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.”
A SHELVED report which revealed concerns nuns falsified the deaths of babies before selling them to parents in the USA was seen by two Ministers, a former HSE chief has claimed.
Former Children and Family Services assistant director Phil Garland says the explosive 2012 report was passed to then Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald and Health Minister James Reilly.
But despite recommendations for a State inquiry, no action appears to have been taken.
Breaking his silence for the first time on the reports he helped compile, Mr Garland told The Star: “The HSE and the government weren’t interested. And they still aren’t.”
The sensational “draft reports” surround both Bessboro institution in Co Cork and Sacred Heart Mother and Baby facility in Tuam, Co Galway and reveal how:
the church was defrauding the government, women and adoptive parents of cash
doctors, social workers and workers still employed in HSE helped ‘traffick’ children
bishops sent written requests for babies to be made available for adoption
Over 1000 records were unearthed by civil servants including letters and photographs.
chiefs believe actions uncovered ‘could be criminal’
Mr Garland told The Star: “I know this information went to the very top of the HSE and to the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald. The departments and the Minister just weren’t interested.“We wanted this to go much much further. It didn’t and I don’t know why.”The allegations transpired after the discovery of a “large archive” of files by a HSE worker in Co Galway in 2012.Health chiefs were immediately notified how the records, which included photographs and documentation, pointed to posisbly criminal activity operating in institutions during the 40s, 50s and 60s.The evidence uncovered was so strong it led HSE Chief Dr Declan McKeown to warn: “This may prove to be a scandal that dwarfs other.”
Two “draft” reports on “deep concerns” were then written by the then Consultant Public Health Physician.
They included recommendations for a State inquiry to then Health Minister James Reilly.
The documents include an email sent on October 12, 2012, by Dr McKeown to Mr Garland and another HSE colleague.
He said a social worker trying to “piece together” the information, which included photographs and documents, had collated a database of “up to 1,000 names”.
He added he would draft an “early warning” letter for the attention of Philip Crowley, National Director Quality Improvement, “suggesting that this goes all the way up to the Minister.”
The email goes on: “This may prove to be a scandal that dwarfs other, more recent issues with the church and state, because of the very emotive sensitivities around adoption of babies, with or without the will of the mother.
“A concern is that, if there is evidence of trafficking babies, that it must have been facilitated by doctors, social workers, etc. And a number of these health professionals may still be working in the system.
“It is important to send this up to the Minister as soon as possible: With a view to an inter-departmental committee and a fully fledged, fully resourced forensic investigation and state inquiry. “
On the same day a more detailed account of the concerns raised in the records was again sent via email to Dr Davida De La Harpe and Mr Garland.
In this paper, labelled “strictly confidential”, Dr McKeown said that there were serious concerns surrounding the infant mortality rate in the Co Cork home.
Death records over a 19 year period showed that a quarter of all babies born at the institution were recorded as having died within the first 12 months of their life.
However Dr Mc Keown said evidence was pointing to the belief that until the introduction of adoption legislation in 1950, nuns in Bessboro were falsely recording baby deaths.
“It has been mooted that this combination of evidence may point to babies being identified for adoption, principally to the USA, but has been recorded as infant deaths in Ireland and notified to the parents accordingly.
“This would have been possible before the introduction of adoption legislation. However it will take a more detailed study of practices and the accounting in Bessboro before this theory proven or disproven.”
The documents also touched upon evidence of similar – and more serious – practices taking place in Tuam.
“In common with Bessboro there is some evidence of coercion in that women were forced to stay in the home with their babies until well past the point that they were fit for discharge.
“During this time parents were charged with the upkeep of their children but it appears now that adoptive parents were also charged for the upkeep of the same baby.
“Babies were offered for adoption from the Bessboro and Tuam homes at up to three years of age. The trauma involved in this is revealed in an archive of photographs of children who were sent for adoption to the USA.”
It concluded: “In both of these cases, there are issues of concern in relation to historic patient safety, medical care, accounting irregularities and possible interference with birth and death certification which requires further investigation.
“Children, if not the mothers who passed trough these systems are likely to still be alive and at the very least any knowledge of their histories should be fully investigated and made available to them if they so choose.”
Mr Garland, who says he believes the archive is still in the property of the HSE, left his Assistant Director position shortly after the reports were made in 2012. But he says he remains troubled that no action seems to have been taken four years on.
His claims are the latest cover-up scandal to rock the HSE in a matter of weeks.
Just last week the health authority was force to apologise after an independent report found it failed to properly investigate abuse claims surrounding a Waterford foster home over a prolonged period despite two internal reviews.
I contacted a number of government departments over these allegations. Here is what each had to say in full.
HSE (Health Services Ireland)
“All information gathered HSE-Health Intelligence Unit during the course of their research has been passed to TUSLA.
“Any records relating to children and families in Ireland, both past and present are now owned by Tusla. The Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters) was established in 2014 under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 by Order of Government under the stewardship of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The Commission’s work is on-going and any individuals who were resident in or who worked in any of the Mother and Baby Homes or County Homes which are the subject of the investigation should contact the commission with any relevant information.”
The Department of Health
“The HSE provided a draft report which included the material in regard to Bessborough Mother and Baby Home and which indicated that conclusions must remain conjecture until a more forensic examination could be undertaken. This draft was provided to the Committee Secretariat and to the two Departmental representatives on the Committee. As these matters were outside the remit of the McAleese Committee, the HSE subsequently advised that these wider issues would be examined separately by the HSE. There is no record of the draft report being received by the Ministers.
“In 2014, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs established an Inter Departmental Group in response to revelations and public controversy regarding conditions in Mother and Baby Homes. This controversy originally centred on the high rate of deaths at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway. The Group was to map the important dimensions of the issue, and to assist in developing appropriate terms of reference for a Commission of Investigation. The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and certain related matters was then established in February 2015 to provide a full account of the experiences of women and children who lived in mother and baby homes over the period 1922 -1998.”
Department of Children and Youth Affairs
“The information at issue was examined by the Health Service Executive (HSE)
as part of its response to the Committee to establish the facts of State
involvement with the Magdalen Laundries. In the course of this work the HSE
provided a draft report to the Committee secretariat and to the Department
of Health and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. This draft
report included a separate appendix based on records from the former
Bessborough mother and baby home. The author of this draft report
acknowledged that its conclusions remained a matter of conjecture until
such time as a more forensic examination of the home’s records could be
undertaken by the HSE.
“The draft HSE report was not brought to Minister’s attention at that time.
“As these matters were outside the direct remit of the McAleese Committee,
the HSE subsequently advised that these wider concerns would be examined
separately by the HSE. The Department advised the HSE that any findings of
concern from this separate process should be appropriately communicated by
the HSE. This Department is not aware of any subsequent reports supplied
by the HSE in this regard.
“The Department of Children and Youth Affairs became actively involved in
responding to the concerns relating to Mother and Baby Homes following the
publication of information on the former Bon Secours Home in Tuam around
mid-2014. The Inter Departmental Group Report on Mother and Baby Homes,
published in July 2014, cites a number of reports from relevant authorities
which expressed concerns with undesirably high death rates during and
following the times these institutions were in operation. It also
references academic literature which clearly indicates that conditions in
these institutions were the subject of attention, report and debate since
the early years of the State. Therefore, it would not be accurate to
suggest that concerns in relation to conditions in mother and baby homes
were unknown or ignored prior to 2012.