The young Tyrone woman set to become Deputy First Minister



Patricia Devlin

SHE’S Sinn Fein’s new leader in the north.

But outside of Michelle O’Neill’s Stormont roles, little is known about the young Tyrone woman who has stepped into the shoes of republican leader Martin McGuinness.

Born in 1977 to Kathleen and Brendan Doris, Michelle was brought up in the staunchly republican village of Clonoe in East Tyrone.

A former pupil of St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon, she first became involved in republican activism in her teens.

It was her father Brendan, a former IRA prisoner who spent time in Crumlin Road and Long Kesh jails, who introduced his daughter to politics.

His election to Dungannon Council in 1989 saw Michelle take a behind-the-scenes role helping her father with local constituency work

It was in 1998, following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, that the future health minister began working full-time for Sinn Fein.

Initially she took on the role of political advisor to MP and Mid Ulster MLA Francie Molloy. 

But before long was also taking on her own constituency work surrounding social and welfare issues, setting herself out in the party as an intelligent go-getter who could succeed on her own.

In 2005 she won her father’s seat on Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council after his decision to step down after 16 years.

The former civil rights activist was said to have been extremely proud of his daughter, by then a married mother-of-two, following in his footsteps.

He also told how she reminded him of his own mother Kathleen, a fierce civil rights champion who had travelled the length and breadth of Ireland to protest and attend squats to highlight housing need.

Brendan – known as Basil to friends – passed away in 2006, a year before Michelle was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In 2010, still juggling her MLA and council positions, she made history by becoming Dungannon’s first ever female Mayor.

Hailed by her Sinn Fein colleagues as a leading political light to both women and the youth, she was fast being seen as the ‘new’ face of a party often bogged down by some of its members IRA past.

In 2011 the mother-of-two’s rise continued and she was handed the reins of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) from party colleague Michelle Gildernew.

This would be her most challenging position yet, involving the management of a diverse and vast ranging portfolio which stretched from fisheries, to forestry to food, and beyond.

It also saw her become the first Executive minister ever to be tasked with decentralising hundreds of civil service jobs outside of Belfast.

The following year she announced that DARD would move to the former Shackleton Britsh Army barracks in Ballykelly, Co Derry.

After the announcement, it came to light that Strabane had actually been chosen as a more suitable location by an internal DARD assessment, a decision that O’Neill then overruled.

In February 2013, it was also revealed that the decision had been questioned by then Finance Minister Sammy Wilson.

Her ability to manage such a demanding portfolio of work under pressure undoubtedly put her in the frame for the top health spot in Stormont’s new power-sharing Executive last year.

Before even stepping into that role in May 2016 she was well aware of the urgent matters that lay ahead in one of the Executive’s toughest roles.

That included mounting hospital waiting lists, funding shortfalls and reform.

In October, the health minister launched a 10 year plan to transform the health service, saying it would improve a system that was at “breaking point”.

Opposition politicians questioned the lack of details in the plan, which was not costed.

But it set out a range of priorities, including a new model of care involving a team of professionals based around GP surgeries.

O’Neill is well liked within the party, and her warmth has shone through to the public even during the most challenging of times in both ministerial roles.

During the last few weeks her competent and well spoken representation of Sinn Fein’s stance in the Cash for Ash scandal has been both admired and respected, even by those in Sinn Fein backing former IRA man Conor Murphy for the top spot.

Her likeability would be a welcome asset to Sinn Fein in what is set to be one of the province’s toughest ever elections.

Like Martin McGuinness, who cited family as being one of the pull factors in his decision to step down from front-line politics, she has not not allowed her demanding political life take away from her family one.

She has commuted daily from rural Tyrone throughout her time in Stormont.

And as DARD minister she also chose to base herself at least one day a week out of offices at Cookstown’s Loughry College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise, close to her Coalisland home.

That was no doubt a decision taken so she could be close to her children, son Ryan and daughter Saoirse.

When asked in a 2011 interview what type of united Ireland she wanted, O’Neill replied: “one where they (my children) are treated as equals and they feel equal in everything that they do … where we know that the people that are looking after us have got your best interests at heart.”