After two years of political gridlock, Northern Ireland is set to finally have a functioning government again. Elected representatives will meet in the Assembly building on the outskirts of Belfast on Saturday and revive the power-sharing government that rules the territory.
There will be one significant change since the last time they gathered: The first minister role will be held for the first time by a Sinn Fein politician, Michelle O’Neill, a significant moment in the history of Northern Ireland.
Here’s what to know.
What is Sinn Fein, and why does it matter that the party will hold the ‘first minister’ role?
Sinn Fein was once regarded as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, or I.R.A., a paramilitary group that waged a bloody campaign against British troops deployed in Northern Ireland. But in the 1980s and 1990s, Sinn Fein’s leaders increasingly pursued a political path rather than the armed struggle favored by hard-liners in the I.R.A., and in 1998 the party signed up to the democratic process outlined in the Good Friday Agreement, which largely brought peace after the decades of violence known as the Troubles.
Since then, Northern Ireland’s first minister has always been a unionist, meaning he or she represents a political party committed to keeping the territory within the United Kingdom.
Sinn Fein, by contrast, believes that the island of Ireland should be a unified sovereign state, undoing the partition that carved up the region in 1921.
Ms. O’Neill’s elevation to first minister of Northern Ireland on Saturday will mark the first time that a politician who wishes to take the territory out of the United Kingdom has held that role.
However, that does not mean a unified Ireland is imminent. Although Sinn Fein’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, said this week that her party’s goal was now “within touching distance,” under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, voters would have to agree to unification in a referendum, and current polling suggests a majority would not vote in favor.
What is power-sharing, and how does it work?
Under the 1998 peace deal, Northern Ireland is governed by politicians from the biggest parties drawn from both sides of the sectarian divide. The party with the largest vote in Northern Ireland’s elections nominates the first minister, while the second largest names the deputy first minister.
Stormont, the Northern Ireland assembly in Belfast, can only function with the support of both Sinn Fein, which represents Republican, mainly Catholic voters, and the Democratic Unionist Party, or D.U.P., which represents unionist, mainly Protestant voters. So when the D.U.P. walked out in 2022 in protest at post-Brexit trade arrangements, power-sharing collapsed.
After a deal this week with the British government, the D.U.P. agreed to end its boycott of the power-sharing assembly. Technically, the positions of first minister and deputy first minister hold equal weight, and one minister cannot act without the other. But there is no getting around the symbolism of the title that Ms. O’Neill will take up — and the fact that it has the word “first” in it — as she walks into the history books.
Who is Michelle O’Neill?
Born in January 1977, she was raised in a family of committed Irish Republicans. Her father, Brendan Doris, was a former I.R.A. prisoner who later became a Sinn Fein representative in a municipality. Ms. O’Neill gave birth to a daughter at the age 16 and has said she thinks that being a young mother made her stronger.
“I know what it’s like to struggle, I know what it’s like to go to school and have a baby at home,” she told Sky News.
She joined Sinn Fein after the Good Friday Agreement, at the age of 21, and was elected to Northern Ireland’s assembly in 2007. She became vice president of Sinn Fein in 2018. In January 2020, she was appointed deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, a job she held — with one brief interruption — until February 2022, when power-sharing collapsed.
In the assembly elections later that year, Sinn Fein won the largest number of seats, putting Ms. O’Neill in line for the top job. A skilled politician, Ms. O’Neill has helped modernize and rebrand Sinn Fein and shown pragmatism as she prepared for her new position. Last year she attended the coronation of King Charles III, a striking gesture from an Irish Republican.
What happens next?
Northern Ireland’s politicians have a full inbox of challenges and overdue tasks to deal with. For two years, civil servants kept essential government functions running, but big decisions have been delayed. Public services have frayed and Northern Ireland’s health care system has the United Kingdom’s longest wait lists for procedures. The lack of a government meant that the pay increases given to public servants in the rest of the country were denied to those in Northern Ireland. Last month saw a strike and the largest demonstrations in recent memory.
The good news is that, as part of the deal to restore power-sharing, the British government has provided £3.3 billion pounds to be spent in Northern Ireland. Yet some worry about the stability of power-sharing.
The leader of the D.U.P., Jeffrey Donaldson, encountered fierce internal opposition when he decided to return to Stormont. So deep were the divisions within his party that, during a critical five-hour internal meeting on Monday, details of the discussion were leaked and posted live on social media. All it would take would be another boycott from the D.U.P. to bring power-sharing crashing down again.