Belfast Telegraph

Being a teenage mother turned me into a stronger person, reveals Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill

By Allan Preston

Sinn Fein's northern leader Michelle O'Neill has spoken about how her experience of becoming a mother at a young age made her a stronger person - and how succeeding Martin McGuinness has been bittersweet.

In a candid interview with the Sunday World, the Health Minister opened up about becoming pregnant at 16 with her daughter Saoirse - now a PhD student in Belfast - losing her politician father and the moment she was selected as leader.

"Being a young mum, well it's my life experience, it made me what I am, it makes you stronger, I think," she said.

Ms O'Neill, who also has a grown-up son called Ryan, added: "I have been very responsible from a young age obviously, but I always had tremendous support around me, a great family, so that has always been there and it's been great. I do think it can help shape who you are.

"I know what it's like to be in difficult situations, I know what it's like to struggle, I know what it's like to go to school and have a baby at home, and to be studying for your exams and all those things that go with it."

She praised her "two very different grannies" as key role models describing one as more softly spoken and the other as feisty.

She said her mother Kathleen has been "ultra-proud" of her achievements, but losing her politician father Basil 11 years ago was especially difficult.

"I think about him all the time, no matter what event I have had," she said.

"My mum knows this is something I have given my whole life to, so she thinks it's just fantastic.

"She's sad because my dad is not here because he was the one involved in politics, he was the one I followed.

"He was a councillor in Dungannon, and then I took his seat. I wish he could be here."

Although having separated from her husband Paddy three years ago, she said the two remain friends.

She added her children were as equally proud of her as she was of them.

"They have grown up with me being in politics, they have grown up with knowing that this is something I do and something that I am very passionate about," she said.

"They are very proud of me obviously and Saoirse, she is active in politics as well."

On finding out she was being considered for leader she recalled: "I thought, this is massive, this is a big weight on my shoulders but a huge honour.

Ms O'Neill called succeeding Martin McGuinness "walking in the footsteps of a giant," but said the former Deputy First Minister's poor health had also made it a "rollercoaster of emotions".

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