Northern Ireland

‘Yes, I was surprised at Rishi Sunak hug,’ says Michelle O’Neill

Stormont First Minister adds ‘we’re all human at the end of the day’

Prime minister Rishi Sunak and First Minister Michelle O'Neill embrace at Stormont as Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald looks on. PICTURE: SIMON WALKER/10 DOWNING STREET
Prime minister Rishi Sunak and First Minister Michelle O'Neill embrace at Stormont as Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald looks on. PICTURE: SIMON WALKER/10 DOWNING STREET

First Minister Michelle O’Neill has admitted that while she was shocked by the warm embrace she received from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, she welcomed it because “the world needs more hugs”.

Appearing on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Ms O’Neill said she was surprised because she has been so critical of Mr Sunak’s politics in the past.

Mr Sunak paid a visit to Stormont Castle on Monday alongside Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to welcome the first sitting of the new executive.

The prime minister greeted Ms O’Neill with a hug, but the embrace has led to criticism among some right wing commentators on social media, while some Conservative MPs are also said to be up in arms over the show of affection.

However, the Sinn Féin vice president said it was welcome, saying: “The world needs more hugs, let’s be real.”

She continued: “I come from a very different background from Rishi Sunak. I’ve been very critical of his politics and his approach, particularly the austerity agenda. But I can make all those points to him. We’re all human at the end of the day.”

After two years of political stalemate, unable to take up her post as First Minister, Ms O’Neill said the embrace likely showed a “wee sense of finally, we got to this moment”.

Former Daily Telegraph assistant editor and chief political correspondent Christopher Hope, who now works as political editor for right wing channel GB News, posted an image to X (formerly Twitter) of the two leaders hugging.

“Conservative MPs were last night sharing this picture from Twitter of the PM hugging Michelle O’Neill - an image warmer than handshakes (and a refusal to wave) on the steps of Stormont Castle,” he wrote.

“One told me: “A handshake, just about maybe but this? What will the DUP make of it?””

Trade unionist and pro-Brexit commentator Paul Embry said in a post: “Even leaving aside O’Neill and Sinn Fein’s murky history (if that’s at all possible), I just don’t think it’s appropriate for political leaders (especially a PM) to engage in these mushy displays of mutual affection.”

During the interview with presenters Ben Shephard and Kate Garraway, Ms O’Neill said it’s important to “be chilled” around terminology in Northern Ireland.

“I think it’s important that I can say let’s be chilled about it - I say north of Ireland, others say Northern Ireland, lets just give each other the space,” said Ms O’Neill. “It’s about understanding we can all be different.”

Ms O’Neill said she considers herself one of the Good Friday Agreement generation.

“One of the beauties [of that] is you can be British, Irish, both or none,” she said.

She said she believed that secretary of state for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris is “sticking his head in the sand” over Irish unity. She accused him of having an “ostrich mentality” around the issue.

This morning, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald predicted a border poll on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future will be held before 2030.

Ms McDonald comments expressing confidence of referenda on both sides of the border within six years come amid increased focus on the prospects of the reunification following the appointment of Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill as Northern Ireland’s first nationalist first minister.

“I envisage us having the referendums in this decade,” she told Sky News.

Asked to clarify if that meant before 2030, she replied: “Yes, and let me say that it is not so far away, so there’s an awful lot of work that needs to be done.