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Alex Kane

The rise and fall of Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill

Alex Kane


She led Sinn Fein to an historic victory within weeks of replacing Martin McGuinness; this week, a LucidTalk poll found she was NI's most unpopular party leader. Where did it all go wrong asks Alex Kane

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Gerry Kelly and Michelle O’Neill as the controversial funeral of Bobby Storey takes place in Andersonstown, west Belfast

Gerry Kelly and Michelle O’Neill as the controversial funeral of Bobby Storey takes place in Andersonstown, west Belfast

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Michelle O’Neill with First Minister, Arlene Foster of the DUP

Michelle O’Neill with First Minister, Arlene Foster of the DUP

Gerry Kelly and Michelle O’Neill as the controversial funeral of Bobby Storey takes place in Andersonstown, west Belfast

For someone who had been working in the Assembly for Sinn Fein since 1998 - she was just 21 - as a political advisor to the Mid-Ulster MLA Francie Molloy, who was elected in her own right in 2007 and who served as a minister in both the Department of Health and Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, there was still quite a lot of surprise when Michelle O'Neill was chosen to replace Martin McGuinness in January 2017.

Outside the very small circle which controls Sinn Fein, the smart money was on either Conor Murphy or John O'Dowd to succeed McGuinness. Only Gerry Adams, McGuinness and one or two others - including Mary Lou McDonald - will have known the specific calculation behind O'Neill's elevation and it's unlikely that information will enter the public domain.

At the time, a Dublin-based TD noted: "The decision was made by two or three people. The ard chomhairle was consulted after the fact." When I asked a Sinn Fein MLA (who I think was in the Murphy camp) why O'Neill, he replied: "It is what it is, Alex."