This week Michelle O'Neill made history when she became the first republican ever to be appointed First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Following close to two years of turmoil the devolved Stormont parliament can sit again, with the Sinn Féin leader at the head of government.

Under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, the two largest parties must necessarily have the First Minister and deputy respectively, a condition deemed necessary to preserve a fragile peace on the island, but the resolution is likely to be far from the end of the intrigue.

The same document both acknowledges Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom - and commits Westminster to recognise a united Ireland if a majority of people on both sides of the border vote for it.

What will Ms O'Neill's historic election mean for the future of the island? And could Belfast leave the UK before Edinburgh?

The Herald: Michelle O'Neill

Republican origins

The new First Minister was born south of the border in County Cork, but her family roots are in Northern Ireland, in County Tyrone.

Her interest in Republican politics is no surprise, having grown up in a family steeped in the desire for a united Ireland.

Ms O'Neill's father, Brendan Doris was a member of the Provisional IRA and spent time in Crumlin Road Jail, Armagh Jail, Long Kesh and Magilligan, cousin Tony Doris was killed by the SAS en-route to assassinate a UDR member in 1991 and his fellow cousin Gareth was shot in the stomach in the 1997 Coalisland attack. The last was sentenced to 10 years for his role in the attack but released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Brendan Doris stood as a Sinn Féin councillor in 1989 and was duly elected to Dungannon Council. Also elected from his party was Martin McCaughey, who would be killed by undercover British agents a year later.

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Accounts of his death differ, but what's certain is he was shot 10 times at a farm in Loughgall which had been placed under surveillance. The British Army said he and fellow IRA volunteer Dessie Grew were brandishing rifles when they were taken out, republicans maintain they were unarmed. An inquest in 2012 found the 23-year-old had been lawfully killed, and complaints the deaths were not properly investigated were thrown out by the European Court of Human Rights in 2022.

Ms O'Neill began helping her father with his constituency work early in life, and joined Sinn Féin aged 21 in 1998 after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

That came a full six years after she had fallen pregnant with her first child, Saoirse.

Despite some "very, very negative experiences" in Catholic school, speaking of her early exposure to motherhood she told the Sunday World in 2017: "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."

By 2005 she had joined her father in being elected to the council, taking his seat after he stood down, and though he would pass away the following year he was, according to his obituary in Sinn Féin newspaper An Phoblacht, "a great source of support and guidance to Michelle in the council".

Ms O'Neill, it should be stressed, has never had any direct involvement with the IRA.

The Herald: Michelle O'Neill

Stormont success

After just two years as a councillor, Ms O'Neill was elected to the Northern Irish assembly an MLA for Mid Ulster, sitting on the education and health committees.

She became mayor of Dungannon and South Tyrone in 2010 before being made Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development following the 2011 Stormont election.

In 2016 she was made health minister, with one of her first acts being to lift the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood, as well as supporting a cross-border cardiology service which was credited with saving the lives of 27 patients from Co Donegal in its first nine months.

When deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in 2017 and announced that he would not stand again, Ms O'Neill became Sinn Féin's 'leader in the north', almost immediately calling for a referendum on the unification of Ireland in response to the "disaster" of Brexit.

The UK's vote to leave the European Union and its subsequent impact on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would define Stormont politics for over half a decade.

The Herald: Martin McGuinness


The resignation of Mr McGuinness sparked a snap election, which for the first time in the history of devolution failed to return a majority of unionist seats.

Sinn Féin made clear it would not form a government without significant concessions from the Democratic Unionist Party, notably over official recognition of the Irish language - concessions which were not forthcoming.

With no power sharing agreement in place no government could be formed for three years, when a deal was struck to install DUP leader Arlene Foster as First Minister and Ms O'Neill as deputy.

It would last just two years. Ms Foster's successor, Paul Givan, resigned in protest over the Northern Ireland protocol - designed to resolve the issue of the border - and triggered another election.

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For the first time in its history Sinn Féin was returned as the largest party but the DUP, which came in second, refused to form a government unless the protocol was removed.

That should have triggered a new election but the Westminster government thrice passed legislation to extend the deadline in the hope of finding a resolution to the border issue.

Finally, in January of this year, close to two years after the election, the DUP agreed to return to power sharing.

Alternative Ulster?

As the leader of the largest party at Stormont, the return of power sharing saw Ms O'Neill become First Minister of Northern Ireland, the first republican ever to hold the role.

However, that was not the only way in which she represented a break from the past.

Ms O'Neill attended the coronation of King Charles, and broke with convention by using the term Northern Ireland in her acceptance speech.

Not everyone was impressed. Reverend Alan Irwin a Church of Ireland canon based in Lack, Co Fermanagh, called the election of a Sinn Féin First Minister a sign of society having lost its "moral compass" and warned "maybe in 10 years time or 20 years time we'll be told the terrorism of the last 30, 40-plus years was 'The Second War of Irish Independence'".

With an election expected this year, Sinn Féin is expected to increase its number of seats - which it will not take - with a recent poll putting them on a historic 31%.

Unionists will hope Ms O'Neill is the last republican First Minister of Northern Ireland - she'll hope she's simply the last First Minister.