes only one dig at the DUP over the RHI scandal, suggesting that Sinn Fein will fight the election more on a 'civil rights' than a 'cash for ash' agenda. 

Michelle O'Neill: "I think the negotiations after the election are absolutely vital. We are only interested in being in the Assembly being in the Executive with partners who are absolutely, genuinely wedded to equality. Without that we can't be there and we can't be governed in the absence of that so the negotiations are going to be really, really critical. There is an opportunity for an absolute step-change. There is an opportunity to actually fix something that is wrong and obviously the DUP approach has been wrong.

Well I am Irish republican so obviously we are committed to achieving an united Ireland but that Ireland that we want and that Ireland that we envisage has a place for everybody.

So I see it as my job as leader to make sure that we are reaching out to all sections of the community to make sure so that we can have a conversation about how we shape that future island and I think that for me as a leader that certainly is going to be a key part of my work."

Suzanne Breen's analysis: She is warning the DUP that Sinn Fein will want substantial concessions in future negotiations. There will be no return to the 'same old, same old' after the election. It's not just about changing the mood music of their coalition government, there has to be "absolute step-change". The references to a united Ireland are just window-dressing. Ms O'Neill, like other senior party figures, fails to outline any plan of delivery.

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