What does Michelle O’Neill want – and how much power does she actually have?

Sinn Fein wins victory in Northern Ireland Assembly election

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Last Thursday’s election victory for Sinn Fein represents a significant milestone for politics in Belfast, with the party becoming the first nationalist entity to secure a majority of seats in Stormont. Sinn Fein won 27 seats compared with their arch rivals the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who achieved two less and thus relinquished their power in Government.

As a result of becoming Northern Ireland’s largest party Sinn Fein are entitled to the position of First Minister; a role Michelle O’Neill is expected to fill.

However, she will not become First Minister unless the DUP nominates for the position of Deputy First Minister – something they have signalled they will not do until the British Government acts over concerns about post Brexit trading arrangements.

Northern Ireland’s executive of ministers is headed up by the two roles, which have joint responsibility and authority as part of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.

The law transferred governance from Westminster to Stormont on the basis that the country would function as a power-sharing democracy.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis will hold talks with the Stormont assembly’s five main parties on Monday and has urged them to form an executive as soon as possible.

He said: “This process must begin with the nomination of an assembly speaker to allow legislation to progress and address the important issues affecting the people of Northern Ireland.”

So, should Ms O’Neill become First Minister as predicted, what can we expect from her?

A Sinn Fein win is likely to mean a different dynamic for Brexit negotiations between the UK and European Union (EU).

To date, the UK has been trying to amend parts of the existing Northern Ireland protocol to offer easier trade access to Northern Ireland.

But Sinn Fein has made clear it does not support any changes to the existing legislation and as such Ms O’Neill will fight this stance.

Doing so could weaken Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hand in the negotiations, having previously benefited from DUP support to change the protocol.

The deal, which was agreed upon in October 2019, allows for goods to flow freely between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and removes the threat of a hard border.

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Ms O’Neill’s party also harbours long term ambitions of a united Ireland and it’s expected she will look to push on this agenda at some stage in the future.

However, while Sinn Fein’s victory is historic, the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland dictates that little will change in the governance of the country.

Since 2006 the First Minister has been chosen by the largest party in the assembly. If this is a unionist party, then the Deputy Minister is drawn from the largest nationalist party, and vice versa.

Indeed, both ministers have equal powers, and one cannot be in office without the other.

Last February, the Stormont executive collapsed when the DUP removed Paul Givan as first minister in protest against the protocol.

Newly elected members of the assembly have been invited to Stormont on Monday, but there will be no meeting in the chamber.

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